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Women’s college basketball – Get ready for the best day of games in the nonconference season

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With tournaments and events from the Bahamas to Las Vegas, Thanksgiving weekend was stuffed with women’s college basketball and big matchups. Stanford, Maryland, BYU and Oregon State all played multiple games against top 25 teams. Team résumés were enhanced or damaged over just a three-day period.

Yet the schedule gets even better this week as the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and the Big 12/SEC Challenge open. Thursday alone should be the best single day of basketball in the entire nonconference season: a pair of top-15 matchups, the first national TV games for Kara Lawson’s Duke Blue Devils, who face Caitlin Clark and Iowa, and Kim Mulkey’s LSU Tigers, who face Iowa State.

These games can fade from memory once the conference seasons begin, but they become extremely important again once the NCAA tournament selection process is underway. Tournament hopes and seeding can be altered by what happens in the next few days. We get you ready with the players to watch and the games that matter most as four of the five biggest conferences in the country clash over the next five days.

Rank the games that will have the biggest potential to impact Bracketology

No. 2 NC State at No. 6 Indiana
7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN2

This is the marquee matchup of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a rematch from the Sweet 16. The Wolfpack dominated Maryland and Washington State in the Bahamas, just like they have the rest of their competition since the season-opening loss to South Carolina. They are a solid No. 1 seed right now along with South Carolina and UConn. But that fourth spot on the top line is wide open.

Losing to Stanford and struggling to beat Miami were setbacks to Indiana’s résumé, but this is an opportunity for the Hoosiers to get back into the mix. During their matchup in March, Indiana was able to control 6-foot-5 Elissa Cunane, NC State’s All-American center. But the Hoosiers couldn’t handle the size of Stanford on Thanksgiving Day. Their ability to rebound and defend the interior will be important against NC State. It might also be the key to the Hoosiers’ season.

No. 12 Michigan at No. 10 Louisville
7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN

Michigan seems undervalued at No. 12 in the AP poll. The Wolverines have overcome more to be undefeated than any team in the country. They have played most of their seven games without starting guards Amy Dilk and Leigha Brown. Naz Hillmon even missed a game with an illness. Brown is now back and Hillmon is averaging a double-double (21.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG). After wins over Oregon State and Mississippi State at the Daytona Invitational, Michigan could solidly slide into a No. 2 seed if it can win here.

With Liz Dixon and Olivia Cochran, the Cardinals have the size to throw at Hillmon, but could also use some more offensive punch. Louisville averages just 67.8 points per game and needs a marquee win. Kentucky and UConn are the only NCAA tournament-caliber competition left on the schedule before ACC play begins at the end of the month.

No. 15 Texas at No. 17 Texas A&M:
4 p.m. ET Sunday, SEC Network

Within a few years, this will be a conference game when Texas officially moves to the SEC, and we’ll likely get to enjoy it every season. For now, it’s an ultra-important nonconference meeting that should have major seeding ramifications come March. The Aggies are another team that is outplaying what the pollsters are saying. Texas A&M (7-0) is pushing for a No. 2 seed in Bracketology. What the Aggies, who have impressively beaten DePaul and Northwestern, lack is a win as good as the Longhorns’ victory at Stanford.

Texas won’t have as many opportunities for résumé-building wins in the Big 12 as the Aggies will in the SEC, so this game and one against Arizona in Las Vegas on Dec. 19 will go a long way to determining the Longhorns’ seed.

No. 9 Iowa at Duke:
9 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN

The Hawkeyes and Blue Devils should be NCAA tournament-bound, but this is the first opportunity to see either team. Positive COVID-19 tests forced Iowa to cancel three games, including its trip to the Cancun Challenge, so the Hawkeyes (4-0) haven’t played since Nov. 14. Their season is essentially starting over, making them the biggest wild card in either of these intraconference events. The hole in Iowa’s schedule puts added importance on this game with Duke. Next week’s trip to Iowa State is the Hawkeyes’ only other big-time nonconference opportunity.

The early returns of the Kara Lawson era in Durham have been positive. The Blue Devils are unbeaten (6-0). They’ve scored over 90 points twice in six games. Transfers Celeste Taylor, Lexi Gordon and Elizabeth Balogun have quickly formed a veteran nucleus. Yet the level of competition has been underwhelming. That changes against Iowa. With a victory, Duke could get to as high as a No. 6 seed in the next Bracketology and serve notice as to its place in the ACC.

