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NCAAW what to watch: Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 conference play begins

Cassandra Negley
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Indiana forward Brenna Wise will look to put her team in the early conference win column before the new year. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

It’s the season of conference play and it kicks off in force this weekend with a matchup of ranked squads in the Big Ten and highlight games in the ACC and Pac-12.

For the full schedule, including results, click here.

Michigan State (7-4) at No. 14 Indiana (10-2)

Saturday, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Big Ten is coming off a solid non-conference schedule as a whole. Every team in the conference has a winning record for the first time since 2013-14, the season before Maryland and Rutgers joined. There are nine teams with two losses or fewer, including three of the four teams featured on the Big Ten Network doubleheader Saturday.

Two of the Spartans’ four losses are to ranked teams (No. 8 Florida State, No. 22 West Virginia) and a third came to another ACC team in Syracuse, which is stronger than its own record suggests as its also had a high caliber non-conference schedule.

Michigan State is top 50 in scoring offense (T-46, 74.9 points per game) and its defense has kept opponents to 58.6 points per game (T-73rd). The Spartans do it with a team effort, starting five different lineups this season and spreading around the rebounds and steals. In 11 games, they’ve reached double-digit steals in nine of them. The two times they missed were in losses to Syracuse and West Virginia.

Senior guard Taryn McCutcheon is six points away from 1,000 career points and will become the 28th player in program history to reach the mark. Earlier this month she became the second player in program history to reach 500 career assists. Her 507 currently sits 67 short of tying the all-time record set by assistant coach Kristin Haynie.

Indiana closed its non-conference schedule with a 10-point loss to No. 10 UCLA, but isn’t sweating it given big victories over South Carolina and Miami. The offense struggled against the Bruins and they shot 34.5 percent from the field.

"We can take a ton of positives from this," forward Brenna Wise said, via iuhoosiers.com. "We have so much room for growth. We're nowhere near our potential. This was a great prep sending us into the Big Ten. We feel very confident going into the Big Ten. We've been tested."

Freshman Mackenzie Holmes continues to shine for the Hoosiers, ranking second in field goal percentage (69.8 percent). She’s averaging 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game with a team-high 18 blocks.

No. 23 Michigan (9-2) at No. 12 Maryland (9-2)

Saturday, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network

Maryland, the defending champion, is still the favorite in the conference, even if it has not played as well as expected. The Terrapins sputtered against South Carolina and N.C. State, its two losses, and could easily find itself upset in the conference opener at home.

Michigan is coming off a loss to No. 8 Florida State and is still looking for its first win against a ranked opponent. The Wolverines rank 29th in field goal percentage (45.6 percent) and rely heavily on getting points inside the arc. Naz Hillmon averages 14.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. She and Maryland’s Taylor Mikesell split the 2018-19 freshman of the year honors.

It would be Michigan’s first-ever win at Crisler Center.

Maryland has had strong scoring from around the roster, with five players averaging double-figures. They’re averaging 88.0 points per game (fifth) on 48.4 percent shooting (seventh).

The strongest part of the Terps’ game is its 3-point shooting. They hit 42.20 percent of their shots (95 of 225), second-best in the country. Blair Watson is shooting 49.1 percent (28 of 57) from behind the arc, ninth best in the nation, and Mikesell is shooting 47.3 percent (35 of 74), good for 14th.

Louisville forward Kylee Shook blocks the shot of Syracuse guard Emily Engstler last season. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Syracuse (6-5) at No. 7 Louisville (11-1)

Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN2

Syracuse has an uphill battle in the ACC, but has had the non-conference schedule from which to build. The Orange will get a big test in the conference opener with No. 7 Louisville, the highest ranked of the four ACC teams in the Associated Press Top 25.

Louisville is 11-6 all-time versus Syracuse, and has lost at home against them only once (2010). Kylee Shook became Louisville’s all-time block leader the last game out, surpassing Angel McCoughtry’s 162 set from 2006 to 2009. The senior currently sits at 167, with 30 through 12 games this year. She’s nearly averaging a double-double of 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

In last season’s match-up with Syracuse — one that featured very different squads on both sides — Shook had 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. She’ll be up against sophomore Emily Engstler, who averages 9.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. She has 21 total blocks to lead Syracuse.

The Orange’s Kiara Lewis had a team-high 13 points in that loss last year and will be relied on heavily again. Her 16.9 points and 5.6 assists are team highs, but the Orange will need to find their shot from deep going forward. They average a conference-high 332 attempts from behind the arc and their 97 makes are second. Yet they’re shooting only 29.2 percent, third-to-last in ACC standings, and as a result aren’t bringing in many of their own rebounds for second chances.

The rest of the ACC conference schedule for Sunday:

No. 9 N.C. State at Boston College, 12 p.m. ET, ACCN

Wake Forest at No. 24 Miami, 2 p.m., ACCN

Virginia at Georgia Tech, 2 p.m., ACCNX

Virginia Tech at No. 8 Florida State, 2 p.m.

Clemson at Notre Dame, 4 p.m.

And on Monday, Pitt will play at North Carolina at 2 p.m. ET.

No. 18 Arizona (11-0) at Arizona State (10-2)

Sunday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network Plus

It’s all eyes on the Pac-12 this season with Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford the favorites to battle it out for the top spot and UCLA showing early signs of serving as spoiler. The conference schedule will start out light with Arizona and Arizona State highlighting the traditional rivalry opening weekend in what should be a defensive game.

Arizona has its best start in program history and is preparing for a physical game against the Sun Devils. They’re hoping to have Dominque McBryde back for the game, though she was in a walking boot on Friday, per Arizona Desert Storm.

McBryde is a catalyst for the defensive end and has the experience in big match-ups, Arizona coach Adia Barnes told the site.

“She’s very smart, she plays angles, she guards perimeter players really well, so we can switch more,” she told Arizona Desert Storm.

The Sun Devils spread around the scoring and will want to begin their schedule on a high note, even if it doesn’t mean a win. Arizona State next plays No. 10 UCLA (11-0) and USC (8-3) on the road followed by No. 2 Oregon (10-1) and No. 3 Oregon State (11-0) to begin the conference slate.

Arizona is first in scoring defense, allowing on average 43.6 points per game, and field goal percentage defense, keeping opponents to 29 percent shooting. Arizona State is ranked 18th in scoring defense, allowing 54 points per game.

Arizona State won 28 of the last 33 meetings against Arizona. The teams split the series in 2018-19.

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