AP Top 25 women’s basketball poll: Iowa stepping up around star Caitlin Clark

AP Top 25 women's basketball poll: Iowa stepping up around star Caitlin Clark

It was a jam-packed week of upsets in women’s college basketball last week. Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 lost at least one game, including two of the three final undefeated teams that were ranked in the top five.

UCLA, ranked No. 2 last week, lost to its rival, and Baylor, then ranked fourth, lost both of its games to unranked squads after starting the season 14-0. No. 1 South Carolina (15-0, 3-0 SEC) is the last remaining undefeated squad and won’t face a ranked team until Jan. 25 against LSU, which lost to unranked Auburn on Sunday.

Iowa State led a group of three unranked teams that defeated ranked ones and charged onto my ballot. And the Pac-12 teams battled among themselves for positioning in the top 10. Here are the three biggest factors on my Associated Press Top 25 ballot:

Caitlin Clark and Co. put on show

Iowa looked every bit the No. 2 team in the country in a 84-57 blowout of then-No. 14 Indiana on Saturday night to take sole control of the Big Ten. Caitlin Clark scored 30 to pull within nine points of fourth place on the all-time scoring list, but it was the performances around her that alluded to another deep NCAA tournament run in March for the Hawkeyes.

“You know, Cait’s probably going to get her average, but you don’t want those other guys [to] have big nights,” Indiana head coach Teri Moren said. “Unfortunately, we let too many of them have their way with us.”

Four Iowa players reached double digits and five hit 3s. Clark started the game 0-for-6 from outside the arc in the first quarter, so fifth-year guard Molly Davis stepped up. She finished with 18 points, three times her 5.9 average and a career high in her two seasons with Iowa, on an efficient 70% clip. Her aggression from beyond the arc is exactly what the Hawkeyes need to open up the offense around Clark.

Things are looking up for Iowa and Caitlin Clark. (AP Photo/Cliff Jette)

Gabbie Marshall went 4-of-7 from 3 for 12 points, a refreshing sign for Iowa because she has struggled from distance this season. She entered the season a 40% career 3-point shooter, but was shooting 25% until stringing together three games shooting 50% or better recently.

Kate Martin posted a team-best 12 rebounds. Hannah Stuelke is showing steady improvement from last season moving into the departed Monika Czinano’s role, though she has more range than her predecessor. And the bench is producing solid minutes.

It is incredibly difficult to go through a conference schedule undefeated. Yet, it’s hard to see who can keep up with Iowa right now when the Hawkeyes are hitting on all cylinders. Their only loss is to Kansas State by seven at home — a loss that continues to look better and better as the Wildcats knock off quality teams.

Iowa has already taken down Michigan State, whose 89.9 points per game rank second in the Big Ten behind Iowa’s 90.6. The next closest is Penn State (87.2), the most efficient 3-point team in the conference (41.2%). Ohio State is one of the better defenses, though its notorious press hasn’t been as strong this season. And while Iowa’s defense isn't going to bowl anyone over, it has improved from the past two seasons. That includes a higher level from Clark, who is merely Iowa’s engine and not the entire vehicle.

UCLA and the Pac-12 predicament

The likelihood UCLA would hold onto its No. 2 ranking throughout the rest of the season was slim to none. And it had nothing to do with the Bruins' play. There have been moments over the past few weeks I’ve wondered at what point could UCLA leapfrog No. 1 South Carolina if both kept winning, and it had everything to do with its conference.

The Pac-12 predicament is that with so many quality teams, and the difficulty of defeating a team twice, few will escape unscathed. It doesn’t bode well for any of them to hold a high ranking from start to finish, although one team has a leg up.

UCLA, the highest-ranked Pac-12 team, lost its spot at No. 2 and its overall undefeated record, in a 73-65 loss to then-No. 9 USC (13-1, 3-1) on the road at a sold-out Galen Center on Sunday. It was one of two top-10 matchups this week, both in the Pac-12. I dropped UCLA only three spots to No. 5 because of the opponent.

The Trojans held UCLA (14-1, 3-1) to 19 points in the first half — half of what it normally averages — and was powered by a sixth 30-plus-point outing from JuJu Watkins. A few Bruins were dealing with illness, including center Lauren Betts, who came off the bench.

This isn’t a conference with nights off. It was their second meeting with USC in as many weeks, sandwiched around a trip to the Oregon schools. At 3-1, they’re tied with USC for third in the conference standings. The L.A.-based schools will take a difficult trip this weekend to the mountains to face Colorado and Utah.

