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What the women's ACC/SEC Challenge can tell us about the rest of the season

The ACC/SEC Challenge features 11 ranked teams, squads with plenty to prove and two conference races still taking shape. We predict all the winners.



What the women's ACC/SEC Challenge can tell us about the rest of the season
What the women's ACC/SEC Challenge can tell us about the rest of the season
The SEC has five ranked teams, led by No. 1 South Carolina, in this week's AP women's college basketball poll. The ACC has six, led by No. 5 NC State. So how will the conferences fare in a showdown?

We'll find out at the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge, in 14 games played over Wednesday (five games) and Thursday (nine).

SEC teams won three of the past six national championships, while the ACC captured one. The last time the women's Final Four didn't have at least one team from either the ACC or SEC was in 2013 -- although those national semifinals included Notre Dame and Louisville, which would soon join the ACC.

Bottom line: Several teams we'll see in the ACC/SEC Challenge are likely to be major players come March. Others are trying to establish themselves as having that potential. So what can we learn from these games? ESPN's Alexa Philippou, Charlie Creme and Michael Voepel break down the field. Scroll down for the complete schedule and our predictions for each game.

1. Which players will be on the floor for LSU, and how do they jell?

The Final Four rematch of defending national champion LSU (currently ranked No. 7) and No. 9 Virginia Tech on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) was a huge game to watch even before the Tigers' personnel issues. We know now, after coach Kim Mulkey's news conference Wednesday, that forward Angel Reese will be available for LSU, but guard Kateri Poole is not back with the team. Reese and Poole didn't travel with the Tigers for their games in the Cayman Islands Classic.

Mulkey also said sophomore forward Sa'Myah Smith, who suffered a right knee injury Friday in the Cayman Islands Classic, will miss the rest of the season. That's a blow to LSU, as Smith was averaging 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds.

Reese was benched in the second half of the Tigers' win over Kent State on Nov. 14, then subsequently missed four games. LSU won all of them and is 7-1. LSU needed a huge game from Aneesah Morrow to squeak past Virginia on Saturday. There is a lot of anticipation now about how much Reese will play against the Hokies, in a game where Mulkey is going for her 700th career win as a head coach. -- Voepel

2. Who else will contribute for Virginia Tech?

The Hokies are coming off two close victories in the Cayman Islands, including a one-point win over Kansas. We know what they have in the elite center-guard combo of Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore, who combine to average 41.3 points, more than half of the team's scoring.

But how good can the Hokies' supporting cast be? -- Voepel

3. Which team is more deserving to be ranked closer to the top 10?

Two of the sport's biggest brand names clash when No. 18 Notre Dame plays at No. 20 Tennessee on Wednesday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Irish's 100-71 loss in their opener in Paris to South Carolina is the only blemish on their record. But it also has been their only real test. That could change Thursday.

The Lady Vols lost to Florida State and Indiana, and beat Oklahoma by three points. Those are all good quality opponents, so Tennessee's 4-2 record reflects a challenging schedule. This game is important to both the Irish and Lady Vols in establishing whether they are top-10 material. -- Voepel

4. Who else is ready to step up in the SEC after South Carolina?

South Carolina is clearly the best team in the SEC, but the rest of the conference remains a mystery. These games against better competition will hopefully provide a truer picture of who some of these SEC teams are.

Vanderbilt looked good at the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas over the weekend with wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa. At 7-0, the Commodores are off to their best start since 2011-12. But the rest of their schedule has been underwhelming. Can they compete with red-hot NC State? If so, the unbeaten start won't look like a fluke and Vanderbilt becomes an NCAA tournament contender.

Much the same could be said about Georgia and Arkansas. Both are playing quality opponents: Duke and Florida State. How these games go might define how the Lady Bulldogs and Razorbacks are viewed before conference play begins. -- Creme

5. Who will emerge as the team to beat in the ACC?

No single game or week in November will determine what happens in March, and these games obviously don't have any bearing on each conference's title picture. Yet the ACC/SEC Challenge will serve as a litmus test gauging which teams might be true contenders in their leagues and nationally.