No. 14 Iowa State at LSU:
9 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN2

Seeing Kim Mulkey on the LSU sideline still feels strange after 21 seasons in Baylor, but watching her coach a team to a higher level isn’t. The Tigers, especially on defense, have gotten better since their only loss just over two weeks ago against Florida Gulf Coast. Iowa State will put that improvement to the test. The Cyclones are averaging 82.6 points per game and lead the nation with 87 made 3-pointers.

While this is the first meeting between the two schools, Bill Fennelly, in his 27th season coaching Iowa State, is all too familiar with Mulkey after coaching against her for years in the Big 12 when she was at Baylor. A loss wouldn’t be terribly detrimental to the Cyclones if they were to bounce back and beat Iowa next week, but as a projected bubble team, every game like this looms large for LSU. A win here provides some cushion for the gauntlet that awaits in the SEC. The Tigers open conference play with consecutive games against Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

If I can only watch one game in either challenge, what should it be?

Gary Blair’s announcement that this will be his final season coaching Texas A&M makes the Aggies-Longhorns must-see. Barring a meeting in the NCAA tournament, this will be the last time Blair will coach against former assistant Vic Schaefer. They teamed up to bring Texas A&M its only national championship in 2011. When Schaefer went on to resurrect the Mississippi State program as head coach, the two squared off on opposite sidelines in some epic games in the SEC.

Blair’s offensive schemes against Schaefer’s intense defensive game plans have been fun to watch. Schaefer holds an 8-4 head-to-head advantage over his former boss, but when they met in this same game last season, Schaefer’s first as the Longhorns’ head coach, Blair and the Aggies prevailed 66-61.

Which game has the biggest potential for upset?

Missouri over Baylor (8 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPNU). The Bears have played like they are still adjusting to the new coaching staff, the new style and the new personnel. They haven’t quite jelled yet under Nicki Collen. Last week, Baylor lost to Maryland, which is depleted by injury and illness, and seems vulnerable again against a Tigers team that is improved offensively and seems due for its first big win in a couple of seasons.

Who are the five best players on the court Thursday?

Naz Hillmon, Michigan: Picking up right where she left off last year, Hillmon has four double-doubles and a 30-point game to her credit already. She has been instrumental in helping the Wolverines through the injuries, something that should be remembered when the votes for national player of the year are cast.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa: It feels as though she has some catching up to do because of those missed games for the Hawkeyes, but Clark is still averaging 21.5 points and 6.8 assists; the latter ranks fifth nationally.

Diamond Johnson, NC State: Cunane would be the expected choice for a Wolfpack player on this list, but Johnson was just that good in the Bahamas. Her 17-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist, 4-steal stat line against Maryland was only possibly outdone by the 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 7 rebounds she had against Washington State in a game where each of her teammates struggled. Johnson was projected as a difference-maker for Wes Moore, and she has exceeded those expectations so far.

Ashley Joens, Iowa State: As per usual, Joens is quietly going about her business and putting up big numbers (20.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG). Her shooting percentage is down slightly, but Joens is also getting more help, most notably from her younger sister. Sophomore Aubrey Joens has nearly tripled her scoring average (13.4 PPG) from a season ago and has made 27 3-pointers.

Veronica Burton, Northwestern: One of the country’s more underappreciated players, Burton is also one of its more productive. She is averaging 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year also tops the nation in steals, and she throws in one block per game for good measure.

Who are five under-the-radar players we should be sure to watch?

Danielle Rauch, Michigan: The numbers (8.1 PPG, 2.6 APG) won’t wow anyone, but the leadership should. When Dilk went down with a leg injury in the season opener, Rauch stepped in as the Wolverines’ primary point guard. Her minutes per game average has doubled from a season ago, and Michigan hasn’t missed a beat.

Jada Boyd, NC State: Boyd’s return from a hand injury seemed to give the Wolfpack that extra boost in the Bahamas. She also gives Moore another athletic wing to align with Kayla Jones and Jakia Brown-Turner to form more lineup options.

Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State: The Buckeyes needed even more production from Sheldon once backcourt mate Madison Greene was lost for the season with a knee injury. She’s averaging 19 points per game and shooting better than 60% from the field. Ohio State remains unbeaten heading into its Wednesday meeting with Syracuse.

Aijha Blackwell, Missouri: If the Tigers return to the NCAA tournament after a one-season absence, Blackwell will be leading the way. A ferocious rebounder at just 6-0 (11.7 RPG), Blackwell remains a consistent scorer (16.6 PPG) who is more efficient so far this season.

Taylor Soule, Boston College: The Eagles against Penn State won’t get much attention amongst the rest of the schedule, but Soule is worth the time. She’s averaging 19.0 points per game, and as an undersized 5-11 forward, she leads the ACC with 66.7% shooting from the field.