Colorado (15-1, 5-0) trounced Stanford on Sunday, 71-59, with a 20-2 run in the third quarter in the other top-10 matchup of the weekend. The Buffaloes moved ahead of UCLA in my ballot to No. 4. Utah (12-5, 2-3) lost to the Cardinal on Friday, 66-64, in a controversial ending that sunk the Utes to below .500 in league play.

The Cardinal (15-2, 4-1) sit second in the conference with the benefit of facing Utah, Colorado, UCLA and USC — the other ranked Pac-12 teams — only once each. USC and UCLA are the two left on the schedule for the first week of February.

The good news for UCLA is with so many opportunities on its path, moving back up to the top is easier.

Baylor guard Jada Walker (11) drives past Iowa State forward Addy Brown, left, during the first half Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Baylor’s back-to-back losses headline Big 12 shakeup

Iowa State put college basketball on notice when it took Iowa to the final minutes in a 67-58 loss in December. It hasn’t lost a game since, but before this week the wins were so-so. Three non-conference opponents ranked NET 135 or worse. Single-digit wins against conference foes that finished in the middle of the standings in 2023. A newbie to the Big 12 in BYU.

There is no more “heads up” about the Cyclones. They are solidly a Top 25 team and Big 12 championship contender following wins against then-No. 24 West Virginia, 74-64, and then-No. 4 Baylor, 66-63, last week. It’s the first time the Cyclones have had back-to-back wins over ranked opponents since 2009-10 and it was only their ninth top-five win in program history. They’re on my ballot for the first time at No. 21 while Baylor dropped to No. 12.

Iowa State (12-4, 5-0) is one of two undefeated teams in Big 12 conference play and is finding its way after the graduation of Ashley Joens, the school’s all-time scoring leader. Head coach Bill Fennelly, who crossed the 600-win threshold this month, starts three freshmen: center Audi Crooks, forward Addy Brown and guard Arianna Jackson.

For as much talk as freshmen on the coasts at UConn (Ashlynn Shade, KK Arnold) and USC (Watkins) have garnered, Iowa State’s emerging stars also have plenty to boast about. Crooks (16.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Brown (14.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 5.6 apg) rank top 10 in the Big 10 in scoring and lead Iowa State’s offense (76.8 ppg, ranking 38th).

Freshmen Kelsey Joens, the younger sister of Ashley, and Jalynn Bristow also see significant minutes in the rotation. And senior Emily Ryan, a starter since she was a freshman, is still working back from a lower leg injury.

Iowa State and Kansas State are the lone undefeated teams in Big 12 play and neither were one of the four Big 12 teams undefeated heading into the conference slate. The Wildcats (17-1, 5-0) pulled off an upset of the other conference favorite, Texas, 62-58. They continue their climb up the rankings and onto the radar, which began with an upset of then-No. 2 Iowa.

Iowa State and Kansas State have not played a common conference opponent yet and won’t face off against each other until Feb. 14 in Ames, Iowa. The Cyclones don’t face Baylor again, but the Wildcats will next week.

Baylor dropped back-to-back games, its first losses of the season, in two of its three worst offensive showings of the season. Kansas (9-7, 2-3) upset the Bears, 87-66, earlier in the week.

“Not my best-coached game,” Baylor head coach Nicki Collen said after the loss to the Cyclones. “One of the things that was maybe a little fool’s gold for us [is] when you win a lot of games by a lot of points, the time and score execution isn’t as glaring.”

Associated Press Top 25 ballot

  • South Carolina (15-0)

  • Iowa (17-1)

  • NC State (14-1)

  • Colorado (13-1)

  • UCLA (14-0)

  • Stanford (15-1)

  • USC (12-1)

  • UConn (14-3)

  • Kansas State (17-1)

  • Texas (16-2)

  • Virginia Tech (13-2)

  • Baylor (14-2)

  • Utah (11-5)

  • Louisville (14-2)

  • Ohio State (12-3)

  • LSU (16-1)

  • Indiana (14-2)

  • Florida State (13-4)

  • Notre Dame (11-3)

  • Gonzaga (16-2)

  • Iowa State (12-4)

  • Creighton (12-3)

  • Princeton (12-3)

  • North Carolina 911-5)

  • Oregon State (13-2)

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