Women's college basketball Power Rankings: Will Louisville or NC State take control of the ACC race?

Elissa Cunane and NC State are No. 5 in this week's Power Rankings as the top seven teams remain unchanged. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

It's way too early to call any conference race in women's college basketball, but NC State and Louisville play Thursday in a game that might decide the ACC's regular-season champion.

As was the case the past two seasons, the Wolfpack (7-0) and Cardinals (5-0) are atop the league, and both are Final Four contenders again. NC State won the regular-season and ACC tournament final matchups last year. In 2020, Louisville won the regular-season game but the teams didn't meet in the ACC tournament, won by the Wolfpack.

Defense is a calling card for both teams, but NC State is also the league's top scoring offense at 79.7 PPG. The Wolfpack beat Duke 84-60 on Sunday in a game that coach Wes Moore couldn't find much wrong with, and he can usually find something.

NC State scored 40 points in the paint, made 7 of 15 3-pointers, outrebounded Duke 45-38 and had just four turnovers, which tied a program-record low. NC State also forced 17 turnovers and held the Blue Devils to 36.1% shooting. When the Wolfpack are playing that well, few teams can hope to beat them.

"Having that core group of veterans that really knows what they're doing, that lets the younger people watch and follow us," said senior center Elissa Cunane, who added that she and her Wolfpack teammates know each other so well they have a "little telepathy" between them.

Cunane is leading NC State with 14.1 PPG and 7.6 RPG. Diamond Johnson, No. 1 on ESPN's transfer rankings earlier this month, is averaging 12.0 PPG.

Cunane has been a consistent rock for the Wolfpack, and she's coming off her best scoring performance this season after getting 23 points against Duke. Louisville, meanwhile, is on a 15-game winning streak after falling in its season opener in overtime to Arizona. The Cardinals lost their star in guard Dana Evans, who moved on to the WNBA and won a title with the Chicago Sky.

But there really hasn't been a drop-off for Louisville. The Cardinals have gotten a boost from forward Emily Engstler, who was No. 7 on ESPN's transfer rankings and also made our midseason list of the top 25 overall players in the country.

She is averaging 10.5 PPG, third on the team to Kianna Smith (12.2) and Hailey Van Lith (11.9). Engstler also leads the Cardinals in rebounding at 8.3 PPG.

Louisville is holding opponents to 49.4 PPG, which you would think is best in the ACC. But it ranks second to Georgia Tech's 46.3. When those two teams met Jan. 2, the Cardinals won 50-48.

That's the kind of grind-it-out game that Louisville would be fine with playing Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Wolfpack. NC State can win that way, too, but the Wolfpack would prefer a little more of an offensive battle because they have more than enough weapons to win that.

Player of the Week: Kierstan Bell, Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

The junior guard had 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in a 100-65 win over Kennesaw State on Wednesday. Then, in Saturday's showdown with Atlantic Sun rival Liberty, Bell had 25 points, seven rebounds and three steals in a 73-69 victory. Bell is averaging 24.6 points and 7.9 rebounds for the 15-1 Eagles, who are 4-0 in the ASUN. Florida Gulf Coast's only loss was to Princeton on Dec. 1.

Team of the Week: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish lost by two points at Duke on Jan. 2, then had their Jan. 9 game vs. NC State postponed due to COVID-19 issues. But this past week, they won 74-64 at Wake Forest and then defeated fellow ranked team North Carolina 70-65 Sunday. Dara Mabrey had a combined 46 points in those games; she made six 3-pointers against the Tar Heels. Notre Dame is now 4-1 in the ACC.

Win of the Week: UCF Knights 67, South Florida Bulls 51

In the top rivalry in the American Athletic Conference, UCF controlled the game throughout and went to 4-0 in league play, 12-2 overall. Guard Diamond Battles led the way with 19 points and is the Knights' top scorer this season at 13.4 points per game. The return matchup will be Feb. 13 at South Florida.

