After a wild set of Thanksgiving week tournaments in which a slew of ranked opponents suffered early-season losses, many at the hands of unranked teams, the women’s college basketball world has another slate of marquee nonconference matchups over the next few days in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Jimmy V Classic.
The former features four matchups between ranked opponents, including the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes‘ 96-77 road win over the No. 18 Louisville Cardinals on Wednesday. Thursday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge games includes meetings between the No. 20 Maryland Terrapins at the No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels at the No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers, the No. 12 NC State Wolfpack at the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Jimmy V Classic follows on Sunday, with the No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies traveling to the Tennessee Lady Volunteers and the No. 3 UConn Huskies taking on No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend, a revival of the programs’ storied rivalry.
The ACC and Big Ten each have five teams in the latest Associated Press poll, but the former has won 10 of the 14 iterations of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which is in its final year. A new ACC/SEC Challenge will begin in 2023-24, the conferences announced this week.
ESPN.com’s panel of experts — M.A. Voepel, Charlie Creme and Alexa Philippou — break down what we’ve learned about some of these programs thus far, which teams have the most to prove over the next few days and predict every matchup.
Diamond Miller nails the 3 vs. Baylor Bears
Which team has the most to prove or to gain in these events?
Creme: Maryland is still searching for an identity. Are the Terps a perimeter shooting team? Do they need to play fast to win? Is this Diamond Miller’s team? Can they rebound enough (Maryland is currently 249th in defensive rebounding rate, according to Her Hoop Stats)? All of these questions remain unanswered eight games into the season.
Maryland does have an impressive road win at the Baylor Bears, but followed it with a lackluster and head-scratching loss in Fort Myers to the struggling DePaul Blue Demons. Will the real Terrapins please stand up?
There was always going to be a learning curve for Maryland this season given its significant roster turnover and incorporating four prominent transfers, but the Big Ten season begins this weekend. The time to get it all to jell is now, and a win over Notre Dame would help the Terps discover who they are.
Philippou: We’re about to find out where exactly Notre Dame and Virginia Tech are to start the season. Both teams are undefeated so far, but haven’t faced the strongest competition (neither has played a ranked opponent to this point). Expectations have been high for both programs: the Irish to return to the glory days of the Muffet McGraw era, the Hokies to go where no previous Virginia Tech team has ventured before.
If Notre Dame comes away with wins over Maryland and especially UConn, the belief that this is Niele Ivey’s best team yet, capable of the program’s deepest run in some time, will grow even stronger. Virginia Tech doesn’t have quite as tough of a schedule (Nebraska and Tennessee started the season ranked but have since fallen out of the AP poll), but a pair of wins would solidify its status as a top contender in the ACC, at the very least.
Voepel: North Carolina doesn’t have anything to prove, really, but a win at Indiana likely would propel them into the top five in the rankings — a place UNC hasn’t been since 2009. That was two years after the Tar Heels made back-to-back Final Four trips in 2006 and 2007, so a really different era. Since Notre Dame and Louisville came into the ACC, they have been the dominant teams, with league “old-timer” NC State. The Tar Heels are trying to reclaim their place among the ACC’s best, which will also put them among the nation’s best.
Eva Hodgson sinks a 3-pointer as UNC trails vs. Iowa State.
Which game will have the most impact on Bracketology?
Creme: Indiana and North Carolina could be playing for a No. 1 seed. The Hoosiers are already there in this week’s Bracketology. A win in Bloomington would be the Tar Heels third straight over a top-20 team after beating the Oregon Ducks and Iowa State Cyclones in Portland over the weekend. That would be enough to propel them to No. 4 overall and the final top seed.
Missing out on the one-on-one battle between Berger and North Carolina’s Deja Kelly will be all that’s lacking in this matchup between teams that one month into the season look like legitimate Final Four contenders.
Following a performance with 14 points and eight rebounds, Jordan Horston discusses No. 23 Tennessee’s aggressive start against Eastern Kentucky.
What is the best game or best individual matchup?
Philippou: Charlie already spoke to the intrigue of UNC-Indiana, and it’s a real shame Berger won’t be able to play. One thing to watch: Can UNC avoid a come-from-behind rally effort they seemed to rely on to win the Phil Knight Invitational?
Two other matchups stick out, for different reasons: For Tennessee-Virginia Tech, it’ll be interesting to see how the Hokies look against stiffer competition, but also whether the Lady Vols appear have put their early-season struggles behind them and can show the nation why they were considered a Final Four contender in the first place.
Notre Dame-UConn hasn’t been competitive the last two iterations, but that could change this year. For it to happen, Olivia Miles will have to have a much more memorable game against the Huskies than she did last year (eight points on 4-for-10 shooting and eight assists, but also five turnovers). Still, UConn’s three top-10 wins in its first five games are the most by any Huskies team over the last 20 seasons, so maybe they’ll continue rolling with that momentum.
Voepel: UConn-Notre Dame isn’t Geno Auriemma vs. Muffet McGraw anymore, but there is still a fun antipathy between the programs. There are few things more enjoyable for Irish women’s hoops fans than sending the Huskies packing with a loss, so they should be out in full voice Sunday.
