Michelle Smith WBB Feature: 12 Pac-12 non-conference games to watch

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And so it begins. The 2019-2020 women’s basketball season promises to be a thrilling one for the Pac-12, widely regarded as the top conference in the country this season with depth, experience, individual talent and a handful of teams with their eyes on a Final Four prize in New Orleans come April.

The league begins the season with three teams ranked in the top 10 nationally, including top-ranked Oregon, the Ducks’ first time as the No. 1 team in the country. The last time the Pac-12 had a top-ranked team to start the season was when Stanford opened the 1996-97 season at No. 1. Stanford comes in at No. 3 with Oregon State at No. 7, UCLA at No. 11 and Arizona State at No. 20.

“I think we're going to have eight teams vying to be in the NCAA Tournament and maybe more than that,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close. “I think that truly the depth of the conference -- if you go along any other conference and you look at what are the differentiators, the top -- there's a lot of really good teams in the top of the other Power Five conferences, but I don't think anybody has the depth from top to bottom all the way through that we do.”

Both Oregon and Stanford return four starters from teams that made long NCAA Tournament runs a season ago, the Ducks reaching the NCAA Women's Final Four for the first time. Sabrina Ionescu, the reigning Wade Trophy and John Wooden Award winner, is back for her final season in Eugene. Oregon State and UCLA return veteran talent at key positions, while Arizona State returns to its defensive roots to threaten the top of the pack. 

Arizona is looking for a breakout year after winning the WNIT last spring, while Washington hopes to build off its unexpected run to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal.

Washington State coach Kammie Ethridge, in her second season in Pullman, summed up how difficult it is to compete in this conference.

“You're playing at the highest level, and it doesn't matter who you're playing in this league, there are fantastic coaches, established coaches that have their culture built,” Ethridge said. “You've got all different styles of play in this league. I think going through it helps. It gives us a better indication of what we need to do and how we need to prepare and be better prepared as we go into it. But it was no surprise, and it is no surprise, to walk out and play against these kinds of coaches and established programs that really will put their great team on the floor every single night.”

It all starts with the opening of preseason play.

What games should fans be watching closely during the opening weeks of the season? Which opponents will provide a challenge and a barometer?

Here is a list of the top 12 games of the preseason schedule.

November 10
California at Connecticut. This game is going to be a tough challenge for the rebuilding Bears and new head coach Charmin Smith. This matchup marks the third game in a four-year home-and-home between Cal and UConn. This is a UConn team with its own remodel going on following the departure of All-Americans Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson and the young Bears, led by seniors Jaelyn Brown and C.J. West,, are going to find out a lot about themselves and determine just how far away they are from one of the elite teams in the country.

November 17
Arizona at Texas. The Wildcats, still basking in a WNIT title from last spring that excited the entire Tucson community about the team’s prospects this season, get a very early test here against one of the country’s top teams on the Longhorns’ home floor in Austin. Arizona’s first matchup against Texas since 1993, this will be Wildcats’ only ranked opponent in the preseason. Aari McDonald, the nation’s leading returning scorer, will have a chance on a big stage, to put herself into the conversation about the nation’s best individual scorers, and sophomore Cate Reese will have a chance to showcase the jump she’s made since her stellar debut season.

Arizona State at Minnesota. A Sun Devils’ team with an experienced backcourt of Robbi Ryan and Reili Richardson will face a team coached by one of the best point guards of all time in Lindsay Whalen. Whalen is in her second season as the Gophers’ head coach and she has already vaulted her alma mater to the national preseason rankings. She returns three starters with an eye on reaching the NCAA Tournament after last year’s WNIT appearance in her debut season. These two teams have met only once in their history and not since 1982.

November 24
Oregon at Syracuse. The favored Ducks will still be integrating some of their new players when they take their offensive show on the road heading into the holiday week, trekking across the country to face Syracuse, a team that has reached the NCAA Tournament in seven straight seasons. The Orange looked to return four starters from a 25-9 team a season ago, but point guard and leading scorer Tiana Mangakahia was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. Oregon will remember last season’s road loss at Michigan State and want to avoid a repeat of that kind of early-season setback.

November 28
Washington State vs. Baylor, U.S. Virgin Islands. Thanksgiving week is going to present the biggest challenge of the preseason for the Cougars, facing the defending national champion Bears. Baylor returns All-American Lauren Cox, and the backcourt of Juicy Landrum and Chloe Jackson. WSU’s veteran scorer Borislava Hristova and senior guard Chanelle Molina have a chance to impress in a high-profile matchup. These two teams have faced each other only twice, the last time was in 2003.

November 29
Oregon State at Miami (Fla.). After opening the season in the Preseason WNIT, the Beavers cross the country during the holiday week to face the Hurricanes in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament. Miami’s roster features one of the nation’s top post players in Beatrice Mompreimer. That will make for an interesting matchup inside with Beavers’ 6-6 freshman Kennedy Brown, who is expected to see significant minutes early.

South Carolina at Washington State. The Gamecocks, who have the No. 1-rated freshman class in the country, come to Pullman for the first time ever as the Cougars continue the toughest preseason slate in the conference. These two teams have not played one another since 2003, the Cougars falling in Waco.

November 30
Oregon vs. Louisville, Virgin Islands. The Ducks’ toughest challenge of the preseason comes against the Cardinals, who reached the Elite Eight last season before falling to UConn, and it will be a great barometer of the team’s progress playing together. The Cardinals, who have won two straight games against the Ducks, are retooling after the graduation of star Asia Durr, and will rely on depth and a strong transition game led by point guard Dana Evans.

December 16
Ohio State at Stanford. The Cardinal begin their toughest stretch of the preseason schedule with a home game against the Buckeyes, who hold a 3-1 advantage over Stanford in the all-time series. Ohio State has seven freshmen and eight newcomers on the roster, and will face a veteran Stanford team with depth and versatility, along with an infusion of top-flight young talent such as freshmen Haley Jones and Francesca Belibi. Stanford was scheduled to play Ohio State last year but the game was cancelled due to the poor air quality in the Bay Area from the wildfires that spread throughout the area. 

December 18
Tennessee at Stanford. The 32nd annual meeting between these two national powerhouses has something of a different flavor this season with new Lady Vols’ head coach Kellie Harper, who played in four games against Tara VanDerveer’s squad as a player. Tennessee is coming off a tough season in which they didn’t win 20 games for the first time in the program’s modern history. Rennia Davis returns as the leading scorer and rebounder at 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.

December 19
UCLA at Georgia. One of the Bruins’ biggest wins of the non-conference schedule game last year at home against the Bulldogs and now they travel to Athens a more experienced team, prepared to come away with another signature win against a SEC foe.

December 22
Stanford at Texas. The Cardinal have won two in a row against the Longhorns, but haven’t won in Austin since 2013. Bringing four returning starters and 11 returning letterwinners certainly improves their prospects. Six-foot-three Joyner Holmes is Texas’ go-to scoring option on a team with three returning starters, picked to finish second in the Big 12 behind Baylor.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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