Women's college basketball: Why the Pac-12 is still the best conference

Senior guard Aari McDonald is averaging 21.7 points per game on 47.2% shooting for 3-0 Arizona. She's also averaging 5.0 RPG and 5.0 APG. Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

With No. 2 Stanford poised to take over the top spot in the 2020-21 women's college basketball rankings Monday, No. 7 Arizona's two thrilling victories this weekend and No. 10 Oregon off to a 4-0 start, the Pac-12 has picked up where it left off last season. Yes, it's early, but it can claim top-league status for now, at least based on how its best squads are doing. Four Pac-12 teams are ranked in the top 10 -- the other is No. 9 UCLA -- and we've also seen good performances from Arizona State and USC.

Unbeaten Arizona (3-0) held off UCLA 68-65 on Friday behind senior forward Trinity Baptiste's 18 points and 11 rebounds. The graduate transfer from Virginia Tech has been a boost for the Wildcats' interior with her experienced, physical play.

Then Sunday, Arizona edged USC 78-77, with Aari McDonald getting 30 points. The senior guard is projected to be the No. 2 pick in our first 2021 WNBA mock draft.

"Normally, you play these types of games a month from now," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said of having the intensity of Pac-12 contests in early December. "You're not as sharp, with less cohesiveness. We have more depth, though, and that really helps."

Next up for the Wildcats is a rivalry game with visiting Arizona State on Thursday. The 4-1 Sun Devils' only loss was 63-59 to UCLA on Sunday.

Oregon's strong beginning means there's less talk about the loss of last year's beloved seniors and more attention on how good this 2020-21 group can be. Even without injured center Sedona Prince (ankle), Oregon routed Utah 85-43 on Sunday. The Ducks got 17 points each from freshman Te-Hina Paopao and senior Erin Boley, who is leading Oregon in scoring (16.8 PPG).

Nyara Sabally, younger sister of former Duck Satou Sabally, had her first career double-double with 20 points (going 9-of-9 from the field) and 10 rebounds against Colorado on Friday. The Ducks also have a game against their chief rival coming up, as they make the short trip to face No. 17 Oregon State (3-0) on Sunday.

Stanford has had to relocate to Las Vegas because of COVID-19 restrictions on practicing and playing in Santa Clara County. With everything that is going on, career records is the last thing that Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer is thinking about. But she is now one shy of tying the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee at 1,098 for most Division I women's victories.

However, right now we don't know the next opportunity for Stanford to play. The Cardinal were to meet Washington State on Tuesday in Las Vegas, but that game had to be postponed because the Cougars don't have enough scholarship players available due to COVID-19 protocol.

"The pandemic, the situation we're in, it really makes you appreciate each game," VanDerveer said. "Each game is so precious, and we're so excited to be playing. We're here in Vegas, we don't know what our schedule is. We're working the phones, trying to get games."

As for possibly ascending to No. 1, VanDerveer said, "Rankings are important in March. Let's hope we're playing in March."

Team of the Week: South Dakota State Jackrabbits

On Sunday, South Dakota State got its second victory this season over a ranked team as the Jackrabbits defeated No. 18 Gonzaga 75-72 in overtime. They opened the season on Nov. 28 with a 76-69 victory over then-No. 15 Iowa State.

South Dakota State, which was 23-10 last season, might make it into the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week. Brookings, South Dakota, has a well-earned reputation as a tough place for visitors, and all three of the Jackrabbits' victories this season have come at home. Junior forward Myah Selland is averaging 18.0 points for the Jackrabbits, who are shooting 40.9% (27-of-66) from 3-point range.

We look forward to their next four games in particular: against the Big 12's Kansas State on Thursday, and then three in a row against strong Missouri Valley teams Northern Iowa (Saturday), Drake (Dec. 15) and No. 21 Missouri State (Dec. 19). All but the Drake game will be on the road.

Player of the Week: Haley Jones, Stanford Cardinal

Stanford's Haley Jones was the top recruit in last year's freshman class and had a strong start for the Cardinal, starting 13 of 18 games and averaging 11.4 points and 4.2 rebounds. But then she was sidelined by a knee injury, and the Cardinal definitely missed her.

Now she's back, and has looked great so far, getting 25 and 29 points, respectively, in the Cardinal's wins this weekend against UNLV and Washington. Her 14-of-15 shooting from the field against the Huskies on Sunday was the best percentage from a Stanford player (with at least 10 attempts) since 1981, and her scoring and rebounding (13) totals were career bests.

"With my season being cut short last year, I've just been really excited to get back out there," Jones said. "I think I'm coming out with a more of an aggressive mentality."


Dungee fired up after and-1

Arkansas' Chelsea Dungee makes easy work of her Baylor defender and hits a layup while being fouled.

Coach of the Week: Mike Neighbors, Arkansas Razorbacks

No. 16 Arkansas' 83-78 win over No. 4 Baylor on Sunday was the Razorbacks' first victory over a top-five team since 2003, when Texas A&M's Gary Blair was still coach at Arkansas. After Blair, Susie Gardner, Tom Collen and Jimmy Dykes ran the Razorbacks program. But Mike Neighbors, an Arkansas native who came back to Fayetteville in 2017, has been the right coach at the right time for the Razorbacks, who are now 5-1.

Let's also give a shout-out to South Florida's Jose Fernandez. Neighbors said the Bulls' 67-62 loss to Baylor on Tuesday gave him a few ideas on how to go against the Lady Bears. And after pushing Baylor, the Bulls got a 67-63 upset against No. 6 Mississippi State on Saturday.


South Florida knocks off No. 6 Mississippi State in OT

South Florida hands No. 6 Mississippi State its first loss of the season, using stout defense in overtime to come up with a 67-63 upset victory.

Plus, kudos to Kentucky assistant Niya Butts, who stepped in for an ill Kyra Elzy on Sunday and led the No. 11 Wildcats past No. 13 Indiana.

Win of the Week: No. 8 NC State Wolfpack upset No. 1 South Carolina

NC State, down an injured starter, going into South Carolina and ending the No. 1 Gamecocks' 29-game winning streak Thursday was impressive, even if the 54-46 victory was an ugly game. The No. 8 Wolfpack had no subsequent letdown, as six players scored in double figures in a 98-46 victory Sunday against Coastal Carolina. NC State coach Wes Moore went into Thursday's game unhappy with the Wolfpack's defense, but NC State held two consecutive opponents to 46 points. Can Elon crack the 50-point barrier vs. NC State on Tuesday?

The Gamecocks' loss might have been exactly what coach Dawn Staley needed to fully get the attention of a squad still adjusting to not having last year's senior leaders. South Carolina bounced back with an 83-65 victory at No. 23 Iowa State on Sunday. The surprising stat that stood out most: South Carolina beat the Cyclones at their own game, getting 13 3-pointers to Iowa State's five. That was as many treys as the Gamecocks had made in their previous four games combined.