The 2018-2019 regular season is, somehow, nearly complete. Yes, it’s almost March — if not necessarily the “THIS IS MARCH” phase of March (or at least, you really should wait to tweet that until the NCAA tournament actually starts if at all possible).
Conference tournaments start next week, with the SEC and this year’s big kahuna, the ACC, kicking things off on Wednesday, March 6. The Pac-12 tournament (which would be an excellent reason for a last-minute trip to Vegas, if you can swing it) starts Thursday, March 7. Those three conferences represent most of women’s college basketball’s top teams — 15 of the 25 top ranked squads, according to the most recent AP poll — and the results of their tournaments could have a substantial impact on the upper tiers of the NCAA championship bracket.
This week, we’ll go deep(ish) on the ACC, currently the most dominant women’s college basketball conference: its two top teams, Louisville and Notre Dame, are No. 3 and 4 in the country, respectively, and will share the regular season title if both win out (just like they did last year). It would be Notre Dame’s eighth-straight shared or outright regular season championship; this year, though, they own the tiebreaker over reigning ACC champs Louisville for seeding going into the tournament thanks to a dominant 82-68 win over the Cardinals back in January (a year prior, Louisville had beaten them 100-67).
Louisville still has to take down one more ranked team — No. 10 NC State, tonight at home — in what should be a tight game, given that the Wolfpack and the Miami Hurricanes are both at 11-3 in conference play as each try to gain a pre-tournament seeding edge. But even if the Cardinals do drop that game, both they and the Irish will be more or less neck and neck going into the ACC tournament, where both will be vying for a championship that would hopefully cement their status as a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Right now ESPN’s Charlie Creme projects both as No. 1 seeds, with Louisville in Chicago and Notre Dame in Portland; the Fighting Irish, though, would obviously love to draw Chicago for the sake of their proximate fanbase.
It’s an ultimate choose-your-fighter scenario when it comes to the Cardinals and the Irish. In the paint, are you taking Louisville’s Sam Fuehring…
Or Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard, who’s currently averaging a double-double?
Who do you trust to shut down opponents at the basket: ND’s Brianna Turner, who is averaging 2.7 blocks per game — the 12th most in the country…
…or the Cardinals’ Kylee Shook, whose name is entirely appropriate for the way that she leaves anyone who tries to score on her (to fans, she’s “Captain Shook”) while shooting over 40 percent from the three point line:
Ogunbowale just became Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer last week, passing current WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith; when the Irish beat Louisville last month, Arike shot 53 percent from the field to hang 30 points on the Cardinals. Plus, as anyone who saw her two NCAA tournament buzzerbeaters (so, everyone) would know, she’s absolutely fearless.
Though the ACC title will likely come down to Louisville or Notre Dame, that doesn’t mean their path to get to the finals will be easy. Both teams have lost two conference match-ups, including one each to the unpredictable (and wildly fun to watch) Miami. NC State, Florida State and Syracuse are all also ranked in the top 25 nationally, and UNC — who upset Notre Dame in January 78-73 — and a scrappy Clemson team, who have pulled off a couple upsets of their own, are both hovering just below them in conference standings.
In short, the ACC tournament is going to be pivotal for the conference’s top two teams — and just absurdly competitive all the way through.
Games to keep an eye on this week
No. 19 Texas A&M at No. 11 Kentucky (Thursday, February 28, 7 p.m., SEC Network)
Both teams are 10-4 in SEC play, with the Aggies having won their last match-up in January in a 73-71 nail-biter. This is must-see TV, even more than most Chennedy Carter-related games are.
No. 20 Iowa State at No. 18 Texas (Saturday, March 2, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network)
Another crucial conference match-up, this one for No. 2 in the Big 12. The Longhorns won round one 64-62 in January off a near-triple double from Alecia Sutton — expect a similarly close game this time.
No. 5 Mississippi State at No. 13 South Carolina (Sunday, March 3, 2 p.m., ESPN2)
It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the SEC, and they’re just one game apart — if South Carolina can pull off a win at home, they’ll snatch away Mississippi State’s regular season title and put a serious damper on their momentum heading into the tournament. Plus, if Mississippi State can win out through the tournament, it would be a serious boon to their national seeding. Round 1 went to the Bulldogs, but it was pretty close almost all the way through.