Michaela Onyenwere truly arrived on the ninth day of the season.
After respectable showings in UCLA’s first two games, the sophomore forward unleashed the dragon against then-No. 14 Georgia in the Bruin’s third outing – a lunchtime matinee match up. Onyenwere scored 25 points on 11-19 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds – five of which were offensive – dished four assists, and had two steals and a block. She played all 40 minutes in leading her team’s upset win.
Since then, Onyenwere has scored 24 or more points in five more games, has notched five double-doubles and has matched her career high of 29 points twice. She made one three-point shot last year, but already this season she is 8-25 from beyond the arc, including two games of three shots – both career highs.
Onyenwere has increased her overall numbers substantially from her first year, when she averaged 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in 17.1 minutes on the floor. This season she averages 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. In all of last year Onyenwere dished 17 assists and blocked 13 shots; so far this season she has 17 assists and 19 blocks. She is the rebuilding-Bruins’ leading scorer and second-best rebounder by being a playmaker, a threat from both inside and out, and a burgeoning leader.
“Michaela has unlimited potential,” Bruin coach Cori Close said. “It’s fun for people in SoCal to root for her because she’s fun to watch. They admire her skill, and everyone wants to be around her, everyone respects her. She’s a great role model – very inspirational.”
Nineteen-year-old Onyenwere had plenty of shining moments in her debut season: three double-doubles, two Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors, and conference All-Freshman team. She was one of only two on her team to grab more offensive than defensive rebounds, with an 84-81 differential.
But Onyenwere was playing behind two of the program’s all-time greats in forward Monique Billings and guard Jordin Canada, as well as other veterans who guided the team to an Elite Eight appearance. Billings left as UCLA’s all-time blocks leader and Canada reset the mark for all-time assists. Onyenwere, who was a Colorado high school state champion as a senior, the state’s three-time Gatorade player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American, took a different role upon arrival in Westwood.
“Jordin and Mo were really great leaders to follow,” Onyenwere said. “I was a role player last year and tried to screen and rebound well. I wasn’t in a major role last year, but it was fun for me and I learned a lot.”
Close knew that would have to change, however, and before the Bruins took a summer break, she met with Onyenwere.
“She said she needed me to be somebody who was a go-to scorer,” Onyenwere said of her coach. “I took that and ran with it. She told me I needed to work hard over the summer, and I accepted that challenge. I worked on shooting, working out a lot and doing the reps and perfecting my craft. I also worked on increasing my confidence.”
Somehow, Onyenwere made this happen after working a 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daycare job.
“During the process it was long days, and working out after that was hard,” she said. “But I took myself out of that picture and looked at the big picture and realized that this is what my coach needs from me. Hard work will eventually pay off.”
She worked with trainers for her former club ball team, the Colorado Hawks. Theo Davis, president of the organization, said Onyenwere striving to increase her skill set was a deja vu.
“We got Michaela when she was in eighth grade, and she was extremely raw,” he said. “Coaches would call me during the recruiting process and want her to handle and dribble the ball better, so we moved her to the guard position. We have high-level player developers, and (that’s who) worked with her last summer.”
“The kind of athlete she is, you don’t see a lot of in the women’s game. When she works, it’s easy for her.”
UCLA has had an up-and-down season as they continue to find their footing, but Onyenwere’s play and willingness to step up grows with each game.
“With the points she puts up and the versatility she brings, she is an impossible match up,” Close said. “The other part is her relentless rebounding – especially offensively. She’s getting some really difficult out-of-area rebounds to the point where she’s becoming an elite rebounder. She reminds me of (Los Angeles Sparks forward and former WNBA MVP) Nneka Ogwumike in that she can be a threat to anyone.”
Close said Onyenwere’s skill set gives the Bruins options.
“She put in a lot of work over the summer, especially on her jump shot – the 17-footer and three-point range shots,” Close said. “She’s undersized but doesn’t mind getting in the post banging. Other teams have to use different strategies to guard her.”
Another thing that keeps Onyenwere in growth mode is that she is a student of basketball.
“She watches the game a lot too, and I wish more women watched the game,’ Close said. “I think that’s helping her. She watches the WNBA, NBA, whatever – she really loves it.”
Onyenwere’s teammates are taking cues from her development.