The ACC race has much less clarity at this point compared to the SEC, although one thing is for sure: NC State is poised to finish much better than its eighth-place projection. The Wolfpack (who alongside Miami are the conference's remaining undefeated teams) and Virginia Tech are currently No. 2 seeds in the latest Bracketology, while Florida State comes in as a No. 4 seed. Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina joined those three in the AP Top 25, but even Duke (right after losing to Davidson) showed it can be a tough out by taking Stanford to the brink (pun not intended). Long story short, good luck trying to fully predict how the ACC standings shake out this early.

As far as this week goes, teams like Florida State and NC State need to take care of business and do what good teams do to establish themselves as contenders: beat the teams they're "supposed" to (in this case, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, respectively). A win for the Hokies after their struggles in the Cayman Islands and earlier loss to Iowa would instill confidence. Notre Dame, Miami, Louisville and UNC also take on Top 25 competition over the next few days, which could provide further insight into which squads are capable of making some noise down the road. -- Philippou

Philippou: LSU-Virginia Tech and Notre Dame-Tennessee. In the former, we don't know which players will be available for the Tigers, while the Hokies haven't looked like the same well-oiled machine that won 15 consecutive games last season prior to their national semifinal loss to LSU. The Tigers are undefeated since dropping their season opener to Colorado, but Virginia Tech is their toughest nonconference opponent since, as well as their last major one before SEC play.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame-Tennessee won't feature as much of the star power as hoped because of injuries. Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron remain out for the Irish, while Rickea Jackson has appeared in only two games for the Lady Vols and is day-to-day with a lower leg injury; Kellie Harper didn't have an update on her status Tuesday. Nonetheless, both teams are hungry for a signature win heading into conference play.

Voepel: Aside from the obvious must-watch games in LSU-Virginia Tech and Notre Dame-Tennessee, let's consider these matchups of unbeatens: Miami at No. 21 Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at NC State.

The Hurricanes are coming off a trip to the Elite Eight last season. Coach Sam Purcell is in his second season in Starkville, having led the Bulldogs to a 22-11 record and the NCAA tournament second round in his debut year. It should be a chance to gauge how good both the Hurricanes and Bulldogs are.

As for NC State, we already know the Wolfpack are better than many people anticipated, and they should be heavily favored vs. Vandy. But the Commodores are trying to claw their way back to respectability under coach Shea Ralph and are off to a good start this season.

Creme: Virginia Tech-LSU isn't the only NCAA tournament rematch in the Challenge. Ole Miss and Louisville squared off in the regional semifinals in March and will meet again Wednesday. Both coaches leaned heavily into the transfer portal, so these rosters, especially that of the Cardinals, look considerably different than they did last spring. But Louisville and Ole Miss still find themselves in the Top 25.

KK Deans, one of those transfers, won't be on the floor. The Rebels senior point guard suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Nov. 20 championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Ole Miss beat Michigan in that game, and then Little Rock on Saturday, but this will be the biggest test yet without Deans. How the Rebels look without their floor leader and best outside shooter against another quality team could provide a window into what kind of team they will be the rest of the season.

Voepel: Half of the 14 games involve at least one ranked team. And of the remaining seven, three involve opponents that are separated by no more than three spots in the rankings. So on paper, none of these games screams "Major upset alert!"

But it would be a major upset if North Carolina could bounce back from its disappointing two-loss trip to the Gulf Coast Showcase to knock off top-ranked South Carolina in Chapel Hill. Considering the Tar Heels' offensive woes thus far -- they've topped 70 points just twice in seven games and averaged 58 PPG in their three holiday tournament games -- it would require North Carolina to play amazing defense against the high-scoring Gamecocks (100.4 PPG).

Creme: While I am picking the Bulldogs, Miami could give Mississippi State some trouble. A veteran team that has always played good defense under Katie Meier, Miami has been efficient and balanced on offense to start the season. Seven Hurricanes are averaging at least 7.6 points per game. Besides Miami's game against Baylor in two weeks, this is the last résumé-building opportunity on either schedule until conference play, making it a big one for both.

Philippou: I could see UNC-South Carolina ... not being a blowout? The last time they met -- in the Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA tournament -- the game was decided by eight points (a 69-61 Gamecocks win). I'm eager to see the matchup between the Tar Heels' trademark defense and the Gamecocks' high-powered offense, but while this game could be closer than expected, UNC likely won't outscore South Carolina due to the Tar Heels' offensive issues.

