Women's college basketball picks: UConn's long-awaited debut and the deepest conference in the country

Olivia Nelson-Ododa and UConn are coming off a 14-day pause after someone within the program -- but not a player or coach -- tested positive for the coronavirus in November. Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Seventeen days after the 2020-21 women's college basketball season officially opened -- after the top of the top 25 rankings have already been reshuffled once -- No. 3 UConn and freshman phenom Paige Bueckers are set to make their season debut on Saturday. The ACC, meanwhile, has already opened conference play and might be the deepest league in the country, with a handful of ACC teams already notching signature victories. What does it all mean in a season that continues to be unlike any other, with games canceled and postponed every week because of COVID-19? Our experts -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays, Charlie Creme and D'Arcy Maine -- tackle some of the top stories and make their picks for the biggest games on the schedule.

Jump to predictions for the weekend's top games

UConn is finally making its season debut Saturday against UMass Lowell. In addition to Paige Bueckers, what are you most looking forward to seeing from the Huskies? What questions need to start being answered for you?

Maine: This could just be because I live in Connecticut and we admittedly don't have a ton else going on right now, but it feels like an eternity since the most recent time we saw the Huskies play. It will be great to see them back on the court, even in what will likely be a massive blowout.

I'm fascinated to see how Evina Westbrook fits after two knee surgeries and all of the drama following her transfer from Tennessee ahead of last season. She hasn't played a competitive game in nearly two years. What's her game going to look like and how quickly will she be able to shake off the rust? And after all of the speculation, what role is she going to play with this team and its championship hopes?

In a similar vein, I'm also interested how the freshmen not named Paige Bueckers are going to fare. Who is ready to play high-level college basketball right away and who might need some time to adjust?

Finally, and this might just be the biggest and most important question as the season progresses, are Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams ready to step up and lead this team? As the veterans on this relatively young squad, their efforts and leadership will be crucial in this incredibly strange season.

Creme: Two words, one player: Christyn Williams. While Bueckers has garnered much of the attention around the Huskies, I maintain that most of the preseason expectations for UConn are predicated on Williams becoming a star. Let's see if she is ready to be that player.

Granted, one game against an inferior opponent isn't going to tell the entire story here, but I'm anxious to see how she carries herself. About 10 months ago, Williams seemed to struggle with a crisis of confidence that she never shook. Her shooting and efficiency suffered. Where is that confidence now? Will the talent that was on display in glimpses during her first two seasons become routine? With Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield gone, is Williams going to be taking the biggest shots in the biggest games? None of these questions can be answered in one game, but Saturday is the beginning.

Hays: I'm interested to see the other freshmen. Obviously, Bueckers is the marquee attraction, but there are six freshmen on a UConn roster that totals just 11 players. They quite literally will have to play. At most schools, adding the No. 23 (Aaliyah Edwards) and No. 25 (Mir McLean) overall recruits in the same class would be a feat to celebrate. Between Bueckers and the impending arrival of Azzi Fudd next season, it passes almost without comment at UConn.

So does this end up like the class that included not just Breanna Stewart but also Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck? Or is it more like the class in which Diana Taurasi eclipsed pretty much everyone else?

Voepel: All of the above. But I'm also eager to see how guard Anna Makurat, who had some good moments as a freshman when she averaged 7.9 PPG and 3.3 APG, looks in her second season with the Huskies. Geno Auriemma said Thursday he's concerned that UConn isn't going to be a particularly good shooting team (by Huskies standards), so there's all the more need for Makurat to produce. She's going to have the green light to shoot much of the time. Of course, Auriemma also would like for Makurat's defense to improve, too.

"Coach puts a lot of pressure on me during the practices," said Makurat, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Poland. "I just want to be confident, and whatever my role's going to be like, I just want to help the team win."

There are nine ACC teams in Charlie's latest Bracketology, and several of the league's teams were unbeaten as the conference season opened this week. Which ACC squad has impressed you the most, and does it have bigger implications for March? Can anyone aside from front-runners NC State and Louisville make a deep run?

Creme: This is probably the deepest conference in the country. With the huge improvements at Boston College and what look like better seasons ahead at Clemson and Wake Forest, there are few free nights in the ACC. However, carrying the conference flag deep into the NCAA tournament is a role likely reserved for only the Cardinals and the Wolfpack. I don't see another team in the league with true Elite Eight potential.