“Michaela is vital to us in so many different ways,” sophomore forward Lauryn Miller said. “I’ve definitely seen her growth in her confidence to score and her abilities involved. Seeing her attack everything so fearlessly this year, it’s been fun to see, and it’s huge for us.”
Miller said Onyenwere’s character influences the team, as well.
“Her confidence on the court also bleeds into how she cares for us and looks for us and cheers for us,” Miller said. “Her positivity and energy that comes from how fearlessly she plays is just enormous for our team.”
Onyenwere’s easygoing friendliness and always-present smile belies her on-court onslaughts.
“The joy that she brings is really special,” Close said. “I wish I could do that. She has the ability to be really intense and then put a smile on her fact that’s really infectious.”
Josh Ulitsky, Onyenwere’s high school coach, said that as much as her game is growing, she is the same young woman he has always known.
“As incredible an athlete as she is, she’s an even better person,” Ulitsky said. “It’s never been about the numbers for her. Even when she was on the bench, which wasn’t often, she was cheering for her teammates, because that’s who she is.”
“I’ve never had a kid with her talent. I’ve also never had a kid who was as humble and gracious. So many of her teachers didn’t know the caliber of player she was because that was the last thing she wanted to do was bring attention to those things.”
Close said Onyenwere’s team-first approach and her work ethic makes her a winner.
“The coolest part about her is she could care less about shining,” Close said. “She knew her team needed her to have a new role this year. She couldn’t care less – she just wants to be the best she can be. The great thing is she’s not assuming and passive about being great; her main focus is on being a great teammate. She is being aggressive, trying to get better every day.”
The willingness to go from star to learning mode as a Bruin newcomer is also paying dividends.
“She really watched Jordin and Monique and how they built their games. She really respected them and affirmed them,” Close said. “She really studied what this is going to take, and she had some moments last year of really stepping up.”
“She also honored (senior) Kelli (Hayes) too, and she took something from all of them. You could see how Michaela connected the dots in the offseason.”
Currently tied for eighth in the Pac-12, the Bruins will need Onyenwere to continue making adjustments.
“It’s different than it was last year in the way teams are scouting me,” she said. “I’m making different reads because teams are going to find ways to scout me. But I’m comfortable, whatever the system.”
UCLA takes on rival USC tomorrow at Pauley Pavilion, in the second game of the season series.
It’s deep enough into the season that the contenders, both in the ACC and nationally, have been pretty clearly identified. There’s enough data now to look beyond trends, win/loss records, and counting stats. Numbers never tell the full story, of course, but they are useful in confirming or disputing what the eye test or the records might suggest. In the thick of conference play, it’s a good time to look at the biggest strengths and weaknesses for each contender in the ACC, defined for these purposes as top 25-ranked squads. (Records and standings current through Sunday, stats from herhoopstats.com current through Jan. 10.)
No. 1 Notre Dame. (16-1, 4-0 ACC) Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish are an obvious juggernaut this year. They’re loaded with blue-chip talent, and the only blemish on their record thus far is a 71-89 loss to UConn on Dec. 2. That game got away from them in the second half, but they recently proved more than capable of being on the other side of the coin, dropping an absolute hammer on No. 2 Louisville while pulling away for a 82-68 victory Thursday night. They also demolished Wake Forest 78-48 on Sunday.
The Numbers (stat/national ranking): Offensive Rating 125.0/3rd, Defensive Rating 70.3/4th, PPG 88.6/3rd, FG percent 52.1/1st, 3FG percent 33.3/83rd, FT percent 73.8/63rd, EFG percent 55.1/6th, APG 19.8/6th, Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.36/10th, Off. Rebound Rate 41.9/11th, Def. Rebound Rate 68.2/137th, Total Rebound Rate 56.6/19th.
Biggest Strength: A balanced scoring attack. Arike Ogunbowale’s 22.6 PPG has her on pace to comfortably pass Skyler Diggins’ all-time school scoring record, but the terrifying thing for opponents is that she’s one of five Irish players averaging double figures. Jackie Young (15.2), Jessica Shepard (14.8), Brianna Turner (13.1) and Marina Mabrey (12.6) are all playing lights-out basketball. Notre Dame bury their foes by ensuring that there are no less than three or four players on the floor capable of burning them on nearly every possession.
