How to make women's college basketball even better in 2021

NaLyssa Smith leads Baylor (7-1) in scoring (17.3 PPG) and rebounds (9.3 RPG). The Lady Bears play at TCU on Jan. 2 and host UConn on Jan. 7. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Just this weekend in women's college basketball, Duke ended its season amid coronavirus concerns, No. 22 Syracuse went into a pause after a positive test within the program, Oregon State extended its pause and Ole Miss postponed its SEC opener with South Carolina.

As Tennessee coach Kellie Harper -- whose Lady Vols earlier this month had a game at Texas canceled after they had already flown to Austin -- put it, you have to plan knowing changes are all but inevitable.

"I think when you see that, you naturally step back and think, 'Wow, what's this going to look like in another month?' " Harper said of her reaction to the Duke news. "We'll make a plan for the week, and then we'll take it day-by-day."

No more COVID-19 related cancellations would be No. 1 on our New Year's wish list for the rest of the season, but that's not realistic. So here's a look at some things that would be good to see -- and good for the game -- in 2021.

Stronger challenge for Baylor in the Big 12

Nothing against the Lady Bears. But for the past decade, Baylor has owned the conference, and things are a little more fun when there's some suspense. It used to be that way in the Big 12: Nine programs won or shared the regular-season title during the conference's first 14 years.

But Baylor has won the regular-season title the last 10 years in a row -- sharing it just once in that time (2014 with West Virginia) -- with a 170-8 conference record. Baylor also has won eight of the past nine Big 12 tournaments. Iowa State upset the Lady Bears in their 2020 regular-season finale, but Baylor would have been favored to win the league tournament title again had it not been canceled by the pandemic.

Currently, No. 6 Baylor is 7-1 and will next face TCU on Jan. 2, followed by a nonconference showdown with No. 3 UConn on Jan. 7 in Waco, Texas.

No. 20 Texas is the only other ranked Big 12 team, but they don't play until Feb. 14 at Baylor and March 1 at Texas.

Baylor also has two games against Iowa State, which beat the Lady Bears last March by controlling the pace and hitting 10 3-pointers. It still took a foul called on Baylor with less than a second left, and Iowa State making a free throw, for the Cyclones to get that 57-56 win and snap Baylor's 58-game Big 12 regular-season winning streak.

No one is expecting the Lady Bears, currently led by junior NaLyssa Smith at 17.3 PPG and 9.3 RPG, to let down. But the rest of the conference has to try to turn up the heat.

A competitive UConn-Tennessee game and extended series

We know this series isn't going to be what it used to be, with late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt no longer here. But that doesn't mean it can't be something else that also brings value to the sport.

Whether these programs will continue the rivalry remains to be seen. UConn coach Geno Auriemma was upset that the NCAA didn't grant Evina Westbrook a transfer waiver last season. And in the process of complaining about the NCAA, he was also criticizing Tennessee and former coach Holly Warlick by alleging Westbook deserved the waiver because of her experiences with the Lady Vols.

Will Harper see that as a roadblock to keeping the series? Does Auriemma want to keep playing Tennessee? Those answers might come closer to the Jan. 21 game in Knoxville.

Last season in Hartford, UConn won 60-45 in the programs' first meeting since 2007. Tennessee led 31-28 at halftime, but scored just 14 points in the second half.

This season, the Huskies have started 5-0, while Tennessee is 5-1 (its loss was in overtime at West Virginia). By the time they meet -- provided there are no postponements -- the Lady Vols already will have faced three ranked SEC teams (No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 13 Kentucky and No. 11 Arkansas) and two others that are currently unranked but unbeaten (Georgia and Alabama). So Tennessee won't lack for preparation.

A riveting race for national player of the year

Last season, the awards for the country's best player were Sabrina Ionescu's to lose, and the Oregon guard won them all. This season there are many candidates, and the various national player of the year awards might not go to the same person. In fact, at this point it is challenging to predict the player of the year for the Power 5 conferences, let alone nationally.

In the SEC, for instance, Kentucky junior guard Rhyne Howard came in as the favorite; she and teammate Dre'una Edwards, a forward, are tied for the Wildcats' scoring lead at 15.5 PPG. Howard's upcoming performances against the SEC's better teams will give us a better idea how strong her candidacy still is.

Other players in the running for the SEC honor include South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston and guard Zia Cooke, Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee, Mississippi State forward Rickea Jackson, and Texas A&M forward N'dea Jones (although it's hard to pick a specific Aggie player because of their balance).

In the Pac-12, Arizona guard Aari McDonald is the favorite and the league's leading scorer (20.1 PPG), but guard Haley Jones is averaging a double-double for No. 1 Stanford.

The ACC award could be a repeat with Louisville guard Dana Evans winning for the second straight year, but two centers, NC State's Elissa Cunane and Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley (another player averaging a double-double) are among the challengers. In the Big Ten, Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark leads the league in scoring, but players such as Rutgers guard Arella Guirantes and Michigan forward Naz Hillmon are among those in the mix.

