When Louisville, the ACC's final hope of the 2021 NCAA women's college basketball tournament, was eliminated last March, the league's focus immediately jumped forward. The Cardinals had been stopped in the Elite Eight. But how strong would the ACC be by March 2022?
We have a lot of questions to answer before then, but how powerful does the conference look so far this season?
A lot like last season -- and that's a good thing. The ACC had eight teams in the 2021 NCAA tournament field, with three reaching the Sweet 16. The league wants to improve on that latter number, and there are reasons to think the ACC can do it in 2022.
Both Louisville and NC State, which are Final Four contenders again, have bounced back from season-opening losses. NC State, tied with UConn at No. 2 in the most recent AP Top 25, fell at home to South Carolina on Nov. 9. The Wolfpack have since won eight in a row, with victories over ranked teams Maryland and Indiana, and are holding opponents to 53.5 PPG.
Last Thursday, NC State won a rematch with Indiana, which upset the top-seeded Wolfpack in the Sweet 16. Forward Kayla Jones missed that NCAA tournament game because of injury, but led NC State with 17 points and 11 rebounds in Thursday's 66-58 win over the No. 6 Hoosiers.
Guard Diamond Johnson, who played her freshman season at Rutgers, leads the Wolfpack at 13.4 PPG and has been one of the nation's most impactful transfers thus far.
Louisville is also getting a big lift from a transfer. Emily Engstler, a senior forward who played at Syracuse last season, is second on the team in scoring (10.6 PPG) and first in rebounding (8.9 RPG). The Cardinals' opening loss was in overtime to Arizona on a neutral court, and they have won seven in a row since. In Thursday's 70-48 thumping of No. 12 Michigan, Engstler had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 steals, while helping hold Wolverines star Naz Hillmon to 12 points.
Louisville has two more big nonconference games coming up this month: vs. Kentucky on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) and Dec. 19 vs. UConn in Uncasville, Connecticut (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). But the Cardinals have some concern offensively, as they are averaging 69.6 PPG. However, they are holding opponents to 46.4 PPG.
Duke and North Carolina, both 8-0, are still undefeated. The Blue Devils' best win thus far was Thursday over No. 9 Iowa, 79-64. The Hawkeyes were coming off a COVID-19 pause and hadn't played since Nov. 17, but the 79-64 win was still an early milestone for coach Kara Lawson. Last season, Lawson's first at Duke, the Blue Devils played just four games before canceling the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Duke's biggest test is coming up Dec. 15, when it hosts South Carolina. The Blue Devils have also benefited from a newcomer, as Texas transfer Celeste Taylor is leading them in scoring at 14.4 PPG.
The Tar Heels don't have a signature win yet, and won't have a chance to get one until Jan. 6, when they travel to NC State.
Ultimately, the ACC game of the year is expected to be Jan. 20, when NC State hosts Louisville. But we'll see if anyone else in the league can trip up either one before then. Some of the other teams in the league worth keeping an eye on:
Wake Forest (8-1): Last season, the Demon Deacons made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988.
Georgia Tech (6-2): A Sweet 16 team last season, the Yellow Jackets have losses to Auburn and Purdue, but are coming off a 55-54 victory Sunday over Georgia. They host UConn on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Notre Dame (7-2): The Irish have lost to Georgia and UConn but are seeing a lot from their young talent, including a combined 48 points the past two games from freshman guard Sonia Citron.
Syracuse (5-4): The Orange's record is underwhelming, but they have a win over a ranked team: Ohio State.
Florida State (6-2): Despite the record and losses to BYU and Purdue, you can expect the Seminoles to put things together during the ACC season. They've been to every NCAA tournament but one since 2005.
Player of the Week: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina Gamecocks
The junior had a combined 50 points, 31 rebounds and 7 blocked shots in Gamecocks victories over North Carolina A&T and Kansas State, and shot 22-of-24 from the field. For the season, Boston is shooting 61.3% from the field and 67% from 2-point range. Sure, North Carolina A&T was vastly overmatched, but Boston played just 21 minutes in that game. But Kansas State is 7-2 with one of the top centers in the country in Ayoka Lee, and Boston still dominated that game, playing 25 minutes.