As for a player matchup, it will be interesting to see how Nebraska Cornhuskers‘ center/forward Alexis Markowski, last season’s Big Ten freshman of the year, does against Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley, the reigning ACC player of the year. Both are averaging double-doubles, although Kitley (19.7 PPG) is scoring at a higher clip than Markowski (13.4 PPG).
Wednesday & Thursday schedule ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/MEiKOqi3Ds
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Creme: Picking a “best” in this lineup isn’t easy. Some of these matchups are Sweet 16/Elite Eight level. But NC State at Iowa has a chance to be a classic. Both teams love to spread the floor and attack on offense. They are each in the top-20 in points per game.
Iowa has two of the best scorers in the country in Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano. The Wolfpack have balance with six players averaging more than seven points per game, and have the kind of length that could give the Hawkeyes’ two stars fits. Will the Wolfpack outscore Iowa or will their defense frustrate the Hawkeyes into a lower-scoring game? The winner collects a huge NCAA tournament resume building block, one that each could use after suffering losses to UConn.
What player or team was under-the-radar in the preseason but is having a breakout season?
Voepel: Freshman guard Ta’Niya Latson is off to a big start for the 7-1 Florida State Seminoles, averaging an ACC-best 24.4 PPG and shooting 48.1% from 3-point range. She was No. 14 in the Class of 2022 for ESPN HoopGurlz, so we had a feeling she would be good. But she has been better than that so far.
Indiana freshman Yarden Garzon hits five 3-pointers on her way to a team-high 19 points in a win over Vermont.
Creme: With Berger out for Indiana, freshman Yarden Garzon really stepped up in the Hoosiers’ two games in Las Vegas, averaging 19.0 points and 5.0 assists. The 6-foot-3 guard from Israel could be an early frontrunner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. She has started all seven games, is Indiana’s third-leading scorer and has made 52.9% of her 3-point shots.
The Hoosiers had to replace three program mainstays in Aleksa Gulbe, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, and Ali Patberg. But with the additions of transfers Sara Scalia and Sydney Parrish, the improved play of junior Chloe Moore-McNeil, and the surprise of Garzon, the Hoosiers might be better than they were a season ago.
Philippou: I didn’t expect much from the Michigan Wolverines entering the season considering Naz Hillmon was leaving. That said, they are 7-0 heading into Thursday’s game versus the Miami Hurricanes, and just beat a ranked Baylor team (yes, the Bears were without Aijha Blackwell, but still). Emily Kiser and Laila Phelia have stepped up massively for the Wolverines, combining to average 37.7 points per game and individually doubling their scoring averages from last year.
Sure, they might still not be favorites in the Big Ten (see: Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State), but maybe they can still make some noise this season. In addition to taking care of business against the Hurricanes this week, keep an eye on their late December string of games against North Carolina (Dec. 20), Nebraska (Dec. 28) and Ohio State Buckeyes (Dec. 31).
Check out this sweet dime from Olivia Miles
Give us one bold prediction for these games?
Philippou: Iowa and NC State are tight in the rankings, but the Hawkeyes will use the momentum they established last weekend against UConn — arguably their best game this young season — to really take it to the Wolfpack, who still seem to be searching for an identity following so much roster turnover. Iowa will win, showing off its typical offensive prowess and the sort of improvement on the defensive end that gave UConn fits — and it might not be close.
Voepel: It’s too much to say that Sunday’s game against Virginia Tech is make-or-break for Tennessee, because nothing is that monumental this early in the season. However, it’s pretty big. The Lady Vols are 4-4 and need to establish they have learned a lot from the rocky road so far. Otherwise, they might be showing this is really just who they are. A win against the Hokies could mean a lot in terms of their confidence being established or further watered down.
Creme: I should know better than to pick against UConn. No team has impressed me more than the Huskies so far this season. But I am taking Notre Dame to win Sunday. UConn’s schedule is just so tough. Eventually, the Huskies are going to have an off night against one of these elite teams, right? As good as they have been against the Texas Longhorns, NC State and Iowa, this game against the Irish will be their first true road game. Finding that extra gear might just be a bit more difficult away from home. And regardless of which team wins, who isn’t giddy at the idea of seeing Olivia Miles and Azzi Fudd, the two best young guards in the country, on the same court?
Schedule and predictions for each game
Northwestern at Duke, Thursday (5 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
No. 6 North Carolina at No. 5 Indiana, Thursday (6 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network)
Creme: North Carolina
Philippou: North Carolina
No. 20 Maryland at No. 7 Notre Dame, Thursday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Creme: Notre Dame
Philippou: Notre Dame
Voepel: Notre Dame
Nebraska at No. 9 Virginia Tech, Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
Creme: Virginia Tech
Philippou: Virginia Tech
Voepel: Virginia Tech
Florida State at Wisconsin, Thursday (7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network+)
Creme: Florida State
Philippou: Florida State
Voepel: Florida State
Georgia Tech at Michigan State, Thursday (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network)
Creme: Michigan State
Philippou: Georgia Tech
Voepel: Georgia Tech
No. 12 NC State at No. 10 Iowa, Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Creme: NC State
No. 17 Michigan at Miami, Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
No. 9 Virginia Tech at Tennessee (Jimmy V), Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Philippou: Virginia Tech
No. 3 UConn at No. 7 Notre Dame (Jimmy V), Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC)
Creme: Notre Dame