New week, new No. 1. South Carolina took over the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings on Monday, the fourth team to hold down No. 1 since the season started.
The Gamecocks routed Missouri by 33 points Thursday but will get their first real test as the nation's top-ranked team on Monday against No. 10 Mississippi State. Later in the week, UConn and Tennessee will play for the first time in 13 years, renewing what was once the game's greatest rivalry.
What do we expect from each game? And will the Pac-12 keep providing us with weekly blockbusters? ESPN.com's team of experts weighed in on what's to come.
South Carolina vs. Mississippi State has been the best rivalry in the SEC in recent seasons. What should we expect when they meet on Big Monday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET)?
Mechelle Voepel: I expect another good chapter between these two but ultimately a win for South Carolina, whom I voted No. 1 this week.
Coach Dawn Staley acknowledges that the Gamecocks' chemistry surprises her. A team that starts two seniors and three freshmen could have a lot of issues, but that hasn't been the case. So when they face what has become their biggest rival in the SEC in Mississippi State, the Gamecocks are likely to be a pretty poised group that hasn't let the No. 1 ranking go to their heads.
"What this team has been able to do is find common ground quickly," Staley said. "And that's winning. It's not, 'I have to score this many points' or 'I have to raise my draft stock' or 'I'm part of the No. 1 recruiting class, so I have to show that.' I've never been part of a team that's come together as quickly as this team."
A lot of credit goes to the maturity of guard Tyasha Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who will be able to tell their teammates an extra gear is needed in the Mississippi State matchup. Freshmen Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal have all been able to adjust well to the speed and physicality of the college game.
Boston, a 6-foot-5 forward averaging 13.0 PPG and 8.9 RPG, has big star potential, but keep an eye on Cooke, who has been especially good in SEC play. The 5-9 guard is averaging 12.3 points overall but a team-best 17.4 in five league games, and Staley said her efficiency has gone up because she's taking better shots.
As for Mississippi State, Staley says, "We pack the house when they come, and they pack the house when we come. I think it's a healthy rivalry, and something that's great for the SEC."
Graham Hays: I expect South Carolina to show there is a one-team top tier in the SEC. The Gamecocks have already put Kentucky in its place, even on a day when Rhyne Howard did Rhyne Howard things. Now they get the Bulldogs at home.
But mostly I'm intrigued to watch Aliyah Boston go up against Jessika Carter for the first of what could be many post battles in the coming years. Boston hasn't picked up a fourth foul in a game since Thanksgiving, and even with whatever foul trouble she has encountered during that stretch, she's giving the Gamecocks 20-plus minutes pretty consistently. If she's on the court, South Carolina is in a different class.
Charlie Creme: Just the fact that four teams have already been No. 1 is enough to be excited. This is already a season unlike any we have had in years. South Carolina absolutely deserves to be at the top of the rankings. The Gamecocks have the most quality wins in the country and have continued to improve. That South Carolina is in this position as early as mid-January is a surprise, though. Dawn Staley has done an outstanding job getting a team that starts three freshmen to this level, this quickly.
Thursday's win over Missouri marked the first time in league play South Carolina failed to score in the 90s. The Gamecocks probably won't get there on Monday night against Mississippi State, either. Vic Schaefer will come up with something that at least slows down South Carolina, but the Bulldogs likely don't have the firepower to keep up with the Gamecocks. Colonial Life Arena will be at a fever pitch, and after Monday night I expect that the rest of the SEC will realize that it is probably playing for second place.
UConn and Tennessee meet next Thursday for the first time in 13 years. By the rankings, at least, UConn is a heavy favorite. Will it be competitive? And even if the score isn't close, what does this game mean for women's basketball?
Hays: I'm not expecting a classic. Tennessee is in the early stages of building something under Kellie Harper, and that's a vulnerable state against a top-tier team like UConn (or Stanford, which routed the visiting Lady Vols earlier this season).
I'm not sure how much this game matters right now. Don't get me wrong, it's a treat for existing fans, a chance to rekindle the memories of such a great rivalry. And that brand recognition will surely generate more talk and bring more eyeballs to the game than even the likes of the Oregon-Oregon State games next weekend -- indisputably more significant games in the context of this season. All of that is good, to put women's basketball in the national spotlight in the middle of January.
But I can't shake the feeling that trading on nostalgia is going to create a bit of an empty bubble. Unless Tennessee can pull off something remarkable and make the present matter as much as the past on Thursday, I fear next week will ultimately be about as satisfying as most long-awaited sequels.
Belibi fires up Stanford teammates with pregame jam
Fran Belibi receives a little help from her Stanford teammates on a pre-tip slam.