Team of the Week: Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats moved to 6-1 and got two strong performances from senior Rhyne Howard in dominant wins over West Virginia and Merrimack: She had a combined 48 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists and 9 steals. Kentucky's lone loss this season was at Indiana on Nov. 14. Howard (20.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Dre'una Edwards (18.9, 7.9) are leading the way for the Wildcats, who have a big week coming up with games against DePaul and then against in-state rival Louisville in Sunday's Jimmy V Classic (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Win of the Week: LSU 69, No. 14 Iowa State 60
Seven games into her LSU tenure, coach Kim Mulkey got her first shot at a ranked team and won. Are we really surprised? Nah. Mulkey had faced Iowa State for 21 years while at Baylor, so she knew exactly what the Tigers needed to do for the 69-60 win. Mulkey improved to 31-6 against Iowa State.
Coach of the Week: Lisa Bluder, Iowa Hawkeyes
In her 22nd season with the Hawkeyes and 38th overall as a head coach, Bluder reached the 800-victory mark Sunday. Iowa, behind sophomore star Caitlin Clark's second triple-double of the season, beat Michigan State 88-61. Bluder is an institution in the state of Iowa: She was born, went to high school (Linn-Mar) and college (Northern Iowa) and has spent her entire coaching career (St. Ambrose, Drake, Iowa) there.
"It's special being on your home court, obviously, but being able to share that with your family and the women on this team is just so much fun," Bluder said of the milestone Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. "I enjoy them so much, and I'm very thankful that I get to be around them every day."
1. South Carolina Gamecocks (9-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Maryland (Sunday)
Destanni Henderson's status is the big question facing the Gamecocks. She has been out with a leg injury, missing Friday's game against Kansas State, but it doesn't appear to be too serious. South Carolina doesn't play again until Sunday, when the Gamecocks host the Terps in the women's Jimmy V Classic (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
2. NC State Wolfpack (8-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Pittsburgh (Friday), vs. Saint Mary's (Sunday)
The Wolfpack have had five different players as their leading scorer in their nine games this season. NC State is known for defense but was able to outscore the Hoosiers 28-24 in the fourth quarter of its victory at Indiana last Thursday.
3. UConn Huskies (5-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Georgia Tech (Thursday), vs. UCLA (Saturday)
Things looked good for UConn in its 73-54 victory over longtime rival Notre Dame on Sunday until the final minute, when star Paige Bueckers was injured. The Huskies and their fans now anxiously wait to see how serious it is. Both games this week are on the road, the latter at a neutral site: the Prudential Center in New Jersey for an ABC-televised tipoff at noon ET.
4. Louisville Cardinals (7-1)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Kentucky (Sunday)
What on paper seemed like an intriguing matchup with Michigan last Thursday was instead a 70-48 rout by the Cardinals. After following that up with an 80-66 win over Belmont, Louisville has this week to prepare for in-state rival Kentucky.
5. Tennessee Lady Vols (8-0)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Georgia State (Sunday)
The Lady Vols remain unbeaten, with Sunday's 64-58 victory at Virginia Tech being their most impressive road win so far. Tamari Key stood out with 11 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. Her counterpart at center, Elizabeth Kitley, was held to four points on 1-for-12 shooting.
6. Baylor Bears (8-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Alcorn State (Wednesday)
The Bears got a real scare from unranked Missouri on Saturday, as the Tigers missed a shot at the buzzer and Baylor won 70-68. But nothing seems to slow down NaLyssa Smith, who had 25 points and 17 rebounds against Mizzou, making 9 of 13 shots from the field.
7. Arizona Wildcats (7-0)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. North Dakota State (Thursday), vs. New Mexico (Sunday)
The Wildcats haven't played since Nov. 27 -- their Friday game against UC Riverside was canceled as the Highlanders are in COVID-19 protocol -- so they will be eager to get back to action this week.