Last year, the teams split their regular-season meetings, and then South Florida won the American tournament championship game. Both teams made the NCAA tournament.

Coach of the Week: Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines' 69-49 victory Sunday was Michigan's first at Maryland and ended the Terps' 31-game home winning streak. Barnes Arico's squad is 4-1 against ranked teams this season, and the Wolverines are 15-2 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten. Barnes Arico, now in her 10th season at Michigan, is the winningest coach in program history at 208-104.

Power Rankings

1. South Carolina Gamecocks (17-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: No games

The Gamecocks know the winning formula: Get the ball to Aliyah Boston, play high-energy defense. In victories this past week against Texas A&M and at Arkansas, Boston had a combined 38 points and 28 rebounds. And the Aggies and Razorbacks were held to 45 and 52 points, respectively. South Carolina is off this week; perhaps time to get in a little rest.

2. Stanford Cardinal (13-3)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Cal (Friday), at Cal (Sunday)

The Cardinal are 4-0 in the Pac-12 after victories at Colorado and Utah, but there were concern in both those games. Against the Buffs, they trailed 28-24 at halftime. Although they came back to win, they finished with 21 turnovers. Against the Utes, Stanford trailed by four with 6 minutes, 40 seconds left, but then went on a 19-5 run to end the game. Still, the Cardinal's depth continues to come through: Four different players have led Stanford in scoring in their past four games.

3. Tennessee Lady Vols (17-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Georgia (Sunday)

Senior guard Rae Burrell had her first double-figure scoring games this past week since returning earlier this month from a knee injury. She had 11 points in Thursday's 65-51 victory over Vanderbilt and 14 in Sunday's 84-58 shellacking of Kentucky. The Lady Vols outrebounded the Wildcats 50-29 even though center Tamari Key left before halftime with an ankle injury. Coach Kellie Harper said she's optimistic it's not very serious, plus Tennessee has a week before its next game.

4. Louisville Cardinals (15-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: at NC State (Thursday), vs. Wake Forest (Sunday)

An opponent hit the 70-point mark for the first time this season against Louisville, but Syracuse still lost 84-71. Sunday's victory was more typical for the Cardinals' defense, as they beat Boston College 63-53. The Eagles were just 2-for-15 on 3-point attempts against Louisville.

5. NC State Wolfpack (16-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Louisville (Thursday), vs. Virginia Tech (Sunday)

The Wolfpack won 66-43 on Thursday at struggling Virginia, which like Clemson is winless in the ACC. Against a tougher opponent in Duke on Sunday, the Wolfpack won 84-60 and got 33 points off their bench.

6. Indiana Hoosiers (14-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Michigan State (Wednesday), at Iowa (Sunday)

It was a big week for guard Grace Berger, and Indiana needed her. She had 22 points and seven rebounds in beating Nebraska 72-65 on Thursday. On Sunday at Purdue, she had 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in a 73-68 overtime win. The Hoosiers were without center Mackenzie Holmes (knee) in both games, but they remain unbeaten in the Big Ten at 6-0.

7. LSU Tigers (17-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Florida (Sunday)

LSU had a gut-check game Thursday against a Missouri team that is the only team to beat South Carolina. But LSU won 87-85 in overtime, and then cruised over Vanderbilt 82-64 on Sunday. The two victories kept LSU tied in second place in the SEC at 5-1. Senior guard Jailin Cherry had a huge week with a combined 32 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists.

8. Iowa State Cyclones (16-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Texas (Wednesday), at Baylor (Sunday)

In one of the best games of the Big 12 season, the Cyclones rallied to beat Kansas State 73-70 on Tuesday, winning on a banked-in 3-pointer. They defeated Oklahoma State 74-60 on Saturday and are atop the league at 5-0. This week should be challenging, despite Texas and Baylor being a combined 3-4 in Big 12 play.