That said, Dawn Staley's squad has won each of its two previous games against ranked opponents (Notre Dame and Maryland, although the Terps have since fallen out of the Top 25) by at least 29 points, so perhaps that trend continues.

Creme: While Florida State has a win over Tennessee and NC State has emerged as the nation's biggest surprise so far this season, the rest of the ACC has yet to establish itself.

Preseason favorite Virginia Tech lost its biggest game against Iowa and struggled despite notching two wins in the Cayman Islands. Notre Dame was blown out by South Carolina in its only marquee game. Louisville lost to Alabama this weekend in Katy, Texas. Duke was upset at home by Davidson. North Carolina just dropped two games at the Gulf Coast Showcase.

It hasn't been the ACC's best month. These are two days to rectify that. If the Irish beat Tennessee, Syracuse knocks off Alabama, Louisville gets the better of Ole Miss and Miami remains unbeaten with a win over Mississippi State, the outlook for the ACC changes quickly.

Philippou: The SEC has only two teams -- South Carolina and LSU -- as top-16 seeds in ESPN's latest Bracketology, and only one (the No. 1 overall Gamecocks) as a top-2 seed.

Meanwhile, the ACC has three teams in the top 16 (NC State, Virginia Tech and Florida State) and two top-2 seeds (NC State and Virginia Tech). You could thereby argue the SEC has more to gain this week.

Voepel: This seems less about the rivalry between the conferences than about how the teams are positioning themselves for their own conference play. Both leagues will send several teams to the NCAA tournament, as usual. This challenge could give us a better idea of how the teams that realistically are midtier or bubble teams might fare when league play starts.

Take Alabama. The Crimson Tide have been in the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons after a 21-year absence. Alabama got the victory over ranked Louisville at the Betty Chancellor Classic on Friday and might even have been considered for the rankings if the Tide hadn't lost to Gonzaga the next day. Beating Syracuse in the ACC/SEC Challenge would be the highest-quality win the Tide could still get before SEC play begins.

Another example is Florida (5-1), whose only loss was to Florida State. A win at Georgia Tech on Wednesday is important in a stretch in which the Gators are playing seven consecutive road or neutral-court games and don't have another home game until Dec. 30.

Florida at Georgia Tech
5 p.m. ET Wednesday (ACC Network)

Creme: Georgia Tech
Philippou: Florida
Voepel: Florida

Notre Dame at Tennessee
5 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN2)

Creme: Notre Dame
Philippou: Tennessee
Voepel: Notre Dame

Vanderbilt at NC State
7:15 p.m. ET Wednesday (ACC Network)

Creme: NC State
Philippou: NC State
Voepel: NC State

Miami at Mississippi State
7:15 p.m. ET Wednesday (SEC Network)

Creme: Mississippi State
Philippou: Mississippi State
Voepel: Mississippi State

Louisville at Ole Miss
9:15 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPNU)

Creme: Louisville
Philippou: Louisville
Voepel: Louisville

Missouri at Virginia
5 p.m. ET Thursday (ACC Network)

Creme: Virginia
Philippou: Virginia
Voepel: Virginia

Duke at Georgia
5 p.m. ET Thursday (SEC Network)

Creme: Duke
Philippou: Duke
Voepel: Georgia

Alabama at Syracuse
7 p.m. ET Thursday (ACC Network)

Creme: Syracuse
Philippou: Alabama
Voepel: Alabama

South Carolina at North Carolina
7 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN)

Creme: South Carolina
Philippou: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina

Arkansas at Florida State
7 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN2)

Creme: Florida State
Philippou: Florida State
Voepel: Florida State

Boston College at Kentucky
7 p.m. ET Thursday (SEC Network)

Creme: Boston College
Philippou: Boston College
Voepel: Kentucky

Texas A&M at Wake Forest
9 p.m. ET Thursday (ACC Network)

Creme: Texas A&M
Philippou: Texas A&M
Voepel: Texas A&M

Virginia Tech at LSU
9 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN)

Creme: Virginia Tech
Philippou: LSU
Voepel: LSU

Clemson at Auburn
9 p.m. ET Thursday (SEC Network)

Creme: Clemson
Philippou: Clemson
Voepel: Clemson