The women's college basketball season isn't even a month old, but it already feels like March Madness. Several top teams have faced off in early games and another big match-up looms when the past two NCAA champions — No. 8 Texas A&M at No. 2 Connecticut — face off at the Jimmy V Classic tonight (part of a cancer-research initiative honoring late North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano). The winner of that game won't be moving up to the top of the rankings heap. (At least not yet.) That spot is being tenaciously held by Baylor, which has already defeated No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Tennessee. "They are a pretty intimidating team," says ESPN's Rebecca Lobo. "They've got Brittney Griner back, the most dominant player in women's college basketball."
A 6-foot-8 All-American, Griner led the Lady Bears to Big 12 regular season and tournament titles last spring. She was also the only collegian to play for the U.S. national team last summer, making her a likely candidate for the Olympic roster in 2012. "She continued last year to improve her offensive game and she got more comfortable with double teams," Lobo says. "She's gotten bigger and stronger and more imposing, if that was possible. She's refined her skills."
Wile there is still a long way to go before tournament time, teams are using the first half of the season as a chance to build up their resumes for the NCAA selection committee and get themselves battle-tested. With that in mind here are some key upcoming games to circle on the calendar:
• Texas A&M at Connecticut (Tuesday, 7/6c, ESPN2)
Defending NCAA champion Texas A&M travels to Hartford to challenge the University of Connecticut, winner of the two previous national titles (and seven overall). Both teams are in the process of adjusting to the graduation of their superstars (Texas A&M's Danielle Adams and Connecticut's three-time national player of the year Maya Moore). "It's going to be a fun game to watch," says Lobo, who led UConn to the 1995 NCAA title and will be reporting from the sidelines. "A&M traditionally wreaks havoc defensively. Connecticut this year is pressuring more, they're using the quickness in their backcourt."
• Maggie Dixon Classic (Sunday, Dec. 11, 11am/10c and 1/noon c, ESPNU)
In the first game of this Madison Square Garden doubleheader honoring the late Army coach, Baylor plays up-and-coming St. John's. The second game features Tennessee and DePaul. This summer's announcement that Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt is battling early onset dementia seems to have boosted the Lady Vols' intensity, although they did suffer an upset defeat by Virginia and a close loss to Baylor for a rare two-game losing streak. Reigning Southeastern Conference player of the year Shekinna Stricklen has bumped her scoring average from 12.8 points per game to 16.8. And freshman Ariel Massengale gives the team much-needed relief at point guard. "You can tell that when she plays the game, her first goal is to get her teammates open and not to get her own shot," Lobo says. "That's fostered a climate of really sharing the basketball and being unselfish. It's good to get a lot of people touching the basketball."
• Tennessee at Stanford (Tuesday, Dec. 20, 10/9c, Fox Sports Net)
Stanford is led by sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, who Lobo calls, "the most relentless offensive rebounding combination in women's college basketball right now." The Cardinal have made it to the Women's Final Four the past four seasons, but are still looking for their first national title since 1992.
• Connecticut at Notre Dame (Saturday, Jan. 7, 4/3c, CBS)
It's been years since CBS aired the NCAA women's championship, but the network is still the home of the sport's only day of national broadcast TV coverage. The annual doubleheader begins with Big Ten rivals Michigan State and Penn State at 2pm/ET, followed by a Big East showdown. Notre Dame made it to the national championship game last spring behind the fireworks of dynamic — and telegenic — point guard Skylar Diggins. "She has great pace to her game, she's a very big decision maker and she played her best games at the biggest moments," says Lobo. Some of those moments came during the NCAA tournament, when Diggins' performance turned her into a Twitter phenomenon (she now has more than 128,000 followers). "She's got a nice swagger to her, and that's one of the reasons why I think she's been able to handle all the attention that was thrust upon her at the Final Four," Lobo says. "She really became a big star."
• Maryland at Duke (Sunday, January 22, 3:30/2:30c, ESPNU)
The Big 12, the Big East and the SEC get all the headlines, but don't forget about the Atlantic Coast Conference, which features three teams currently ranked in the Top 10. In addition to these two traditional powers, Miami has inserted itself into the conference — and national — conversation. Last season the Hurricanes tied with Duke for the ACC regular season championship, just one year after finishing 12th.
• Texas A&M at Baylor (Saturday, Feb. 11, 6/5c, Fox Sports Net)
These Big 12 rivals met four times last season, with Baylor winning twice during the regular season as well as the Big 12 championship game. The Aggies finally turned the table in the NCAA Elite Eight and went on to win the national title. Neither team scored more than 70 points when they played in 2011, so expect another intense defensive struggle.