AP Poll: The Pack is back and looking good at No. 4

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Maine v NC State NC State star center Elissa Cunane (right) high-fives teammate Kayla Jones (left). | Photo by Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Elissa Cunane leading the way, the NC State Wolfpack are now competing for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Meanwhile, the preseason No. 4 Maryland Terrapins have re-entered the Top 10.

It’s always fun to wake up on Monday and know that the new AP rankings are coming out soon. In the past couple seasons, there’s been no one dominant program, and the rankings can shake up considerably each week. With March fast approaching, the Top 25 teams are now jockeying for higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s an analysis of some of the teams that have risen — and fallen — in Week 15.

On the rise

No. 4 NC State Wolfpack (22-1, 11-1 ACC)

The Wolfpack, who are back in the Top 4 for the first time in 20 years, moved from No. 7 to No. 4 because the No. 5 UConn Huskies, No. 8 Stanford Cardinal and No. 9 Louisville Cardinals all lost. NC State played just one game last week: a 71-59 win over a decent Virginia Tech Hokies team on Feb. 6. NC State has moved into first place in the ACC standings (ahead of Louisville, which has lost two in a row). The Wolfpack’s one loss came to the UNC Tar Heels, 66-60, on Jan. 9.

Last year’s NC State team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament at the Sweet Sixteen plateau. This year, the Wolfpack have key wins over the No. 10 Maryland Terrapins (Dec. 5) and No. 14 Florida State Seminoles (Jan. 16) and could move up to a one-seed. The first Top 16 put out by the selection committee on Feb. 3 had them projected as the No. 7 overall seed.

The Wolfpack’s 6-foot-5 center Elissa Cunane is the real deal. She has great inside touch and has upped her scoring average from 13.6 last year to 17.0 this year. She is also averaging a double-double with her rebounding rate rising from 6.3 to 10.5.

With Kiara Leslie gone, NC State’s scoring falls off fast after Cunane. But regardless of whether this year’s team is more or less talented than last year, if the Wolfpack can snag a one-seed, the path back to the Sweet Sixteen and possibly beyond will be a lot smoother than it was as a three-seed a year ago.

No. 10 Maryland Terrapins (20-4, 11-2 Big Ten)

The Terrapins were falling by big chunks at a time earlier this season. They started at No. 4 but, after a series of declines, fell all the way to No. 20 when the Week 11 poll came out on Jan. 13.

Now, they are rising just as quickly as they fell.

Maryland improved by three spots to No. 17, and then by four more to No. 13 before ascending to No. 10 this week. The Terps defeated the No. 20 Indiana Hoosiers 79-69 on Feb. 6 and won two other contests last week. They blew out the Michigan State Spartans by 41 points on Feb. 3 and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights by 29 on Feb. 9.

The currently ranked teams that Maryland has defeated — Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana — are all outside the Top 15, but are all great teams. In addition, all of the Terps’ losses have come to currently-ranked teams.

The Terrapins were listed as the No. 8 overall seed in the reveal on Feb. 3. If they win the Big Ten outright and other teams ahead of them lose, they may be deserving of a No. 1 seed considering the improvements the conference has shown this season. Maryland is No. 3 in the RPI, behind only the No. 2 Oregon Ducks and the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks.

Maryland’s star player, Kaila Charles, has been stepping up lately with her relentless effort on the boards and on defense. Credit her and Ashley Owusu, the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, for the way Maryland has turned its season around.

No. 14 Florida State Seminoles (20-4, 9-4 ACC)

The Seminoles had been going through a rough stretch, losing to lesser teams with star guard Nausia Woolfolk out. But they got things together on Feb. 6 and gave the No. 9 Louisville Cardinals their first loss of ACC play. Kiah Gillespie led the way with 25 points and 13 rebounds, while guard Nicki Ekhomu notched 18 points and Woolfolk added 11.

The Seminoles’ resume is still benefiting from the team’s 80-58 victory over the No. 16 Texas A&M Aggies on Dec. 1. With that and the Louisville win, Florida State, who was not included in the Top 16 reveal, still has a chance to host the first and second rounds. The Seminoles have an easy stretch to end the season and will be right up there with Louisville and NC State as one of the favorites to win the ACC Tournament.

Highlights: Florida State gets the best of talented Louisville team

On the decline

No. 9 Louisville Cardinals (21-3, 10-2 ACC)

The Cardinals were listed as the No. 3 overall seed in the selection committee’s top 16 reveal. Losing to a Florida State team that was just outside that reveal and an unranked Syracuse team that has fallen off the map means that Louisville has a lot of work to do if it wants to return to being a one-seed.

The Cardinals can still win the ACC outright. They are only a game behind NC State and will face the Wolfpack on Thursday, Feb. 13 with a chance of forming a tie for first with five games remaining after that. Additionally, an ACC tournament championship would still carry a lot of weight despite the Pac-12 and SEC being better conferences this year.

No. 15 Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-2, 12-1)

The Bulldogs were listed as a three-seed in the Top 16 reveal. However, their upset loss to the Saint Mary’s Gaels on Feb. 8 was of a great enough magnitude (St. Mary’s is 11-13 overall and 6-7 in the WCC) to put their chances of hosting the first and second rounds in jeopardy.

The Bulldogs’ best win out of conference came against the No. 24 Missouri State Lady Bears, so their resume is decent, but it isn’t glowing. Even if the Bulldogs win out, they may need some teams ahead of them or right behind them to lose if they want to host.