The Thanksgiving holiday tournaments shook up the rankings and provided the welcome boost of a few upsets. This week, conference bragging rights are on the line in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and longtime foes UConn and Notre Dame meet again in a game that likely will lack the usual high stakes after the Fighting Irish fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 12 years. Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel break it all down and make game picks in this week’s roundtable.
1. Who are your top two teams in the country after last weekend’s upsets?
Graham Hays: You could take at least the top seven in the AP poll and come up with a defensible top two no matter which teams you pick — with the added benefit of a top two guaranteed to infuriate a majority of the country. Give me Louisville and South Carolina. The Cardinals played solid mid-major opponents early, but the credential that matters is obviously the win against Oregon that showed off Louisville’s balance and defensive versatility. In South Carolina’s case, this puts the Gamecocks ahead of several unbeaten teams. But no other team has two wins as impressive as Maryland on the road and Baylor on a neutral court (admittedly without Lauren Cox). The Cardinals and Gamecocks top my hypothetical ballot. But that said, I still think Oregon is the best team in the country. It just isn’t ranked that way at the moment.
Charlie Creme: I’m going with Oregon State and Louisville as my Nos. 1 and 2. As Graham stated, the Cardinals get here largely by virtue of their win over Oregon. No one has produced a better one-game result. But frankly, I can’t understand how the Beavers are ranked only fifth in the latest AP poll. Their collection of wins over DePaul, Missouri State and Miami are impressive, not just in the quality of opponent (yes, Missouri State is very good) but also in the margin of victory. Oregon State has beaten all of its opposition by double figures and — say what you want about early-season metrics — owns the No. 1 schedule in the country. I could handle an argument that says the Beavers aren’t quite the top team in the country. I can’t accept one that lists them fifth.
Mechelle Voepel: I voted for Stanford and Oregon State in the AP poll. But like Graham said, you can easily make a case for other teams, especially Louisville and South Carolina taking the place of Oregon and Baylor atop the poll this week. But Stanford is still undefeated and beat ranked teams Syracuse and Mississippi State this past weekend (despite the near-nightmare against Cal Baptist). DiJonai Carrington didn’t play because of injury, and her backcourt mate, Kiana Williams, fell late against the Bulldogs, left the game and was seen icing her knee. The word from Stanford is that she’s doing fine, and it doesn’t appear to be anything serious. The Cardinal don’t play again until Dec. 15, so both have time to get some rest and healing. As for Oregon State, I like its chemistry, and Charlie makes a good case about their success so far with a good schedule.
2. Notre Dame-UConn has been the game’s greatest rivalry in recent seasons. With the Irish falling out of the Top 25, what do you expect from Sunday’s game (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET)?
Graham Hays: A steep learning curve for Notre Dame. After UConn beat her team recently, Dayton coach Shauna Green recounted her players talking about how relentless the Huskies were in setting picks every time down the floor. It’s one of those things opponents don’t understand until they’re on the court — and then it’s too late. Notre Dame has been a brilliant foil for UConn because there were no such surprises. The Fighting Irish might lose, but from Skylar Diggins to Arike Ogunbowale, they were the one team you could count on to not be intimidated or caught off-guard by the Huskies. Almost none of that institutional memory remains on the court; this will be a new experience for most of Notre Dame’s players. That typically doesn’t end well.
Mechelle Voepel: Coaches talk about learning game to game, but realistically that doesn’t always happen. With this Notre Dame squad, though, it’s true. Among the Irish’s top four scorers, one is a sophomore (Katlyn Gilbert), two are freshmen (Anaya People and Sam Brunelle), and the other is a graduate transfer from North Carolina (Destinee Walker). The Irish have some players new to college basketball, some new to the roles they’re in and most new to each other. A program known for its great execution isn’t so good at that right now.
