NCAAW what to watch: After a week of parity, No. 4 UConn vs. Notre Dame takes on added luster

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TAMPA, FL - APRIL 05: UCONN guard Crystal Dangerfield (5) plays in 2019 NCAA Women's National Semifinal Game Two between the UCONN Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL on on April 5. (Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
It's a new-look rivalry game for both Notre Dame and UConn, who graduated key players and are without returning stars Abby Prohaska (left) and Crystal Dangerfield. (Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If this is women’s basketball’s gift for the holidays, it’s a great one.

Coming on the heels of the top two teams in the AP poll falling during a chaotic Saturday of Thanksgiving tournaments, two more top-10 teams lost on Thursday evening in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

First it was No. 9 Maryland to No. 13 N.C. State, 66-59, in a game the Wolfpack controlled on the boards late to seal a statement victory. Then No. 2 Louisville lost to an unranked opponent in Ohio State, which had played tightly with No. 4 UConn last week.

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And finally, No. 24 Michigan survived after rallying to take its game against Syracuse to overtime. It was another tough one for the Orange, who dropped to .500 with losses including Oregon and Stanford, both ranked No. 1 this season.

There are a handful of teams that have a legitimate shot at the title this season, and that’s just where we stand before the calendar turns to 2020. The increasing parity in the game is a welcome addition and makes more games exciting to tune in and watch. That said, these are the games to check in on with historic powerhouses Notre Dame and UConn taking center stage.

Notre Dame (5-5) at No. 4 UConn (7-0)

Sunday, 4 p.m. on ESPN

“Act like you’ve been there” is a difficult mantra to live by if the stakes are high and you’ve literally never been there. Which is a huge problem for teams that lose all of their starters and return few who were even on the sidelines.

That’s what this Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad is up against when it travels to Storrs, Connecticut, to play UConn on Sunday in the annual rivalry match-up. The Irish fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings last month for the first time in 12 years, taking some shine off of the game, but a Geno Auriemma-Muffet McGraw meeting is never a bad time. Anything could happen.

It’s the 51st time the teams will meet dating back to the inaugural game in January 1996. UConn leads the all-time series, 37-13, and has won each of the past five regular season meetings. But it has lost the match-ups that matter most these past two years: the Final Four. It seems unlikely now that the two would meet there a third consecutive time, but it’s too early to eliminate that possibility.

The game officially sold out before Thanksgiving and is part of ESPN’s 13th annual V Week in support of the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

UConn’s scouting report: The Huskies are ranked fourth in the AP poll and the USA Today Sports coaches poll, but could be without senior Crystal Dangerfield. The 5-foot-5 point guard had back spasms after a win against Ohio State and missed games against Dayton and Seton Hall.

Auriemma said after Thursday night’s victory against Seton Hall the star will likely practice Friday and be ready to play Sunday.

She averaged 13.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 37.5 minutes going into the absence and was one of the team’s two 3-point threats alongside Megan Walker. They’re a combined 27 of 62 from deep (43.5 percent) while the rest of the Huskies are a combined 19 of 61 (31.1 percent) — though the coach is focused on getting 3 points other ways.

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Dangerfield out means an even shorter bench for the Huskies, which Auriemma attributed this week to bad recruiting classes, via Alex Philippou of the Hartford Courant. Walker averages a team-best 20.3 points per game, 16th best in the nation, with 8.8 rebounds. Olivia Nelson-Ododa averages a team-best 10.2 rebounds with 11.5 points per game. And Aubrey Griffin was a crucial asset off the bench against Seton Hall given early fouls. She had a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds, plus this incredible play.

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The Huskies have scored more points on average than the Irish (75.0-65.9), allowed fewer (51.5-64.4) and are keeping opponents to 31.3 percent shooting, the 10th-best mark in the nation.

Notre Dame’s scouting report: Just as Auriemma knew this season was going to be difficult without two Huskies superstars following graduation, so did McGraw after graduating all five starters from back-to-back championship appearance squads. That lack of experience at the collegiate level has already shown itself for the Irish, and McGraw referenced it after a 75-67 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday. (Interestingly enough, Minnesota is 3-0 all-time vs. the Irish.)

“We couldn’t make a shot,” McGraw said, via the Minnesota Star Tribune, after Wednesday night’s loss to Minnesota. “I thought their defense was really good. They got really physical with us and just caved. We didn’t stay strong. We let them push us around. We got really scared and just wouldn’t attack. … We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Irish’s lack of returning power has been well documented; they’ve dropped in nearly every statistical category from last season, notably on the boards. Notre Dame is averaging 53.7 rebounds per game, which ranks 246th of 348 teams (Maine averages 28.44 per game). It’s down from the Irish’s fourth-best 44.3 per game last season and that vast difference has shown throughout games with opponents averaging 44.2 against them this year.

Four players, including freshmen Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples, are averaging between 13.5 and 14.9 points per game.

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Rebecca Lobo broke down the game in full for her “Lobo’s Look” statistical breakdown at HerHoopStats. Earlier this year, in announcing a four-year deal to extend the rivalry series, Notre Dame looked back at some of the great historical moments.

Texas (4-4) at No. 17 Tennessee (7-0)

Sunday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2

These are two teams going in opposite directions so far this season. Texas had high expectations that were reflected in a preseason No. 15 ranking, though two losses were to Arizona and N.C. State. (The other two are South Florida and Hawai’i.) They’ll need a win against Tennessee here to bolster their 2019 part of the schedule.

Tennessee is coming back to prominence under first-year head coach Kellie Harper. The Lady Volunteers are tall and Harper has focused on what the team should be dominating in — mainly defense and rebounding — rather than getting out with a victory. Which is good, since coming down the line is No. 1 Stanford on Dec. 18 and Missouri on Jan. 2 to open the SEC schedule.

Oklahoma State (6-2) at No. 12 Texas A&M (6-1)

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on SEC Network

Oklahoma State was handed no favors at the Paradise Jam and took its first two losses of the season against then-top ranked Oregon by 17 and Louisville by 21.

The Cowgirls have another chance at making a statement when they travel to Texas A&M. The Aggies were crushed by Florida State at the Maggie Dixon Classic over the break and will look to get back on the better side of things. Junior Chennedy Carter is averaging 21.1 points per game, top-10 in the nation. She’s scored fewer than 20 points this season on only two occasions, both in blowouts.

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