9. UConn Huskies (9-3)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Oregon (Monday), vs. Seton Hall (Friday), at St. John's (Sunday)

The Huskies cruised to victories at Butler (92-47) and against Xavier (78-41), with Olivia Nelson-Ododa having one of her top games of the season against the Bulldogs, and Caroline Ducharme scoring in double figures for the fifth straight game against the Musketeers. This is a busy week as they play the first of three remaining nonconference games on Monday when they travel to Oregon (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Ducks are coming off a 68-66 overtime upset of No. 7 Arizona on Saturday.

10. Michigan Wolverines (15-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Wisconsin (Thursday)

This was a big week for the Wolverines in getting wins at Penn State and, especially, Maryland, the latter an unexpected 20-point blowout Sunday in which Michigan star Naz Hillmon was held to nine points. But the Wolverines got a season-high 21 points from guard Maddie Nolan, who made seven of Michigan's 10 3-pointers.

11. Maryland Terrapins (12-5)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Ohio State (Thursday), vs. Northwestern (Sunday)

The Terps had a week to prepare for Michigan, but the news that coach Brenda Frese's father had died of cancer Sunday morning clearly impacted the team. Frese still coached the game that night. Maryland had not been held below 50 points since UConn did it 2012, and the Terps' 49 points Sunday were 34 below their season average. All credit to Michigan, but this is not a game to judge Maryland on, considering the circumstances.

12. Oklahoma Sooners (15-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: at West Virginia (Wednesday), at Kansas State (Sunday)

After an extended time in the "waiting room," the Sooners make their Power Rankings debut after beating Baylor 83-77 and TCU 100-71. Oklahoma is second in Division I in scoring average (88.4) and first in assists per game (20.8). Saturday's win over the Frogs marked the eighth time this season the Sooners have topped the 90-point mark, as Madi Williams led the way with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (13-3)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Boston College (Thursday), at Pittsburgh (Sunday)

The Irish are on the road for their next three games, but they will take a lot of momentum with them after wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina this past week. Notre Dame is tough to guard because there are five near-equal threats averaging between 13.1 and 11.0 points, led by Maddy Westbeld.

14. Baylor Bears (11-4)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Oklahoma State (Wednesday), vs. Iowa State (Sunday)

After falling at Oklahoma on Wednesday, the Bears came dangerously close to dropping to 0-3 in the Big 12. But they prevailed Sunday at Kansas 82-79, led by sophomore guard Sarah Andrews' season-high 25 points. Baylor will be glad to be back home for two games at Ferrell Center this week, including against Big 12 leader Iowa State (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

15. Arizona Wildcats (12-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Utah (Friday), vs. Colorado (Sunday)

After edging Oregon State 55-53 on Thursday, the Wildcats lost a 17-point lead and fell in overtime 68-66 on Saturday at Oregon. Coach Adia Barnes was unhappy with the officiating, saying to the media that the Wildcats got homered, and with Oregon coach Kelly Graves, at whom she apparently made an obscene gesture after the game. She and her players later said on Twitter that he had used profanity directed at Arizona during the game. Senior guard Bendu Yeaney had two of her best games back-to-back with 15 points against the Beavers and 14 vs. the Ducks.

16. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (13-4)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Syracuse (Thursday), vs. North Carolina (Sunday)

The Yellow Jackets had a challenging week with three games, and the last of those got away from them. After beating Pittsburgh and Florida State, Georgia Tech fell 46-45 on Sunday at Miami. Such low-scoring games are the Yellow Jackets' forte, and they usually win them.

In the waiting room

Georgia Bulldogs (13-3): The Bulldogs were off this past week, but now have three games this week as they face Missouri, Mississippi State and Tennessee.

Texas Longhorns (12-3): The Longhorns fell out of the Power Rankings after going 1-1: They lost to Kansas in overtime and beat West Virginia. They will be on the road for four of their next five games.

BYU Cougars (14-1): BYU held both opponents, St. Mary's and Loyola Marymount, below 40 points in victories this past week.