The Irish also uncharacteristically are getting clobbered on the boards; their opponents are averaging 44.9 rebounds per game to Notre Dame’s 35.3. What are two ways UConn typically overwhelms foes? With execution and rebounding. All that said, Irish coach Muffet McGraw loves practice. She loves tinkering. The Irish need a lot of both. No one is expecting them to beat UConn; this isn’t one of those “marquee showdown” games the Irish and Huskies have played before. But Notre Dame won’t just roll over, and UConn knows that. The Huskies might not be facing the kind of threat that Notre Dame usually brings, but they’re trying to improve game-to-game, too, as they fully settle into the fact that there are no Napheesa Collier drives to the basket or Katie Lou Samuelson 3-pointers to lean on anymore. UConn has some big-picture growth to do in this game, too.
Charlie Creme: I expect it to be fairly one-sided. Notre Dame doesn’t have the roster to compete with what UConn puts on the floor right now. The Huskies lack depth, which could be a problem later in the season, but it won’t be Sunday. The four best players in the game will be wearing blue and white. Even with the best UConn teams of recent vintage, that couldn’t be said. Eventually, the Irish will be fine, but it might not be this season, let alone this weekend.
3. What are your final takeaways from the Thanksgiving tournaments?
Charlie Creme: The tournaments illustrated the vulnerability of all of the top teams. That South Carolina can lose to Indiana and then beat Baylor in a microcosm shows that we are in for a wild ride in the top five all season. In its tournament, Stanford had to sweat out a game against Cal Baptist (which is competing in Division I for the second season) but was also capable of beating Mississippi State. I’m not ready to start throwing around the now-clichéd “parity” description, but we have more balance in the game. Often heading into November we already have some forgone conclusions. None of those exist right now.
Graham Hays: Indiana warmed up for this with a 24-point win at Florida just before Thanksgiving week. But the Paradise Jam win against South Carolina, in which the Hoosiers withstood a slow start out of halftime to outscore the Gamecocks 24-6 in the final quarter, was the attention-grabber. After an understandable loss to Baylor less than 24 hours later, it was significant that Indiana went out and routed Washington State by 34 points to finish three games in three days.
Mechelle Voepel: Understandably, most of the attention from the holiday tournaments focused on highly ranked teams that battled each other. But among the unranked teams, North Carolina, in its first year under coach Courtney Banghart, is 6-0 after Cancun Challenge wins over Temple and Missouri. The Tar Heels’ schedule hasn’t been that challenging, though, and probably won’t be until ACC play. Even then, they open with three opponents picked below them in the ACC preseason poll. Things become more difficult starting with NC State on Jan. 9, as UNC will play four consecutive teams currently ranked in the Top 25. That stretch will really tell us about North Carolina.
Then there’s LSU, which is 6-1, with its only loss to a good Florida State squad in early November. The Tigers upset then-No. 15 Michigan State and defeated Memphis at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. LSU missed the NCAA tournament last season, going 16-13, and the Tigers are looking for a bounce . One upcoming nonconference test will be interesting: On Dec. 19, LSU travels to perennially strong mid-major Florida Gulf Coast (8-1), which got victories over Notre Dame, South Florida and South Dakota State at the Cancun Challenge.
4. Lauren Cox has missed six of Baylor’s first eight games because of a foot injury. Considering that Cox was the unanimous No. 2 pick in our top-25 player rankings, who is now most likely to challenge Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu for national player of the year?
Graham Hays: Oregon State’s Mikayla Pivec. What better way to challenge the preseason favorite than by facing her at least twice? Oregon State is going to have to be at least as good as its current No. 5 ranking suggests for Pivec’s candidacy to pick up steam, but what she’s doing is hardly less remarkable than all those triple-doubles down the road in Eugene. As of Tuesday, Pivec ranked 12th in the nation in assists per game (6.3) and 26th in rebounds per game (10.6). It goes without saying that she doesn’t have any company in that particular combination. She’s also Oregon State’s leading scorer. If the Beavers win the highly competitive Pac-12, perhaps even beating the Ducks along the way, there is a path there to player of the year.