With their unbeaten nonconference starts -- albeit against average competition -- North Carolina and Virginia Tech have risen into the field in my latest edition of Bracketology, but Georgia Tech is the team I'm watching most closely.

The Yellow Jackets took an experienced Georgia team to overtime two weeks ago, and Wednesday's dominant 86-68 victory over Boston College was impressive. Defense has been the program's calling card under Nell Fortner, but 86 points against the Eagles illustrates that the offense has improved. The win also means Georgia Tech -- along with Notre Dame (when healthy) and Syracuse -- is safely in that next group of ACC teams behind Louisville and NC State.

Voepel: I'm not looking for a deep postseason run from this program. But it would be really great to see Wake Forest make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988. That's right: It has been nearly 33 years since the Demon Deacons made the program's lone trip to the Big Dance. Their 57-54 victory over North Carolina on Thursday moved them to 4-1, and they also have a win over a ranked team in Missouri State. Their only loss, to Arkansas, isn't bad at all, especially with the Razorbacks beating Baylor.

Since their NCAA tournament season, Wake has not had a winning record in the ACC; the closest it has come is 7-7 in the 2009-10 season. Jen Hoover, who as a player led Wake into the '88 NCAA field, is in her ninth season as Demon Deacons coach. Maybe it's finally Wake's turn again. It's early, but why not dream big, Deacs?

Hays: The program's championship history notwithstanding, North Carolina feels almost like an ACC expansion team this season. But one of those expansion teams like MLS' Atlanta United or the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights that succeeds ridiculously quickly. Despite all the necessary obstacles limiting interaction throughout the summer and fall, Tar Heels players and coach Courtney Banghart appear to be figuring out the chemistry of a playing rotation that includes seven or eight newcomers between freshmen and transfers.

North Carolina's ensemble approach felt like a concession in Banghart's first season, that there simply wasn't enough talent on hand to do it any other way. Now sharing the minutes and shots feels like an asset. Freshman Deja Kelly can look like a star at times without needing to carry the load every night. Janelle Bailey can go to work in the post without needing to force the issue. Stephanie Watts can take charge when needed and Petra Holesinska can knock down 3-pointers when defenses find themselves stretched by North Carolina's wealth of options.

A concession to pandemic travel realities, the soft early schedule helped. Better teams will make the Tar Heels look like a group that hasn't had much time together (even a struggling Charlotte raised some defensive questions and Wake Forest handed the Tar Heels a loss Thursday). But five games is enough to convince me North Carolina is a heck of a lot better than the 11th-place team it was last season.

Maine: I'm not sure I'm sold on any schools other than Louisville and NC State making a deep run come March, and Duke's lopsided loss at the hands of the Cardinals on Wednesday shows just how big the gap is between the ACC's elite and the rest of the pack. Still, I think conference play will be fun to watch this season and we will see continued improvement and hope for the future from several of these teams.

To add to the deserving teams mentioned earlier, Syracuse has made the best of its lackluster and brief nonconference schedule thus far and made it through its first real test on Thursday with a 69-58 win against previously unbeaten Miami. In a year desperate for feel-good stories, the Orange have delivered one of the best with the return of Tiana Mangakahia. The senior made her comeback after more than a year away due to breast cancer -- and scored 16 points in her first game back against Stony Brook and added 14 points and seven assists in the win over the Hurricanes -- and will likely continue to provide an emotional lift for the team and give everyone something to play for and rally around. She left Thursday's game in the final minutes with an apparent leg injury, but one hopes it's nothing serious and she'll be back against Binghamton on Sunday.

Cal State Bakersfield over Cal. Idaho State over Kansas State -- in Manhattan. Denver over Colorado. A number of Power 5 programs have suffered very uncharacteristic results so far this season. How do you interpret these upsets? Is this just part of the domino effect of playing during a pandemic?