Creme: Like it or not, these two programs are still the most recognizable and discussed schools in the sport. They should be playing, so this does mean something from that perspective alone. While it is great for the game to have it back on the schedule, I agree with Graham that the matchup means little for this season. Tennessee is still trying to figure itself out, and UConn could use a national TV thumping to get its swagger back. Of course, Tennessee has a chance to do something it hasn't dome all season: put in a good performance against an NCAA tournament-worthy opponent. A more competitive outing from the Lady Vols would be a huge confidence boost for a team that is hardly an NCAA tournament lock.
Even a blowout won't ruin the chance to revisit the rivalry and a broadcast that will include plenty of old highlights and pictures. Just seeing images of Pat Summitt again in the context of a UConn-Tennessee game might be enough for now.
Voepel: OK, I'll say it: Whatever the outcome, I hope UConn coach Geno Auriemma doesn't denigrate the series starting again in that pessimistically sarcastic way he's known for. We all know it's not the same thing as it was before; the other main protagonist, Pat Summitt, is gone. Thirteen years have passed since they last met. It can't be exactly the same.
But it can be something if both schools decide to let it continue past the two games (next year in Knoxville) currently scheduled. This series has two very passionate fan bases that find the other insufferable, and I love that. Some rivalries aren't all that antagonistic -- for example, South Carolina and Mississippi State -- yet are still compelling. And some are between two entities that really don't like each other, and that's great, too. That Auriemma is still angry that Evina Westbrook didn't get a transfer waiver to play this year after leaving Tennessee just adds a little more fuel.
Do we all expect UConn to win? Yes, but if Tennessee makes this a competitive game, that will bring some magic back that even all the Grinches won't be able to resist.
Has the Pac-12 lived up to expectations? Based on what we've seen so far, who is the best team in the Pac-12 and why? And what do we expect out of Stanford-Oregon State on Sunday?
Creme: Based solely on the fact that there are two or three truly big games every weekend in the conference, the Pac-12 has lived up to expectations. The league still has the deepest pool of upper echelon teams in the country. I didn't expect that none of them would be No. 1 seeds at this point in the season, although Oregon made a great case to return to No. 1 status after routing Stanford on Thursday.
UCLA is now the only unbeaten Pac-12 team in conference play, but the Bruins haven't gotten to the meat of their schedule yet. They beat Arizona State, however, something the Ducks and Oregon State did not do. The Bruins and Oregon don't play until Feb. 14.
Stanford, meanwhile, might just be happy it doesn't have to chase Sabrina Ionescu around again when the Cardinal move from Oregon to Oregon State on Sunday. Both teams are coming off monumentally disappointing losses and would find themselves two games out of first place in the Pac-12 with another one. As much as Stanford struggled with Ionescu and her 37 points Thursday, the offense was also a huge disappointment. I expect it to be better on Sunday, even though the Beavers are better defensively than Oregon. That's just what Tara VanDerveer's Stanford teams have done -- regroup and improve -- even if they are young.
Last year, after losing by 40 at home to Oregon, the Cardinal reeled off nine straight league wins that included a Pac-12 tournament title and a victory over the Ducks. Stanford-Oregon State will probably be a low-scoring game because that's the way the Beavers play, but that doesn't mean Stanford won't rebound and split this difficult road trip.
Hays: The Pac-12 has more than lived up to expectations. Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford were the preseason favorites, and it still wouldn't be a surprise to find any of them in the Final Four. Maybe all of them. Not to mention that at this point, UCLA's unbeaten start makes the group at the top of the conference closer to a quartet of contenders. And Arizona and Arizona State make for one talented second tier. It's at least the equal of the SEC, and those two are as good as it gets this season.
That said, I don't know what to expect from Stanford on Sunday. The Cardinal were the first elite team to get well and truly thumped when Oregon's second-half surge swamped them Thursday. I kind of get the sense this could be the rough week that sets up Stanford's youth for success in the seasons to come -- the week we write about as a turning point.
That's good for the future but not so good for Sunday. It looked like the full weight of top-tier college basketball hit Haley Jones, Fran Belibi and Hannah Jump in a way that playing Tennessee at home or Mississippi State on a neutral court in Canada couldn't. But they're Stanford freshmen, so maybe they smash through the wall in Corvallis.
Voepel: The Pac-12 has achieved what it for so long strived for: It's always in the national conversation now with women's basketball. Fans are excited about their games and knowledgeable about their players. And the results so far -- especially with upsets like Arizona State pulled off last weekend -- have shown how much talent there is in the league.
Ultimately, I still give the nod for the league's best overall best team to Oregon, but the Ducks, of course, have shown vulnerability. As for Stanford-Oregon State, both teams will feel they have a lot to prove. I give a slight edge to the Beavers, but don't be surprised to see Stanford really respond well after losing at Oregon.