Biggest Weakness: Three pointers. By design, McGraw’s offense does not heavily emphasize shots from behind the arc (they’re 325th nationally in three-point attempts), and they really haven’t needed to so far. Nonetheless, that 33.3 percent from deep is somewhat concerning. Ogunbowale has historically been capable of lighting it up, but she’s shooting a disappointing 30.9 percent from downtown this year. Mabrey (40.4 percent) is the only player on the roster currently both taking and making treys at a high clip. In the unlikely event Notre Dame find themselves in a hole and need to shoot their way back, that tiny flaw in an otherwise immaculate team could be a problem.
No. 2 Louisville (15-1, 3-1 ACC) The Cardinals bounced back from Thursday’s loss to Notre Dame with a commanding 61-44 win over a very good Georgia Tech squad. While Jeff Walz’s team has looked inconsistent at times this year, they’ve also racked up plenty of good wins and have been downright unstoppable for long stretches. When they’re cooking, Louisville is as dangerous as any team in the country, and they have what should be two more W’s coming against Virginia and Wake Forest before meeting FSU on Jan. 24.
The Numbers (stat/national ranking): Offensive Rating 117.7/6th, Defensive Rating 78.6/26th, PPG 82.8/9th, FG percent 48.5/8th, 3FG percent 36.8/30th, FT percent 75.3/33rd, EFG percent 54.5/11th, APG 16.8/33rd, Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.24/20th, Off. Rebound Rate 36.4/70th, Def. Rebound Rate 65.1/247th, Total Rebound Rate 51.6/113th.
Biggest Strength: Asia Durr. Also shining are Arica Carter, Sam Fuehring, and Dana Evans, all of whom are averaging just over 10 PPG and playing very well this year. Louisville is calibrated to key off of Durr’s singular brilliance. Averaging 21.5 points and 3.6 in both rebounds and assists, she is the engine, the barometer, and the alpha that makes the team run. When she’s in full-on virtuoso form, the Cardinals can stand toe-to-toe with anyone. If she has an off night against good competition, they don’t have much of a Plan B. Fortunately for her team, Durr is almost never, ever, off.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding. The numbers up top say it all. Fuehring is the team’s leading rebounder at 6.1 boards a game, and that has to be a major concern. Top-echelon ranking aside, Louisville simply can’t compete in March if they can’t figure out a way to clean the glass more effectively. Durr can work miracles, but not if the team isn’t coming down with the ball to begin with.
No. 8 NC State (17-0, 4-0 ACC) Wes Moore’s Wolfpack have proven themselves equal to every challenge so far. Division I’s lone remaining undefeated squad lost starting PG Kaila Ealey before the season began and guard Grace Hunter to an ACL tear last week. Despite the injuries, State’s patchwork back court hasn’t steered them wrong yet. Moore’s ability to reconfigure his roster on the fly has been something of a signature in Raleigh, and he has faced and surpassed expectations so far by relying on that talent. The Wolfpack are perfect on the season, but how long can they stay that way?
The Numbers (stat/national ranking): Offensive Rating 113.9/13th, Defensive Rating 75.7/14th, PPG 75.6/37th, FG percent 46.9/16th, 3FG percent 35.0/58th, FT percent 69.4/163rd, EFG percent 53.7/15th, APG 17.2/26th, Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.19/25th, Off. Rebound Rate 37.3/52nd, Def. Rebound Rate 74.7/7th, Total Rebound Rate 58.1/5th.
Biggest Strength: Completeness. NC State is so perfectly balanced across the board that it almost defies comprehension. They play smart, hard, and mostly very well in every aspect of the game. They’re not elite in any particular category, but they also have no readily-identifiable weaknesses. The breadth of their collective efforts has kept them perfect so far. A squad so adept on both ends of the court is a problem for anyone.
Biggest Weakness: Completeness, but not dominance. The Pack are somewhere between good and very-good-to-great in every area, but they’re not truly elite in any one facet of the game. Ranking fifth in total rebound rate is their only top 5 statistical category. There is a strong possibility State will need to lean heavily on something in a critical moment or stretch or game going forward. If they can’t identify or trust in a particular bellwether when they need it, that might be a problem their versatility can’t overcome.