Maine: This is 2020 so nothing surprises me at this point, but I can't imagine the stress and anxiety these student-athletes must be dealing with every single day. It's unfair to expect them -- some of whom are living away from home for the first time in the middle of a global pandemic -- to be at 100 percent and completely focused for every game. We knew this would be a season unlike any other, and I think these upsets show how hard it is to play right now -- no matter how good you're supposed to be or how a matchup looks on paper. That said, I can't help but think we'll start to see more consistent results from teams as players get more comfortable with the conditions, protocols, etc.

Creme: The losses by Colorado and Kansas State were a surprise because I see them each as potential NCAA tournament teams. The pandemic looms large as an unmeasurable factor in any games played this season. Who knows how much that mental fatigue will mean from game to game, but I don't know that these upsets are particularly unique or crippling to postseason hopes. Boston College lost to Holy Cross last November. By the end of the season, the Eagles were a bubble team and turning heads at the ACC tournament. Just before Christmas, Iowa State lost in Ames to Northern Iowa. The Cyclones were still going to make the NCAA tournament had it been played. The pandemic has and will play a huge role all season, but these upsets are as much a reflection of the sport's growth as it is COVID-19 anxiety.

Voepel: Losing at home to Idaho State -- a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2012 -- stings for Kansas State, even though the Bengals are a good team and the Wildcats didn't have Ayoka Lee (ankle) for that game. But then K-State bounced back with an upset of No. 22 South Dakota State on Thursday, with Lee returning to the lineup and making all the difference (18 points, nine rebounds). The sophomore is a key part of everything K-State does.

And if you are Colorado -- a once-successful program that has been to the NCAA tournament once in the past 16 years -- a loss to an in-state team like Denver is a microcosm of how the Buffaloes have been spinning their wheels. Sure, there is time to put this loss in the rearview mirror, but that means the Buffs have to be successful in the Pac-12. The most recent time they had a winning record in conference play was 2012-13, when they were 25-7 overall and 13-5 in the Pac-12. Colorado hasn't won more than six conference games in a season since.

As for Cal, the Golden Bears were last in the Pac-12 last season, and appear to be staying there: They've started the season 0-4, including losses to San Jose State, Cal State Bakersfield and San Francisco. Their one Pac-12 game was an 80-53 loss to Washington. They are averaging 53.8 PPG. With just one starter back, and two projected starters out with season-ending knee injuries, things look bleak in Berkeley.

Hays: I'm inclined to agree with Mechelle that these results are as much about these Power 5 programs as the pandemic. While obscured by the No. 1 seeds blowing out the No. 16 seeds every year in the NCAA tournament, there is increasingly less margin for error in college basketball's vast middle class. Last season, well before the pandemic hit, Washington lost to Hawai'i, North Carolina lost to Yale and Oklahoma lost to Wichita State. Those aren't isolated examples. Cal and Colorado can't count on any wins just because they share a conference affiliation with Stanford and Oregon, teams we can't imagine losing such games.

Kansas State is probably the most surprising of the examples cited this season, although perhaps not without potential All-American in Ayoka Lee. But even that loss is just further proof. Idaho State returned the core of its rotation from a team that went 18-13 last season -- a core built in large part from the ever-expanding international talent pool, with players from Australia, France and Spain. Idaho State isn't going to beat Baylor and it probably wouldn't finish in the top half of the Big 12 over the course of a season. But it's an experienced, quality team capable of holding its own on most courts. There are more and more of those teams out there.

What teams or games have the biggest impact on Bracketology this weekend?

Creme: Two rivalry games in the Pac-12 on Sunday -- UCLA at USC and Oregon at Oregon State -- hold a key to major movement in the bracket. The Trojans lost a pair of close games on their trip through Arizona last weekend, and a loss to the Bruins would put their spot in the field in jeopardy. After losing Friday night to Arizona, UCLA recovered to narrowly win at Arizona State. That was enough to hold onto a No. 3 seed. A loss to USC and the Bruins would fall this time.

Oregon State already has a Pac-12 loss this week, dropping a game at home to Utah. While that was a bad sign, that misstep gets more than erased with an upset of the Ducks. The Beavers entered the week as the final No. 4 seed. They could stay there with a win. Oregon has climbed to No. 7 overall, and while beating Oregon State wouldn't get the Ducks higher than the No. 2 line yet, it would add to a growing résumé that could one day be worthy of a No. 1 seed. It probably never will be with a loss on Sunday.