In the Big 12, the top three candidates are Iowa State guard Ashley Joens, Texas forward/center Charli Collier and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith.

Outside the Power 5, UConn's best player appears to be freshman guard Paige Bueckers, who leads the Huskies in scoring and assists, and is second in rebounding.

Over the next two months, the national player of the year award pool will become narrower, but no one will be surprised if there's still no clear-cut, obvious winner.

A meaningful rivalry in the Magnolia State

Ole Miss has been to the NCAA tournament 17 times, while Mississippi State has made 11 trips. But the two programs have never been in the Big Dance in the same year. Could the first time come in 2021?

The Rebels didn't win a league game last year and were 7-23 overall. But in coach Yolette McPhee-McCuin's third season, they have started 6-0 behind junior transfer forward Shakira Austin (17.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Ole Miss is dealing with some positive COVID-19 tests now, and we don't know when the program might play next. We'll find out how real the Rebels' record is when they resume; the first of two meetings with Mississippi State is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Starkville.

In her first season with Mississippi State, Nikki McCray has the Bulldogs at 5-1 and ranked No. 12. Sophomore Rickea Jackson (17.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG) leads the Bulldogs.

The two programs' successes have come in different eras. Ole Miss, led by coach Van Chancellor, went to the NCAA tournament 14 times in the event's first 15 years (1982-96). Then the Rebels went again three times (2004, '05, '07) under coach Carol Ross.

Mississippi State made the NCAA field for the first time in 1999 behind Sharon Fanning, and subsequently went again in 2000, '02, '03, '09 and '10. The Bulldogs became a contender at the national level under Vic Schaefer, including two trips to the Final Four. They've made the tournament every year since 2015 (that would have included last season, when the Bulldogs were 27-6 overall and 13-3 in the SEC).

The Rebels lead 63-36 in the series, which dates to 1975. Mississippi State only won once between 1975 and 1998. But since, the Bulldogs are 34-12 against the Rebels and have won 13 in a row.

In-state rivalries can be particularly electric because they can lure in fans who normally might not give women's basketball a chance. Mississippi State and Ole Miss could do that.

A mid-major team making a Final Four run

In 2021, it will have been 20 years since a so-called mid-major program made the Women's Final Four. That was Missouri State, which reached the 2001 event in St. Louis behind scoring sensation Jackie Stiles.

Since, five mid-major programs have advanced to the Elite Eight: Old Dominion in 2002, Utah (then in the Mountain West) in 2006, Xavier (then in the Atlantic 10) in 2010, Gonzaga in 2011 and Dayton in 2015.

Three mid-majors are currently ranked: No. 21 South Florida of the American Athletic Conference, No. 23 Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference and No. 24 Missouri State of the Missouri Valley. Are they good enough for a Final Four run? That's probably a stretch, but considering how off-kilter the rest of this season could be pandemic-wise, something unexpected could happen.

Weekly superlatives

Player of the week: Fran Belibi, Stanford

The sophomore forward has dunked twice in games this season, but her overall game has elevated, too. Her second dunk came in last Monday's 61-49 victory over No. 10 UCLA. She also had 15 points to lead the top-ranked Cardinal (7-0), and is averaging 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds this season, while shooting 58.3% from the field.

A shout-out also to Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark, who had her first career triple-double (13 points, 10 assists, 13 rebounds) in a victory over Western Illinois on Tuesday.

Team of the week: UConn

UConn's goal headed into its game last Tuesday at Villanova was to see how much progress the Huskies had made defensively. Going against a scorer the caliber of Maddy Siegrist of previously undefeated Villanova was a good test. The Huskies held Siegrist to 15 points on 6-of-22 shooting in a 90-52 victory. UConn shot 54.7% from the field while holding Villanova to 29%.

Coach of the week: Vic Schaeffer, Texas

Vic Schaefer is known for his enthusiastic support of his teams. He showed that last Monday after the Longhorns won 62-52 at Kansas State. Texas went up by 22 points with 2 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Wildcats got the margin to five with less than 6 minutes left in the game.

Afterward, Schaefer -- in his first season at Texas -- could have harped on the Longhorns for letting the lead get whittled down. Instead, he focused on them re-grouping at crunch time on the road and winning by 10.

"They're my kind of team, my kind of kids," Schaefer said. "They showed tremendous grit and toughness tonight. When we kind of got knocked back on our heels a little bit, we didn't flinch."

Win of the week: North Dakota State

North Dakota State won at Kansas 72-69 last Monday to move to 5-1 and get its first victory over a Power 5 school since beating Minnesota in 2006. Bison coach Jory Collins beat his former boss, Jayhawks coach Brandon Schneider; Collins was an assistant at KU in 2018-19.

Collins previously was an assistant to Schneider at Division II Emporia State; they won the 2010 national championship together. Collins subsequently was head coach at Emporia State for eight seasons.

North Dakota State's only loss has been at Iowa State; the Bison have beaten Green Bay twice, and defeated Northern Iowa and rival North Dakota.