8. Stanford Cardinal (5-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Pacific (Sunday)
The Cardinal will also be coming off a break since Nov. 27 when they return to action against the Tigers.
9. Texas Longhorns (6-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Idaho (Saturday)
After perhaps a closer-than-expected 78-64 victory over Jackson State last Wednesday, the Longhorn handed rival Texas A&M its first loss Sunday: 76-60 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Freshman guard Rori Harmon had nine assists against the Aggies and has a team-high 46 this season (6.6 per game).
10. Maryland Terrapins (8-2)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Purdue (Wednesday), vs. South Carolina (Sunday)
The Terps rallied from back-to-back losses to NC State and Stanford in the Bahamas to get victories over Miami and Rutgers this past week. Sunday's upcoming ESPN matchup with the Gamecocks is a marquee game, but the Terps can't afford to look past Purdue, which already has wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (5-2)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Penn State (Monday), vs. Fairfield (Thursday), vs. Ohio State (Sunday)
The Hoosiers' two losses are to Stanford and NC State, and in both cases they were held below 35% shooting from the field. Indiana has a busy upcoming week, including two Big Ten opponents.
12. BYU Cougars (8-0)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: at Oklahoma (Friday)
The Cougars have four wins over Power 5 conference teams, and will try to add another when they face the Sooners. BYU won 85-80 at in-state rival Utah on Saturday behind a combined 55 points and 10 assists from guards Paisley Harding and Shaylee Gonzales.
13. Michigan Wolverines (8-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Wisconsin (Thursday), Minnesota (Sunday)
The Wolverines hit a wall Thursday against Louisville, as they were outrebounded by 13 and made just 2 of 15 3-pointers in a 70-48 loss, their first defeat of the season. Michigan then pummeled Akron 93-54. The Wolverines start their Big Ten slate this week.
14. Duke Blue Devils (8-0)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: No games
On the strength of an undefeated record that includes a win over Iowa, the Blue Devils jump into the Power Rankings this week. Freshman guard Shayeann Day-Wilson is averaging 13.1 PPG, 19.7 in her past three games.
15. Iowa Hawkeyes (5-1)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Iowa State (Wednesday)
Out of action since Nov. 17 because of COVID-19 protocol after positive tests in the program, the Hawkeyes struggled in their return at Duke, making just 3 of 19 3-pointers in a 79-64 loss. Back at home Sunday, they won their Big Ten opener against Michigan State 88-61 and Caitlin Clark had a triple-double. However, she was 3 of 23 from 3-point range in those two games. Clark will try to heat up from long range in Wednesday's rivalry game at Iowa State (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
16. Texas A&M Aggies (8-1)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: vs. Texas Southern (Thursday), at TCU (Sunday)
The Aggies suffered their first loss of the season against the Longhorns, but hang on -- barely -- to their spot in the Power Rankings. Texas A&M doesn't have a signature nonconference win and will need to make noise in SEC play.
In the waiting room
Oklahoma Sooners (7-1): Their lone loss was 98-93 to Oregon in the Bahamas, and that was Nov. 20 when the Ducks had Nyara Sabally (who had 30 points and 11 rebounds in that game, but hasn't played since). Oklahoma is averaging 88.0 PPG, and could get a key win this week when BYU visits Norman.
LSU Tigers (6-1): The guards took over the game in their victory over Iowa State, with Alexis Morris and Khayla Pointer combining for 45 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. The Tigers have six winnable nonconference games left before they start SEC season at Georgia on Dec. 30.
South Florida (5-3): It has been a roller coaster for the Bulls, who followed a victory over defending national champion Stanford with a loss to UT Arlington, which was that program's first win over a ranked team. That took South Florida from No. 8 in last week's Power Rankings to out this week. The Bulls still have a chance to get two wins over Power 5 schools this month as they face West Virginia and Ole Miss.