Ohio State-Louisville clash kicks off top-25 basketball binge

Jacy Sheldon and Ohio State will face Hailey Van Lith and Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Joseph Scheller/The Columbus Dispatch) Basketball Ceb Wbk Tennessee Tennessee At Ohio State

The ACC and Big Ten are two of the top conferences in college basketball this season, so it should come as no surprise that the 15th (and final) ACC/Big Ten Challenge boasts several highly-anticipated matchups.

The event brings four matchups between ranked opponents to our screens this week for your binge-watching pleasure — plus another matchup between two unranked but undefeated teams that also deserves attention.

Just Women’s Sports spotlights the top five games taking place over the next two days.

No. 4 Ohio State at No. 18 Louisville

7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, ACC Network

The stakes are high for both Ohio State and Louisville.

At No. 4 in the AP Top 25, Ohio State is in elite company, behind just three historic programs in South Carolina, Stanford and UConn. The Buckeyes started the season with a win over then-No. 5 Tennessee, but the Vols have since fallen out of the poll completely. A win over Louisville would prove that Ohio State belongs among the best of the best.

Louisville is battling what coach Jeff Walz referred to as a “Jekyll and Hyde” persona. One game the Cardinals show up, and the next, they don’t. The Cardinals’ best win came over a Texas team playing without Rori Harmon, and since then they were upset by Gonzaga and South Dakota State. A win over Ohio State would get them one step closer to being the team we expected to see this season.

Headlining the matchup are guards Jacy Sheldon (Ohio State) and Hailey Van Lith (Louisville). The two point guards serve as their teams’ driving forces, playing with high-energy and grit. Van Lith is averaging 21.2 points per game, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists, while Sheldon contributes 14.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game for the Buckeyes.

But the post matchup between Olivia Cochran and Rebeka Mikulasikova is likely where this game will be won. Louisville’s Cochran is yet to make the kind of sophomore to junior jump that people expected, averaging 8.3 points and 7.3 rebounds – similar to her numbers in the previous two seasons. Mikulasikova, on the other hand, has gone from 9.4 points per game to 17.7, while also recording 6.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

Louisville will need Cochran to step up this season if they want to make a deep run in March, and this could be the perfect game for her to break out.

Virginia at Penn State

7 p.m. ET Wednesday, ESPN+

These two unranked programs are both undefeated and fighting for national attention – Virginia is even among the teams getting AP votes.

Virginia’s best win so far came on Nov. 26, when the Cavaliers topped Minnesota, while Penn State was tested by Toledo on Nov. 25, coming away with a 60-59 win thanks to two free throws from Leilani Kapinus with 0.9 seconds remaining.

Penn State has been slowly building since Carolyn Kieger took over as coach in April 2019. During her first three years at the helm, the Nittany Lions improved their record every season. Senior guard Makenna Marisa leads the way this year, with 16.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Marisa is underrated because Penn State hasn’t made much noise in the Big Ten, but she is one of the league’s top guards and will be a handful for Virginia to defend.

Virginia is a team fueled by transfers who are taking well to first-year coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who joined the program after three successful seasons at Missouri State. Camryn Taylor, in her second season with the Cavaliers, leads the team with 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Mir McLean is thriving after transferring from UConn in the middle of the 2021-22 season, putting up 10.4 points and 9 rebounds per contest for a near double-double every game.

But the biggest change for Virginia this season has been the addition of Sam Brunelle, who has nearly doubled her production after transferring in from Notre Dame. She went from 6.8 points per game to 12.8 in her first season as a Cavalier.

No. 20 Maryland at No. 7 Notre Dame

6:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN2

Maryland already has played two ranked opponents so far this season, losing to South Carolina and defeating Baylor, while this will be the first real test of the year for undefeated Notre Dame.

Eight games into the season, I’m still not sure how I feel about this Terrapins squad. The lopsided 81-56 loss to South Carolina wasn’t a fair test, as Diamond Miller missed the game with an injury. Then, Miller was unstoppable in the 73-68 win over No. 17 Baylor with 32 points and 10 rebounds.

But less than a week later, the Terps were upset by DePaul, 76-67. In that game, Miller finished with just 11 points and 5 rebounds, which leads me to the following early-season thought: Maryland goes where Diamond Miller goes. The team has plenty of talent, but so far, Miller has been the player to propel them to a win — or a loss.