Charlie Creme: Sabrina Ionescu’s Oregon teammate, classmate and close friend, Ruthy Hebard, is having another season that matches her on-court demeanor — quiet and unassuming but lethal. She leads Oregon in scoring at 19.7 points per game, is fifth in the country in rebounds (12.3) and is fourth in field goal accuracy (72.6%). If the Ducks have the season most expect they will, and especially if they topple all of the difficult opposition in the Pac-12, the player of the year battle might reside exclusively in Eugene.
Mechelle Voepel: This seems like a season that’s more about several really good teams than several superstar players. There are some youngsters out there who might become superstars — thinking of Stanford and South Carolina, specifically — but they need some time. Right now, I lean toward Pivec, too. We knew she would have a very good senior year, but she has come out of the gate even stronger than expected. Her work on the board so far has really stood out. She impacts every aspect of the game.
5. Texas-Tennessee is one of the oldest series in women’s college basketball. How relevant is this game this season?
Charlie Creme: This is a chance for Texas to save a sinking season. The recent trip to Hawaii for a Thanksgiving holiday tournament was telling, if not disastrous. The Longhorns lost to NC State and host Hawaii and just slipped by North Texas. They need an injection of confidence and to showcase that the whole can at least closely resemble the sum of the parts. A win over a seemingly improved Tennessee team might do the trick. The Lady Vols look improved under Kellie Harper but need to demonstrate it against a higher level of competition.
Graham Hays: Unfortunately, the luster is off the Texas-Tennessee series after a brief resurgence produced some high-stakes games in recent seasons. Texas is better than a .500 team, but it hasn’t beaten anyone better than North Texas to get to 4-4 — and it hasn’t beaten anyone at all in a true road game. As Charlie notes, that makes it close to a must-win for Texas and a no-win for Tennessee, which either beats a team that then has a losing record or loses to a rebuilding rival. The game is relevant, but only as a sort of a play-in game for continued relevance this season.
Mechelle Voepel: You have to wonder if things seem more than a little desperate for Texas after such a rough start, and can the Longhorns channel that into an upset? Can post players Joyner Holmes and Charli Collier establish a strong presence in the paint? It might seem harsh, but Texas has to make an upward move soon to gain some confidence.
6. What game are you most looking forward to in the Big 12/SEC Challenge or Big Ten/ACC Challenge?
Charlie Creme: Seeing NC State in a truly meaningful game makes the Wolfpack’s meeting with Maryland on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) most intriguing. NC State is off to another great start but needs an upgrade in competition to seem as impressive as last season. The Terrapins are also something of a mystery, given their recent dominance but struggles to start the season. Elissa Cunane, NC State’s 6-foot-5 sophomore center, is off to a terrific start (14.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 63.2 field goal percentage), but she will get a much bigger challenge with the size inside of Maryland’s 6-foot-5 Shakira Austin and 6-foot-2 Stephanie Jones. That matchup alone is worth watching.
Graham Hays: I’m also looking forward to Minnesota and Notre Dame on Wednesday (ACC Network, 7 p.m. ET). Minnesota’s opening loss to Missouri State carries less and less stigma by the day as the MVC team thrives, and a subsequent win against Arizona State was a nice prize. Maybe the Gophers are as good as advertised in Lindsay Whalen’s second season. Winning in South Bend wouldn’t be as significant this year as in most years, but it’s still Notre Dame, and it’s still Minnesota’s first trip away from home this season.
Mechelle Voepel: Florida State often seems to slip under the radar a bit, but the Seminoles already have a dominant win over then-No. 6 Texas A&M, and they have another shot against a ranked team when they host Michigan State on Thursday (ACC Network, 8 p.m. ET). Florida State’s experience — with senior guards Nausia Woolfolk and Nicki Ekhomu and redshirt senior forward Kiah Gillespie — makes the Seminoles one of the ACC favorites.
ESPN.com expert picks for this week’s top games
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