- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Except for the most brief of breaks over Christmas, there will be at least two Division I teams playing regular-season basketball every day from Nov. 13 through March 7. That makes for a heck of a lot of routes one could take toward San Antonio and the Women's Final Four.
With that in mind, what follows isn't an attempt to pick out the handful of biggest games of the season, but rather one of the meandering paths toward the postseason. Not every game has championship implications, but what's the saying about enjoying the journey?
Nov. 13: Gonzaga at South Dakota State: Forget Stanford visiting Old Dominion, despite all the history that comes with that transcontinental tilt. Don't worry about Ta'Shia Phillips and Xavier visiting USC, even though it's Michael Cooper's first game on the bench for the Women of Troy. The place to be on the opening night of the season is Brookings, S.D., where last season's fan favorite, South Dakota State, will try to fend off a challenge from Gonzaga, a team with potential of its own to play deep into March. The Jackrabbits don't have Jennifer Warkenthien, but they do have five of last season's top seven players. Gonzaga has a Stockton-and-Malone impersonation in point guard Courtney Vandersloot and forward Heather Bowman.
Nov. 17: Delaware at St. Francis: Hey, you were warned this wouldn't necessarily be a list of the usual suspects. Baylor's Brittney Griner and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, among other freshmen, make their first college appearances two days earlier, but the long-awaited, much-anticipated debut of former UConn Huskies recruit Elena Delle Donne with the Blue Hens makes Loretto, Pa., a center of attention on this day.
Ten more to watch in November:
Nov. 15: Baylor at Tennessee
Nov. 15: Stanford at Rutgers
Nov. 15: Duke at Texas A&M
Nov. 17: Florida State at Florida
Nov. 17: Connecticut vs. Texas (San Antonio)
Nov. 21: TCU at Oklahoma
Nov. 22: Maryland at Mississippi State
Nov. 25: Tennessee at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 28: Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame (at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands)
Nov. 29: Gonzaga at Stanford
Dec. 3: Ohio State at Duke: The best of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge offerings, the Buckeyes and Blue Devils meet in a game between two programs with something to prove after recent postseason disappointments. Ohio State is getting a lot of love in preseason polls, which is easy to understand with Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis returning, but the Buckeyes haven't really had a signature win out of conference since beating Oklahoma in Norman three years ago. Likewise loved in preseason prognostications, Duke might still be finding its rhythm without Abby Waner, Chante Black and Carrem Gay in early December.
Dec. 23: Stanford at Connecticut: How many people will rip off Clement Clarke Moore in talking about this game two nights before Christmas? And yes, I'll probably be one of them. Stanford has more than its share of big games in December, including home dates against Duke and Tennessee just four days apart. But with the stage all to themselves so close to the holiday -- not that these teams need any help finding limelight -- this shapes up as the single biggest game of the regular season. We'll make way too much of it, considering it comes three and a half months ahead of the championship game in San Antonio, but that's half the fun of winter.
Ten more to watch in December:
Dec. 3: Purdue at Virginia
Dec. 6: Georgia Tech at Georgia
Dec. 9: Oklahoma at Marist
Dec. 9: Middle Tennessee State at Louisville
Dec. 13: Florida Gulf Coast at Michigan State
Dec. 15: Duke at Stanford
Dec. 16: Louisville at Tennessee
Dec. 19: Tennessee at Stanford
Dec. 20: North Carolina vs. South Carolina (at Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
Dec. 31: Vanderbilt at Notre Dame
Jan. 3: Oklahoma at Tennessee: One season after the Lady Vols struggled, at least by their lofty standards, through their first campaign after Candace Parker's departure, the opening days of 2010 will offer some insight into what Oklahoma is in the post-Paris era. Actually, given an early schedule that includes games against Georgia, TCU, South Carolina, San Diego State, Notre Dame and Marist, we'll probably already have some sense of the Sooners, but Knoxville is Knoxville. Any team with Danielle Robinson and Whitney Hand is going to be competitive. For its part, after a typically testing early schedule, Tennessee will either look to put an exclamation point on its work or at least shows signs of progress.
Jan. 6: San Diego State at New Mexico: San Diego State is the preseason favorite in the Mountain West, but in what shapes up as one of the most intriguing conferences in the country, there are going to be a lot of teams shooing at the target on the Aztecs' collective back. And if a team is going to stake its claim to supremacy in the league, winning in Albuquerque early in conference play is a heck of a first step. San Diego State returns four starters (including leading scorers Paris Johnson and Jene Morris) and adds Baylor transfer Jessika Bradley, but New Mexico still has Amy Beggin and a potential breakout player in Sara Halasz.
Ten more to watch in January:
Jan. 1: USC at Arizona State
Jan. 2: Cal at Stanford
Jan. 3: Oklahoma at Tennessee
Jan. 4: Notre Dame at Purdue
Jan. 9: Middle Tennessee at Arkansas-Little Rock
Jan. 13: Oklahoma at Baylor
Jan. 14: Tennessee at Florida
Jan. 16: Notre Dame at Connecticut
Jan. 27: Texas A&M at Baylor
Jan. 28: Auburn at Tennessee
Feb. 6: Bowling Green at Ball State: Ask Tennessee -- or Syracuse, which lost to Bowling Green in the WNIT -- if MAC teams are worth worrying about. Ball State actually finished a game behind Bowling Green in the regular season last time out in the conference (although each team won its respective division in the massive league), only to knock off the Falcons for the automatic bid in the conference tournament. Both teams return enough key pieces to think they will again be the class of the group. This game in Muncie, Ind., is the only meeting of the regular season.
Feb. 22: Baylor at Texas A&M: Griner is going to be the star attraction any time Baylor takes the court, but both of these teams could end up being anything from merely very good to championship challengers depending on how well their entire collections of freshmen complement quality returning pieces (no matter how many points the Aggies lost -- 32.6 per game, for those counting at home). This could be a game for first place in the league, or it could be a game that clinches a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for one of these teams.
Ten more to watch in February:
Feb. 1: Notre Dame at Rutgers
Feb. 3: Texas at Oklahoma
Feb. 7: Connecticut at Louisville
Feb. 8: North Carolina at Duke
Feb. 11: Purdue at Ohio State
Feb. 15: Connecticut at Oklahoma
Feb. 15: North Carolina at Virginia
Feb. 16: TCU at San Diego State
Feb. 22: LSU at Tennessee
Feb. 24: Charlotte at Xavier
March 1: Louisville at Rutgers; Connecticut at Notre Dame: A two-for-one offering for the final week of the regular season. The big game is probably the one in South Bend, Ind. If any team has a chance, however slim, to make the Huskies sweat out the conference title, it's the Fighting Irish. Last season's roster returns, including Brittany Mallory and Devereaux Peters (at some point during the season in the latter's case), and they add Diggins. But don't count out either Rutgers or Louisville, despite the latter losing Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham. Both return quality veterans to help some talented freshmen adjust to the demands of two rather exacting coaches.
Five more to watch in March:
March 2: Oklahoma at Texas A&M
March 2: New Mexico at TCU
March 4: Arizona State at UCLA
March 6: Stanford at Cal
March 7: Texas at Baylor
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
18dBonnie D. Ford