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Five intriguing ASU women’s basketball games to watch this year

Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne directs her team against Oregon State during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Conference women's tournament, Friday, March 2, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Arizona State women’s basketball released its full 2018-19 schedule Thursday.

Last season, the Sun Devils went 22-13 and made the NCAA Tournament for the fifth year in a row. They enter 2018-19 with high expectations, for the team didn’t graduate any seniors in the offseason.

The season kicks off Nov. 6 against Incarnate Word and conference play begins Dec. 30 on the road against Arizona.

Here are the five most intriguing games to watch this year:

5. Arizona, Dec. 30

Last year, Arizona finished second-to-last in the Pac-12, winning just two games in conference. However, this year’s team is expected to be much improved.

The combination of a stellar recruiting class and a promising slew of transfers sets Arizona up for a potential NCAA Tournament run just a year after finishing 6-24 overall. Arizona also returns guard Lucia Alonso, who established herself as a pivotal player on the team toward the end of last season, leading the team in three-point percentage and assists per game.

The Sun Devils open conference play at the McKale Center against Arizona, and in rivalry games, anything goes.

4. at Oregon State, Jan. 20

While Oregon State is now without star center Marie Gulich, the Beavers are still expected to be a force in the Pac-12 women’s basketball landscape.

Gulich was the only player to graduate from last year’s team, which finished 26-8 overall. Most notably, guard Katie McWilliams enters her senior season after a junior campaign in which she was an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.

The Sun Devils face the Beavers twice this season, and the first time the teams play each other will be in January. Oregon State has made the Sweet 16 or furthereach of the last three seasons, and in 2016, the Beavers made it to the Final Four.

3. UCLA, Jan. 25

After an Elite 8 run a year ago, UCLA is now without its two leading scorers from 2017-18 in Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.

In spite of this, UCLA has high expectations once again. The Bruins enter the season ranked No. 7 in the Coaches Poll, and incoming senior Kennedy Burke is expected to step up as the leader of this team in Billings’ and Canada’s absence.

Arizona State only faces UCLA once this season, and it’s in the middle of conference play. Beating both of the LA schools, particularly UCLA, could be a significant resume-booster, come March.

2. Baylor, Nov. 11 (Fort Defiance)

Last year, Arizona State opened the non-conference against several mid-majors, but this year, ASU faces a tough opponent right off the bat.

The Sun Devils’ second game of the season will be a neutral-site matchup against No. 9 Baylor. Located in Fort Defiance, Arizona, the game will be ASU’s first televised game of 2018 and will be aired on ESPN2.

Led by Kim Mulkey, Baylor has been one of the nation’s most successful programs for over a decade, and that’s not expected to change this year.

However, Baylor dismissed one of its best players from last year’s team, Alexis Morris, due to a violation of team rules in September. This could mess with the Bears’ chemistry in the early part of the season.

1. Oregon, March 3

After winning the Pac-12 regular season championship and tournament, Oregon fell just short of the Final Four, dropping an Elite 8 matchup to eventual champion Notre Dame.

Oregon enters 2018-19 with sky-high expectations, mainly because of Sabrina Ionescu’s return. Averaging 19.7 points per game, Ionescu was showered with accolades a year ago, including Nancy Lieberman National Point Guard of the Year and Pac-12 Player of the Year.

Ionescu isn’t the only key player to return to Oregon; the Ducks also return Ruthy Hebard and Maite Cazorla, who finished second and third on the team in scoring, respectively.

Arizona State faces Oregon twice in the regular season, including the Sun Devils’ senior night. The March 3 game against Oregon is ASU’s last before postseason and could be a statement if things go the right way for head coach Charli Turner Thorne’s squad.

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