No. 12 Syracuse (14-2, 3-0 ACC) Syracuse’s only two losses this season have been close affairs against ranked teams. In their most recent contest, Tiana Mangakahia tossed up a 34-10-10 trip-dub as the Orange cruised past North Carolina for their 14th victory on Sunday. Syracuse is destroying opponents on the strength of a punishing defense and their star guard’s outstanding play. It’s taken the some of best in the nation to beat them largely because they’ve been so brilliant.
The Numbers (stat/national ranking): Offensive Rating 110.3/23rd, Defensive Rating 73.8/7th, PPG 80.5/17th, FG percent 44.6/33rd, 3FG percent 33.0/97th, FT percent 75.3/32nd, EFG percent 51.9/28th, APG 18.4/14th, Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.01/68th, Off. Rebound Rate 36.5/68th, Def. Rebound Rate 68.8/122nd, Total Rebound Rate 53.6/52nd.
Biggest Strength: Defense. The Orange is succeeding largely by smothering their opponents. Quentin Hillsman’s team is playing his preferred brand of defense, and the results are predictably excellent. As long as they continue pressuring smartly and aggressively, they will make it difficult for their competition to get in rhythm or score effectively.
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers. At 18.3 per game (262nd nationally) and a 19.8 percent turnover rate (191st), Syracuse is coughing it up too often to for a team that otherwise plays at an elite level. They’ll need to take better care of the ball if they want to make a deep run in March.
No. 22 Florida State (14-2, 2-1 ACC) Despite dropping a 45-57 loss to Clemson on Sunday, Sue Semrau’s Seminoles have been playing exemplary basketball this season, and they continue to show signs of a potential ACC spoiler at worst and a legit Cinderella at best. Their loss was evidence of their floor performance level, but FSU’s ceiling is still high.
The Numbers (stat/national ranking): Offensive Rating 105.7/45th, Defensive Rating 78.8/29th, PPG 70.8/79th, FG percent 42.4/88th, 3FG percent 30.2/202nd, FT percent 73.7/64th, EFG percent 47.5/94th, APG 13.9/121st, Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.02/64th, Off. Rebound Rate 39.0/31st, Def. Rebound Rate 71.9/50th, Total Rebound Rate 55.4/28th.
Biggest Strength: Offensive rebounding. Trailing only Boston College, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame in conference offensive rebounding rate, the Seminoles are doing a good job cleaning the glass and outworking opponents on the more difficult end of the rebounding spectrum.
Biggest Weakness: Shooting. With 42.4/30.2/73.7 splits with 47.5 EFG, FSU is not shooting like a top 25 team. It’s tough to argue with their win-loss record obviously, but outside of Kiah Gillespie (51.6), no Seminole logging significant playing time is carrying a field goal percentage better than Valencia Myers’ 45.4. They’ve been scoring and winning enough that it hasn’t mattered, but their shooting efficiency needs to improve significantly if they want to pursue bigger aspirations.
Our new top 25 poll is based upon a number of criteria, including team performances over the past week, strength of schedule, RPI, quality of wins, quality of losses, and head-to-head performances. All of these things are weighted relatively evenly, though the emphasis is placed on an overall resume.
It’s been an unpredictable season thus far, with numerous upsets and surprises along the way. Just this week alone, 10 teams currently ranked 12-25 lost at least one game, leaving the rankjings wide open.
This week three teams fell out of the top 25 and others took hard falls.
1. Notre Dame
7. Mississippi State
8. North Carolina State
10. Oregon State
17. South Carolina
18. Arizona State
19. South Dakota
20. Iowa State
21. Michigan State
25. Central Michigan
-Plenty of people take issue with UConn being ahead of Baylor when they lost their head-to-head match up. While that meeting obviously needs to be taken into account, so do both team’s other wins. The Huskies beating Notre Dame on the road by 18, coupled with wins at Cal and over DePaul, is more impressive than Baylor’s next best wins (at Arizona State and at South Carolina). It is splitting hairs, and others may still put the Bears in front of UConn, but that is the rationale.
– Rutgers took the biggest jump of the week, going from unranked all the way up to No. 16. Part of that is because every team from 15-25 lost this week, but they are 13-3 with a win at Maryland on their resume. They probably should have been on last week’s list.
–Tennessee took the biggest drop of the week, falling from 12 to 24. A case could be made that they should fall out of the top 25 altogether, but again, the lack of strong resumes after the No. 14 spot has them just holding on.
–Teams that fell out: Indiana (20), Florida State (23), Minnesota (24)