The game against Notre Dame offers a good opportunity for someone else to step up against top competition – say, Princeton transfer Abby Meyers, who was the team’s best player against South Carolina with 21 points, or sophomore guard Shyanne Sellers, who is averaging 11.9 points per game. It would go a long way for the confidence of the Terps to get an upset over Notre Dame with someone other than Miller taking on a big offensive role.

Notre Dame has been balanced in its attack through the first eight games of the season. Olivia Miles is the driving force for the Irish with her 16 points, 6.7 assists per game and elite playmaking skills, but Notre Dame has plenty of other weapons. Sonia Citron and Dara Mabrey provide two polished scoring options, while players like KK Bransford and Maddy Westbeld are just scratching the surface of their potential.

After playing six unranked opponents to start the season, playing Maryland will allow coach Niele Ivey to see where her team is really at when it comes to top competition.

No. 6 North Carolina at No. 5 Indiana

6 p.m. ET Thursday, Big Ten Network

Indiana will be missing Grace Berger, who is out indefinitely after being injured against Auburn. That’s a big blow for the Hoosiers, both for morale, and overall skill, as Berger is arguably their best player. But both Indiana and North Carolina are playing great basketball right now, and this could be the best game of the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge.

North Carolina has won its last three games, including a statement victory over No. 5 Iowa State, after falling behind and mounting comebacks. But Indiana is too good and too deep to let that happen. North Carolina will need to come out strong on the road at a rowdy Assembly Hall if the Tar Heels want to beat Indiana.

Without Berger, forward Mackenzie Holmes will be the focal point of the Hoosier offense. The 6-3 senior averages 20 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, while shooting an incredibly efficient 76.6% from the field. Holmes will be a challenge defensively for the Tar Heels, who are a guard-oriented team.

Against Iowa State, North Carolina limited the majority of their opponents’ offensive weapons, but Stephanie Soares still had success in the paint, with 19 points and 12 rebounds. To stop Indiana, the Tar Heels will have to do a better job on Holmes.

On defense, the Hoosiers will have to contain North Carolina’s guards, starting with Deja Kelly. The junior drives her team’s offense with 17.8 points and 4.4 assists per game, but Kelly is a volume shooter who makes just 36% of her attempts. If Indiana can force her into difficult shots, they may be able to slow down the UNC attack.

Expect big contributions from Alyssa Ustby, Eva Hodgson and Kennedy Todd-Williams for North Carolina, and from Sara Scalia, Yarden Garzon and Sydney Parrish for Indiana. There’s no shortage of weapons in this game.

No. 12 NC State at No. 10 Iowa

8:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN2

NC State has played a relatively easy schedule to open the year, other than a Nov. 20 contest against UConn. That game went about as poorly as possible, as NC State fell 91-69, allowing Azzi Fudd to score 32 points and Aaliyah Edwards and Lou Lopez-Senechal to each finish with 20. NC State will be looking for a much better defensive performance against Iowa.

Iowa is also coming off a loss to UConn, though that game ended with a much different feeling. The criticism for Iowa last season and through the start of this one has been the lack of offensive balance. It’s been a two player show between Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano — that is, until the loss to UConn.

Clark led the Hawkeyes with 25 points against the Huskies, but Kate Martin had a breakout game, finishing with 20 points and going 6-6 from the 3-point line. McKenna Warnock finished with 14 points and Gabbie Marshall added 10,

The only thing missing for Iowa was production from Czinano in the paint. She averages 17.3 points per game, but UConn held the fifth-year senior to just eight points. The Hawkeyes will likely make it a point to get the ball inside early, and NC State should expect Czinano to bounce back.

Clark will be the focal point for the Wolfpack defense, and they can’t afford to let her have a monster game like Fudd did on Nov. 20. Offensively, NC State has a trio of weapons: Guard Diamond Johnson leads the team with 13.6 points per game, while 6-0 shooting guard Jakia Brown-Turner and 6-2 forward Jada Boyd contribute 10.3 and 10.7 points, respectively.

The Wolfpack are also waiting for a breakout game from Saniya Rivers, who transferred after her freshman season at South Carolina. She was the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2021. Rivers is a polished scorer who is set to be a star at NC State. Right now she’s coming off the bench and contributing 5.7 points per game, but the sophomore is capable of much more.