One of the best stretches of the women's college basketball season returns as tournaments on either side of the Thanksgiving holiday arrive. The events took a one-year hiatus last season due to the restructured schedule and COVID-19 pandemic. The games might be played in smaller arenas connected to resorts along beaches draped in sun and sand, but they also serve as some of the biggest résumé-building games of the season.
This year, the inaugural women's Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas only enhances the quality of the nonconference schedule. The event, which tips off Saturday and features three top-10 teams, could provide the first of two regular-season matchups between the Gamecocks and Huskies. If both win their first two games of the eight-team, 12-game tournament, South Carolina and UConn could collide in the tournament championship on Monday (noon ET, ESPN2).
Both teams made news earlier this week, as the Gamecocks lost star freshman Raven Johnson for the season due to a knee injury, and freshman guard Saylor Poffenbarger announced she was transferring from UConn.
What can we expect from the country's top two ranked teams in Paradise Island? What other storylines are we watching in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where teams will play three games in three days? And which other tournaments are we keeping an eye on? We break down one of the most potentially impactful weeks of the regular season.
South Carolina is 3-0, with a top-five win over NC State. What have we learned already about the Gamecocks this season?
Nothing new -- and there is nothing wrong with that. The Gamecocks are as good as -- or better than -- most of us thought they would be and are playing the same way with the same personnel that narrowly missed a spot in the 2021 NCAA championship game.
South Carolina's success starts with its relentless and physical defense, and that has been on full display, holding the Wolfpack to 57 points and both South Dakota and Clemson to 45 or fewer. Guards Zia Cooke (13.3 PPG) and Destanni Henderson (15.0 PPG) have been the catalysts on offense, but the Gamecocks are the same balanced, unselfish team that won 26 games last season.
While South Carolina's reserves saw more minutes in Wednesday's blowout of Clemson, coach Dawn Staley hasn't yet dipped completely into the amazing depth of talent that got so much attention in the preseason. The rotation through the first two games was essentially eight players before sophomore Eniya Russell and freshman Bree Hall played double-digit minutes against the Tigers.
Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso is the Gamecocks' only new player to get significant minutes prior to Wednesday. The top-rated recruiting class, with four high school All-Americans, didn't play much against NC State or South Dakota. That deep bench might prove valuable as the season progresses, but without Johnson, and considering as well all the returnees have played thus far, it might not have the impact many of us anticipated.
UConn has only played one game, but what have we learned about the Huskies so far?
After Sunday's victory over Arkansas, Geno Auriemma said his team had done "more good things than not" but "the bad things were really bad." While that feels more like a classic Geno over-exaggeration than fact, the Huskies showed some flashes of brilliance, as well as some concerning signs of weakness.
After shooting just once in the first quarter, sophomore Paige Bueckers lit up the XL Center, scoring a career-high 34 points, as well as notching six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. She can do everything her team needs her to -- and more. Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook were pivotal early, setting the tone and scoring 15 of the Huskies' first 19 points, and ultimately combined with Bueckers for 67 of the team's 95 points. Williams' and Westbrook's senior leadership and experience look to be invaluable.
During a halftime interview Sunday on SNY, Auriemma said his team's half-court defense was "pathetic" and "got lost on the way" from Storrs to Hartford. The Huskies' defense wasn't pretty in an uncharacteristically sloppy effort. Arkansas wasn't having a great shooting night, but the Razorbacks continued to draw fouls and find opportunities at the line. Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards were each called for four, and the Huskies had 19 total fouls. It will be telling to see what improvements or changes are made in Saturday's matchup with Minnesota.
Arkansas scored 80 points Sunday, the most UConn has given up in a season opener since 1995. Per ESPN Stats & Info, if the Huskies allow more than 57 points against the Gophers, it would be the most they have given up in their first two games of a season since 2000. -- D'Arcy Maine
Who else needs to step up in order for the Huskies to win three games in three days?
On paper, UConn has some serious depth. Auriemma played nine players in the first quarter on Sunday, but despite the impressive résumé and potential on the roster, Bueckers, Williams and Westbrook more than carried the weight throughout the duration of the game. Auriemma seemed more optimistic, however, that others would step up during the tournament.
"Anytime you play three games in three days it's not the easiest thing in the world, but that's where you hope that your depth can kind of help you out," he said Sunday. "We didn't get to see a lot of our depth today. But hopefully next week we will."
Auriemma said defense would be the priority in practice ahead of the tournament -- and threw in some "I just don't think good players foul" shade. One would imagine both Nelson-Ododa and Edwards will be actively working on avoiding the whistle and being able to have a greater impact on the game.
Dorka Juhasz, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, looked strong in exhibition play but struggled at times against Arkansas. She had just three points and three rebounds in 12 minutes and appeared timid. In the preseason, Auriemma said she "could be the difference that puts us into that other level," and UConn needs her to emerge as the dominant post player he anticipates she can be.
And, of course, there's Azzi Fudd, the nation's No. 1 recruit for 2021. There was a palpable buzz from the crowd when the latest heir apparent took the court for the first time, but her debut was largely unmemorable as she had seven points and three rebounds. The sooner she can find her groove, the better for UConn. -- D'Arcy Maine
What are the key matchups and storylines we should be watching in Saturday's Battle 4 Atlantis openers?
