Until another pair of teams can definitively take the mantle, Notre Dame-UConn is still the sport's biggest rivalry, even if it didn't look like much of one Sunday.
Since the two began playing regularly as nonconference opponents during the 2014-15 season, the game has traditionally been played in early December and has served as a litmus test for Geno Auriemma's Huskies and Muffet McGraw's Fighting Irish. There was no better measure of what their teams were and what they needed to be come the NCAA tournament.
Despite the Huskies' complete domination Sunday, in an 81-57 victory that was never in question, the game still served as a point of evaluation. And Notre Dame is in real danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
McGraw's challenges this season are well documented. The Irish are trying to replace five WNBA draft picks, dealing with two key injuries and incorporating a lot of new faces into the lineup. But the prevailing thought was that Notre Dame, with some talented young players and a Hall of Fame coach, would be fine in time. Sunday's test against the Huskies indicated that the time might not be this season.
At 5-6, Notre Dame is below .500 this deep into a campaign for the first time since 1992-93. As a member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, which is now the Horizon League, the Irish missed the NCAA tournament that season. They missed it again two years later in 1995, but they haven't missed it since. That streak of 24 straight NCAA tournament appearances, however, could be coming to an end. Even in the preseason, when we knew Notre Dame wasn't a national championship contender, it seemed alarmist to imagine the Irish missing the NCAA tournament. But it's a real possibility now, if not a likelihood.
With No. 16 DePaul on tap for Wednesday -- Notre Dame's final nonconference game before the ACC schedule takes over -- the Irish are looking at having to win 11 conference games just to finish the regular season a mere two games above .500. The league slate is a bit favorable -- Boston College and Pittsburgh each appear twice, and Notre Dame has to play Florida State and NC State only once apiece. That should help the win total, but beating the likes of the Eagles, Panthers, Clemson and Wake Forest without an upset of the likes of Louisville or NC State along the way won't be enough for an at-large bid.
The injuries to Abby Prohaska and Mikayla Vaughn continue to plague a team with little experience and waning confidence. Freshman Sam Brunelle, the team's second-leading scorer, left Sunday's game with an apparent leg injury and didn't return. If that turns into something serious, Notre Dame will simply lack the talent to contend enough in the ACC.
Again, the idea that the Irish are lacking in talent is hard to grasp, but the gap on Sunday with UConn was larger than it has ever been. And now, what was supposed to be a transitional season for Notre Dame has become a total rebuild.
UConn, meanwhile, is back to a No. 1 seed in this week's Bracketology. Sunday's game showcased that the Huskies are a much better team than the one that opened the season with a 72-61 home victory against unranked Cal, and that players such as Megan Walker and Christyn Williams are growing more comfortable in their new roles.
Upcoming games against Baylor (Jan. 9 in Hartford, Connecticut), Oregon (Feb. 3 in Storrs, Connecticut) and South Carolina (Feb. 10 in Columbia, South Carolina) will be an opportunity for UConn to know what it is by NCAA tournament time.
Is the Big Ten the second-best conference in the country?
If not seeing Notre Dame listed anywhere in this week's Bracketology wasn't alarming enough, perhaps seeing 11 Big Ten teams in the field was. No league has ever sent that many teams to the NCAA tournament. When March rolls around, that number will almost certainly come down. It's worth noting, though, as another example of how much better the Big Ten is this season.
Although 11 teams getting bids is a stretch, the Big Ten appears poised to go deeper than the six it has sent to each of the past two NCAA tournaments.
After winning its first ACC/Big Ten challenge this week (9-5), the Big Ten looks like the second-best conference in the country. It trails only the Pac-12 in nonconference winning percentage, and, with those 11 teams in the field this week, the Big Ten looks even deeper than the Pac-12, which is buoyed by three current No. 1 seeds (Oregon State, Stanford and Oregon) and a No. 3 (UCLA).
A number of Big Ten teams played schedules just good enough and took advantage of enough opportunities to have solid RPI numbers as conference play approaches. Although the RPI doesn't mean much now, teams such as Ohio State (with its big upset of Louisville), Purdue, Iowa, Rutgers and Michigan have laid a good foundation. Illinois and Penn State are the only league schools outside the RPI top 100. That means that even while they are trying to beat each other in January and February, they will be helping one another's metrics.