ESPN airs a limited regular schedule, and the sports network’s programmers look over the schedules before each season to try to select games they think might be of the most interest to audiences. Usually those games involve the expected top teams, with the most national following.
On Thursday, Jan. 10, they’ll hit one perfectly when No. 2 Louisville plays at No. 1 Notre Dame. (Note: Mayor Greg Fischer suggested on his social media channels that everyone wear red Thursday in support of the UofL women.)
Louisville Coach Jeff Walz says it’s the electricity of the matchup that turns on his team.
“It’s great to be going into an environment where you know it’s going to be a sold-out crowd,” says Walz. “We’re very fortunate here, we’re getting 8,000-10,000 every single night, and for the big games more. That’s not the norm. Notre Dame, they have the same type of fan base. It makes every game you go and play exciting. It’s what these kids love to do. They love to play in front of people.”
“I say it every time,” Walz continues. “I’d rather go up there in front of a packed house, win or lose, it’s the excitement of the game. It’s great for our players — and their players — to get that opportunity.”
Both schools rose to their spots at the top of the Associated Press women’s rankings just this week, after Baylor knocked off then-No. 1 Connecticut. The AP panel of voters, comprised of sportswriters in the news syndicate, dropped Connecticut (12-1), a perennial No. 1, two spots to No. 3, with Baylor (11-1) jumping four notches to claim the fourth spot in the poll.
Notre Dame (14-1) rose one notch to the top, with Louisville (14-0) also rising a click from third to second — just in time for Thursday night’s game (7 p.m., ESPN).
That makes the challenge pretty straightforward, and almost automatic: All Louisville has to do to reach the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history is whip Notre Dame on the Fighting Irish’s home court in South Bend.
No small task, but certainly a possibility. Louisville beat Notre Dame in both its meetings last season — in a regular season game in KFC Yum! Center, and in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game.
UofL guard Arica Carter hopes her team will avoid thinking about a rankings showdown.
“There’s been a lot of times where the underdog beats the No. 1 team,” says Carter. “That’s not as important to me as it might seem. I just hope our team isn’t focused on being No. 1. Because you gotta go out there and play hard every team like they’re No. 1. That’s what you should do.”
But if her No. 2 Cardinals could knock off No. 1, it would be fine with Carter.
“That would be great for the program because we haven’t done that,” says the 5-8 senior from Long Beach, Calif. “That’s exciting to me to make history, this team to make history. But I hope that’s not our main focus.”
A year ago the teams landed in opposite brackets of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and both made it to the Final Four. Notre Dame stopped Connecticut in its semi-final, but Louisville lost a nail-biter to Mississippi State in its semi-final.
Notre Dame then took the national title with a win over Mississippi State. It was the second NCAA crown for Notre Dame, coached by Muffet McGraw.
That was last season, of course, but it illustrates the closeness of the top teams in the women’s game and the concentration of power among a few teams. Louisville has been a part of that elite for some seasons under coach Jeff Walz, but it is seeking its first NCAA title.
And Walz says the NCAA remains the No. 1 goal for his team.
“It’s an ESPN game. It’s going to be talked about,” says Walz. “Now we have to do our job and go up there tomorrow night and play well.”
Notre Dame is led by 5-8 senior guard Arike Ogunbowale, who is averaging 22.1 points per game. It’s a senior-dominated lineup, including 5-11 guard Marina Mabry and 6-3 forward Brianna Turner. The challenge for Notre Dame will be to stay with Louisville’s speed.
Louisville is paced in scoring by 5-10 guard Asia Durr, at 20.9 points per game. With opponents concentrating defenses on Durr, guards Carter and Dana Evans have held hot hands recently for the Cardinals. The major task for Louisville will be to compete on the boards with the taller Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame and Louisville are just two of five ACC teams ranked in the Top 25, with North Carolina State (14-0) ranked No. 8, Syracuse (13-2) at 12 and Florida State (14-1) at 22.
Indiana, by the way, checked in at No. 25 this week. It’s just the fifth time in history the Hoosiers (14-1) have appeared in the rankings.