Minnesota vs. UConn, noon ET: As D'Arcy pointed out, Nelson-Ododa, Edwards and Juhasz looked out of sorts at times against Arkansas. If the Huskies are going to be ready for South Carolina in the championship game, all three will have to find a rhythm against the Gophers, who have won three straight, including a road win at Arizona State, after losing to Jacksonville at home in the season opener. Against potential second-round opponents, UConn is 32-0 all-time vs. South Florida, and has won 25 consecutive games vs. Syracuse.
No. 23 South Florida vs. Syracuse, 2:30 p.m. ET: A struggling Bulls offense might be catching the Syracuse zone at the right time as the Orange still work to incorporate nine new players under acting head coach Vonn Read. But South Florida has allowed just 48.3 PPG through three games this season.
No. 9 Oregon vs. Oklahoma, 5 p.m. ET: The Sooners backcourt is experienced and playing well. Oregon's is young and hobbled with some injuries. This could be a perfect opportunity for Oklahoma -- which scored a big road win at South Dakota last week -- to grab a win that will look even better looking back from March. Oklahoma has lost 15 consecutive games against top-10 opponents.
South Carolina vs. Buffalo, 7:30 p.m. ET: The Bulls' Dyaisha Fair was the fifth-leading scorer in the country a year ago (24.1 PPG). It should be interesting to see what kind of challenge she poses for Cooke and Henderson. The Gamecocks have won 39 consecutive games against unranked opponents.
If it's a South Carolina-UConn final, what are the X factors in what would be their fourth 1-2 matchup?
As deep as UConn seems to be, the Huskies needed a big scoring effort from Bueckers to keep a comfortable distance from Arkansas in their opener. Without her 34 points and 15-for-19 shooting, that outcome might have been in jeopardy. South Carolina has the ability to run a number of different style defenders at Bueckers that could disrupt the steady rhythm with which she plays. It didn't work much last season, when Bueckers scored 31 points against the Gamecocks in UConn's win in Storrs. How South Carolina changes its defensive approach to Bueckers could be an X factor.
Which team gets the upper hand in the post will also be important, particularly how active UConn's Edwards can be against the length of Aliyah Boston (3.3 BPG) and Cardoso (1.7 BPG). Edwards has the athleticism to get to the basket cleanly against those two outstanding shot blockers, but if she plays tentatively as she did at times against Arkansas, South Carolina could own the interior.
The Gamecocks shot 8-of-19 from beyond the arc Wednesday against Clemson but have generally been a somewhat reluctant 3-point shooting team (ranked 332nd in 3-point rate last season). UConn struggled from deep against the Razorbacks (5-of-18). If either team can get hot from downtown it will be a big advantage. That makes players like UConn's Westbrook and South Carolina's Destiny Littleton potentially very important to the outcome. Both teams also find much of their long-range shooting success in transition, so whichever gains control of the tempo will also likely be the team that shoots it the best.
UConn is 9-1 all-time against South Carolina. The Gamecocks' lone win in the series came in February 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Schedule and how to watch
The first two rounds of the Battle 4 Atlantis will be streamed on FloHoops. Monday's championship game (noon ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) and third-place game (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN App) will air on ESPN Networks.
In the semifinals, the UConn-Minnesota winner plays the South Florida-Syracuse winner at noon ET on Sunday. The Oregon-Oklahoma winner faces the South Carolina-Buffalo winner at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.
What other holiday tournaments should we be watching?
Plenty of other top teams also will be making their way to vacation destinations.
The Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship in Nassau, Bahamas, begins on Thanksgiving Day with a doubleheader that could make a Final Four jealous. NC State vs. Maryland will be followed by *Indiana against Stanford. All four are contenders for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, so these games will serve as major resume building blocks for the winners. The Terps and Cardinal will also play on Saturday, giving each the potential for two top-five wins in three days. If Stanford can pull off the sweep and get a win over South Florida in between, that loss to Texas last weekend won't loom so large. In all, seven of the eight teams in this event made the NCAA tournament last season. All seven of the games in Nassau can also be seen on FloHoops.
The best matchup at the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam is the last one late on Saturday. It features Northwestern against Texas A&M, a terrific matchup of under-the-radar guards. The Aggies' Jordan Nixon is coming off a 25-point performance against DePaul. Veronica Burton of the Wildcats is the two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is averaging 21 PPG, 6.5 APG, and 3.5 SPG so far this season. All the games from the Paradise Jam can be found on the ESPN App.
Another marquee individual matchup comes Friday in the final game of the Preseason WNIT. NC State and All-American Elissa Cunane, a 6-foot-5 center, faces off against 6-6 Aoyka Lee of Kansas State. The Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start thanks largely to Lee, who is averaging 29.3 points and 11.0 rebounds. Old-school post matchups like this don't come around often anymore. It can be seen on the ESPN App (ACC Network).
The St. Pete Showcase in St. Petersburg, Florida, won't get as much attention, but could be a big opportunity for Florida State. The Seminoles play BYU on Thanksgiving Day and could meet West Virginia two days later. If Florida State hopes to earn a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament and host opening round games, these two wins would be imperative. Those games are available on FloHoops.