Michelle Smith: Pac-12 women's basketball nonconference games to watch
The 2021-22 season has tipped off and Pac-12 teams have begun to build their resumes under circumstances that feel much more familiar than last year’s COVID-19 related disruptions.
Part of that resume-building process is challenging your team with a nonconference schedule that serves as a barometer for your progress as a program. Simply put, teams will need to play (and win) games that will get them ready for the Pac-12 and beyond.
The nonconference schedule is full of intriguing matchups and some downright heavyweight battles and we wanted to share a list of the top games before the start of the Pac-12 slate that will keep fans glued to their screens and their seats. While these matchups are all before the calendar flips to 2022, not to be overlooked is a massive date between Oregon and Connecticut at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, which is tucked into the middle of the Conference schedule on Monday, Jan. 17.
No. 22 Arizona vs. No. 6 Louisville // November 12
Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational // Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Wildcats, still basking in their first-ever run to the national championship game last spring, will get an immediate sense of how they move forward without star guard Aari McDonald in a challenging matchup against the Cardinals, a perennial national power. Arizona has faced Louisville only twice and not since the 2000 season. Louisville, which won its fourth consecutive ACC title last season, returns six players who made starts last season, including redshirt senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Haley Van Lith, who was selected to the conference’s preseason All-Conference team.
No. 10 Oregon vs. No. 1 South Carolina // November 21
Battle 4 Atlantis // Paradise Island, Bahamas
The Ducks open the Battle 4 Atlantis with Oklahoma on Nov. 20 and South Carolina starts with Buffalo, but wins by both would set up a top-10 tilt on the tournament's second day. The Ducks, with six new players on the roster (four transfers and two freshmen), could also face Connecticut depending on how the bracket shakes out. Injuries are already impacting Oregon in the early going, with point guard Te-Hina Paopao and USC transfer Endiya Rogers sidelined to start. The Ducks would lean heavily on the frontcourt duo of Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince to matchup with Gamecocks’ All-American Aliyah Boston.
Arizona State vs. No. 7 Baylor // November 26
Cancun Challenge // Cancun, Mexico
The Sun Devils will get a chance to test themselves against a nationally elite team in transition in the Bears. Arizona State, led by senior guard Taya Hanson and sophomore guard Jaddan Simmons, is coming off its worst season since 2013 and is picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12, but is hoping for big contributions from senior transfer Jade Loville, who was second in the Mountain West in scoring last season (17.3 ppg) while at Boise State. Baylor, which has won 11 consecutive Big 12 titles, is retooling after longtime head coach Kim Mulkey moved on to LSU, but returns one of the country’s top players in senior NaLysaa Smith. ASU is all-time 0-3 against Baylor, their last matchup in 2018.
USC vs. No. 9 Iowa // November 26
Cancun Challenge // Cancun, Mexico
The Lindsay Gottlieb era at USC will see its first big marking point in a matchup against Iowa, which boasts one of the nation’s best young players in sophomore guard Caitlin Clark, who led the nation in points, assists, field goals and 3-pointers made in her debut season. The Trojans, who finished eighth in the Pac-12 last season, return four starters from last year’s team, including junior forward Alissa Pili and sophomore Jordyn Jenkins, and also bring aboard five newcomers, allowing Gottlieb to put her stamp on the program early.
No. 14 Oregon State vs. No. 11 Michigan // November 26
Daytona Beach Invitational // Daytona Beach Florida
The Beavers will have a challenging weekend in Daytona, with this important matchup against the Wolverines as well as a game against Notre Dame. But it is Michigan with the higher national profile at the moment, the program led by five seniors, including Naz Hillmon, looking to win its first-ever Big Ten title. Oregon State, meanwhile, looks positioned to remain in the top tier of Pac-12 teams with the return of Taylor Jones, Talia von Oelhoffen, Kennedy Brown and Taya Corosdale, the nucleus of a team that won nine of its final 12 games last season after a difficult start. The Beavers have been picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 and this game will likely be their lone nonconference matchup against a ranked opponent.
Washington State vs. No. 5 North Carolina State // November 27
Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship // Nassau, Bahamas
A Cougars team that made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 30 years last spring, is looking for more this season and a challenging game against the Wolfpack in Nassau will definitely be a barometer of their progress. Washington State is returning its entire starting lineup, which includes the immensely talented scoring duo of Krystal and Charlisse Leger-Walker. Charlisse was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season after averaging 18.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. NC State, the preseason pick to win the ACC who fell to No. 1 South Carolina in Tuesday’s season opener, is led by senior post Elissa Cunane, a WBCA All-American who averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds last season.
