Pac-12 Feature: Key women's basketball matchups highlight the start of 2016-17

The 2016-17 has arrived. And it has got a lot to live up to.

Last season was a breakthrough for Pac-12 women’s basketball. National recognition, highly ranked teams, the nation’s best RPI, an extremely competitive conference season, and the culmination…a record-setting NCAA Tournament that concluded with two teams in the Final Four for the first time ever.

What to do for an encore, you ask? Take another step forward.

The Pac-12 is already being regarded as one of the toughest in the country from top to bottom. And the teams in this conference know well, you are who you play.

With exhibition games in the bank, the season truly starts this weekend with marquee-heavy matchups that will be measuring sticks for what’s to come.

With the non-conference schedule starting in just days, let’s take a look at the 10 best non-conference games on the Pac-12 schedule in the next eight weeks.

Monday, November 14
UCLA at Baylor.
The Bruins are picked to win the Pac-12 title and they will open their road schedule with one of the most difficult tricks in women’s basketball…winning in Waco. The game will pit two of the nation’s best individual players in Bruin point guard Jordin Canada and Bears forward Nina Davis. Canada kicked off her season last weekend with a 15-point, five assist, five-steal effort against Westmont in UCLA’s lone exhibition game.

The Bears have four returning starters, including Davis and redshirt senior guard Alexis Jones and are picked to win the Big 12.

Texas at Stanford.
The Cardinal aren’t the Pac-12 favorite, but they are still one of the nation’s elite teams with one of its elite players in forward Erica McCall. McCall, a first-team all-conference selection last season, averaged more than 20 points per game over the last 10 games of the season, which included a run to the Elite Eight.

After opening against Cal Poly, Stanford is going to test itself against eighth-ranked Texas on national television.

The Longhorns’ experience is in the backcourt with guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty. The Cardinal will counter with their own veteran group, including McCall, Kaylee Johnson and Karlie Samuelson.

November 20
Oklahoma State at Washington State.
The Cougars, with four returning starters on the floor, including guard Borislava Hristova, have an early-season matchup against one of the traditional powers from the Big 12.

The Cowgirls, who have made four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, travel to Pullman for the first time ever with seven new players on the roster under head coach Jim Littell.

November 25
Maryland vs Arizona State, Las Vegas.
This game will be at the top of the highlight reel of Thanksgiving tournament matchups. Maryland, ranked No. 6 to open the national AP poll and favored to win the Big Ten, will take on an Arizona State team that has one of the country’s best frontcourts with Kelsey Moore and Sophie Brunner.

The Terrapins are led by forward Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and senior center Brionna Jones, making this a greatly anticipated battle in the post.

Oregon vs. Mississippi State.
The new-look Ducks, coming off 24 wins last season and a long run in the WNIT, will take on Mississippi State in Hawai’i during Thanksgiving week, a big challenge for Oregon, facing the team that was picked to finish second in the SEC.

The Bulldogs return all five starters from a team that won a program-best 28 games in 2015-16 before falling to UConn in the Sweet 16.

Oregon, in the third season under Kelly Graves, graduated six seniors last year, but bring in seven freshmen that make up the nation’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class. The Ducks will have three starters back on the floor, including guards Lexi Bando and Maite Carzola.

December 4
Cal at Nebraska.
The Bears bring back sophomore center Kristine Anigwe, who was the national freshman of the year after averaging 20.3 points and 8.9 rebounds in her debut season, and juniors Courtney Range and Mikayla Cowling. Those three veterans will anchor a team that believes it is better than the sixth-place finish that’s been predicted for them in the Pac-12 race. Cal is looking to shoot and defend better than it did a year ago, and a trip to Lincoln will be a very good measuring stick.

Nebraska, playing their first season under head coach Amy Williams, will be defending their home court in this matchup, looking to avenge last year’s 87-80 win by Cal in overtime.

December 10
BYU at Utah.
Coming off the program’s first postseason appearance in three years under new head coach Lynne Roberts, the Utes will host in-state rival BYU. Utah is 31-12 all-time against BYU on its home court. The Cougars are buoyed by senior Kalani Purcell, the New Zealand native who dominated the West Coast Conference last season and pulled down 12.6 rebounds a game.

The Utes have four starters back on the floor, including junior center Emily Potter, senior forward Paige Crozon, junior Malia Nawahine and junior Tanaeya Boclair.

December 11
Arizona State at Kentucky. 
The Sun Devils will travel to Lexington to take on the 19th-ranked Wildcats, who defeated ASU in the season opener in Tempe, 78-74. Kentucky reached the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight season last spring and advanced to the Sweet 16.

December 18
Stanford at Tennessee.
These two legendary programs renew their annual non-conference matchup for the 28th year in a row. The Cardinal, who have won five of the last seven games in this series, will get an up-close look at Diamond deShields, the Vols talented wing. Tara VanDerveer, by the way, is 20 wins away from joining Pat Summitt as the only coaches in women’s basketball history to win 1,000 games.

UCLA at South Carolina.
With the conference season fast approaching after Christmas, UCLA will find out where it stands with this tough road game against Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks. South Carolina features two of the best posts in the country in A’ja Wilson, considered by many a preseason player of the year candidate, and senior Alaina Coates.

South Carolina defeated UCLA 68-65 at Pauley last year, the Bruins’ only home loss of the season.


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