Résumés, résumés, résumés. They are the centerpiece of every NCAA tournament selection discussion in February and March. Yet so much of any team’s résumé — those difference-making games — is built during the nonconference part of the schedule in the first two months of the season.
Women’s NCAA tournament seeding can often hinge on what happens in November. That’s why half of the matchups on this list of the best nonconference games of the 2022-23 women’s college basketball season will be played over the next few weeks. And — no surprise — we don’t have to wait long for the best nonconference matchup: Just 13 days after the season tips off, the No. 2-ranked Stanford Cardinal host the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks on Nov. 20 in a battle between the past two national champions.
The best teams tend to schedule the best, so it’s not surprising to see so many top-10 teams playing in these games. These matchups should provide some of the best basketball, but they are also the most impactful as to the fates of these programs come Selection Sunday on March 12.
And while they didn’t make this list, the Dec. 4 Jimmy V Classic — the Virginia Tech Hokies at Tennessee Lady Volunteers (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) and UConn Huskies at Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) — are also must-see early-season games. And we’ll take a closer look at the tournaments around Thanksgiving a bit later this month.
Our ranking, in order, of the 10 best nonconference games:
South Carolina Gamecocks at Stanford Cardinal
Nov. 20, 3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App
It’s hard to top No. 1 vs. No. 2 two weeks into the season. And Gamecocks vs. Cardinal has quickly turned into the most compelling bi-coastal rivalry in the country. Stanford won the 2021 national championship thanks to a riveting one-point win over South Carolina in the national semifinals. The rematch came last year right before Christmas, and behind Aliyah Boston’s 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks the Gamecocks registered the biggest comeback in program history, rallying from 18 down to win 65-61. In Boston and Stanford’s Haley Jones and Cameron Brink, this game features three of the top six players in our recent ranking of the top 25 players in the country.
Nov. 14, 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1
As many as seven UConn games could be on this list — the Huskies have one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation — but this one at Gampel Pavilion ranks highest because it’s the first and, given UConn’s new look, potentially the most important. So many questions hover over the Huskies with their personnel losses and injuries. The Longhorns offer the initial litmus test as to how UConn has adapted to the loss of Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook to graduation and Paige Bueckers to a torn ACL. The Longhorns have Final Four aspirations of their own and are also incorporating a handful of new players. Both Geno Auriemma and Vic Schaefer will know how their teams stacks up to the rest of the country after this one.
Dec. 7, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App
Always a great intra-state rivalry, the Cy-Hawk showdown has never been bigger. Each team boasts the second-highest preseason ranking in program history (Iowa No. 4 in the AP preseason poll and Iowa State No. 8) and are among the best offenses in the country. Last December, the Cyclones got their first win in the series since 2015 behind Ashley Joens’s 26 points. This year, Joens joined Iowa’s Caitlin Clark as first-team preseason All-Americans.
Tennessee Lady Vols at Stanford Cardinal
Dec. 18, 3pm ET, ABC/ESPN App
This game might be the best indicator whether the Lady Vols are ready to truly challenge South Carolina in the SEC. By this point in the season, Stanford will have already had its against the Gamecocks, so how Tennessee fares against the Cardinal might be a precise measuring stick 11 days before SEC play begins. This will be Stanford’s penultimate nonconference game. It will likely leave a lasting impression on the selection committee as it relates to picking the four No. 1 seeds.
Nov. 20, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No matchup on this list epitomizes the roster shakeup at the hands of the transfer portal like this one. Each team welcomes eight new players to the roster, many of whom arrive from other programs. What better way to see how the chemistry is coming together in the season’s early stages than to play a team facing the same challenges. Both the Terps and the Bears enter this game in the unusual position of not being a favorite to win their conference. Perhaps the winner of this game leaves with the confidence to do just that after all.
Nov. 30, 7:30 p.m. ET, ACCN
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is loaded with high-quality matchups. This one might be the best. The new-look Cardinals, with potentially three new starters, meet a Buckeyes team with four of its top five scorers back. In the quest for a top three or four NCAA tournament seed, the winner of this game gains some breathing room heading into rugged conference races. The loser will be left with little margin for error.
UConn Huskies at Tennessee Lady Vols
Jan. 26, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
The last time Tennessee beat UConn, Candace Parker was a Lady Vol. Of course, 13 years passed without a game between the sport’s two definitive programs. Since the rivalry resumed in 2020, the Huskies have won all three games by an average of 13 points, including last season’s 19-point victory that served as the breakout game for UConn’s Azzi Fudd (25 points). This could be the best Tennessee team since the Parker era, and nothing would set up the Lady Vols for the stretch run better than beating the Huskies.
Nov. 7, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3
The very first night of the season features a game that might have implications reaching into March. Should the Jackrabbits need at-large consideration, they could really use this win. The Bluejays, coming off an Elite Eight run, will have more opportunities to build the résumé in the Big East, but their seeding could take a big swing based on this result and later games against Nebraska and Arkansas.
South Carolina Gamecocks at UConn Huskies
Feb. 5, noon ET, FOX
The Huskies’ grueling nonconference schedule ends here with a game at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. For better or worse, this might look like a completely different team than the one that played Texas in mid-November, depending on how the young players develop and the health of the roster. The Gamecocks will likely be exactly what they have been the last few years: one of the best, if not the best, team in the country. South Carolina enters this matchup with four straight wins in the series, one that the Huskies dominated in its early days.
Dec. 1, 6 p.m. ET, BTN
This is the second of two ACC/Big Ten Challenge games on our list — NC State at Iowa and Maryland at Notre Dame are two other high-quality matchups on this night — and this is a showcase of games that could have major ramifications for NCAA tournament seeding. Both programs have seen a rebirth over the past few seasons with the same formula: bring up a core group of players together and establish incredible chemistry. The Hoosiers begin the season ranked 11th and North Carolina follows immediately at No. 12. The fight to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games begins here for both teams.