No. 3 Stanford vs. No. 4 Maryland // November 27
Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship // Nassau, Bahamas
This tournament is going to be a gauntlet for the defending NCAA champs with games against No. 8 Indiana, No. 21 South Florida and then finally the Terrapins, who are considered among the top title contenders heading into the season. Stanford returns four of its five starters, minus point guard Kiana Williams, and will be led by junior wing Haley Jones, senior guard Lexie Hull and sophomore post Cameron Brink. Sixth-year senior Anna Wilson, one of the top defenders in the nation, is also back on the floor. Maryland has all of its starters back, including leading scorer Ashley Owusu and All-Big Ten junior Diamond Miller, and was the top scoring team in the NCAA a season ago. This is going to be one to watch.
No. 20 UCLA vs. No. 2 Connecticut // December 11
Never Forget Tribute Classic // Newark, N.J.
The Bruins, who have faced Connecticut three times in the last four years (including NCAA Tournament matchups in 2017 and 2019) and have never beaten the national powerhouse, will travel to the East Coast for the biggest game of their nonconference schedule and the first regular season women’s college basketball game on ABC to boot. It’s a roster makeover for the Bruins, with eight new faces and the return of all-conference guard Charisma Osborne, the junior who averaged career-highs in points (17.0) and assists (3.8) as a sophomore, and guard Natalie Chou. Four transfers are in a position to make an immediate impact, but guard Gina Conti and Angela Dugalic both open the season with injuries. Connecticut, meanwhile, is loaded, led by National Player of the Year, sophomore Paige Bueckers, as well as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Azzi Fudd.
No. 3 Stanford at No. 15 Tennessee // December 18
The annual meeting - 38th overall - between these two storied programs will be a pre-holiday-break check for both teams with the conference schedule bearing down and a warmup for Stanford’s epic battle against South Carolina two days later. The Cardinal will have already probably four of five ranked opponents and should be battle tested and ready to compete in Knoxville. Tennessee, in its third season under head coach Kellie Harper, has four freshmen, a transfer and three returning starters from which to build a team looking to finish near the top of the SEC. Wing Rae Burrell is back after averaging 16.8 points a game last season. But the Cardinal, who has won three of the last five games in this series and two in a row, will definitely have the edge in experience here.
No. 22 Arizona vs. No. 25 Texas // December 19
Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge // Las Vegas, Nev.
After having the planned 2020 quadrupleheader canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference will launch the Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge in 2021 – a unique non-conference scheduling event designed to provide opportunities for its programs against quality opponents in marquee markets around the country. This matchup at at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas before the holiday break will give the Wildcats a much better sense of who they are and who their playmakers will be. Bet on fifth-year senior Sam Thomas and senior Cate Reese to be on that short list along with Oregon transfer Taylor Chavez. Adia Barnes has already said this might be the deepest team she’s ever coached. It will be great to see that depth on display with Pac-12 play around the corner. Two years ago, it was an 83-58 win over then-No. 21 Texas that proved to be something of a coming out party for the Wildcats. Now it’s a challenge that could propel either team further up the rankings with a good win under their belt.
No. 17 Ohio State at No. 20 UCLA // December 19
This is turning out to be a big day for important nonconference matchups in the Pac-12, the kind that can define a league’s NCAA prospects. The Bruins will look to be healthier and more cohesive as a team by the time they face the Buckeyes, who will be playing this season without projected starting point guard Madison Greene, lost for the season earlier this week with a knee injury. The Bruins will see a familiar face in Oregon transfer Taylor Mikesell on the OSU roster. Ohio State was unable to participate in last spring’s NCAA Tournament, a self-imposed penalty connected to recruiting violations by a former assistant coach. OSU will be motivated to get back to national prominence this season.
No. 3 Stanford at No. 1 South Carolina // December 21
A true gift to women’s basketball fans, a rematch of the dramatic national semifinal game between the Cardinal and the Gamecocks, two experienced, talent-loaded teams with two of the best coaches in the game in Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley. By the time Stanford gets to South Carolina, on the cusp of the Pac-12 schedule, it will likely have faced six ranked opponents with only one of those games on their home floor. This will be a challenge of the highest order from a team that is looking to do something no team has done since 2016 (when Connecticut won four in a row) and repeat as national champions.