Top two teams square off Monday
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- You could talk quite a while about the differences between the Connecticut and North Carolina women's basketball programs, which meet Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) as unbeatens in a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown.
It's the North against the South. It's dark blue versus light blue. It's a program that is extraordinarily popular facing one that is extraordinarily underappreciated.
Could the coaches be any more opposite? UConn's Geno Auriemma is the self-admitted smart-aleck Philly guy who has become a New England legend. Although he went through that kind of strange no-tie thing not too long ago, he's regarded as a sharp-dressed fellow.
Sylvia Hatchell is a North Carolina native who is country, whether country is cool or not. She is as much a part of her state as sweet tea, pine needles, grits and women calling total strangers "sugar" and "honey." Hatchell has, um, a fashion style all her own. And, as they might say on "Project Runway," she is not apologizing for it.
Auriemma needs Tums if he sees too many turnovers from his team; Hatchell doesn't sweat them as long as they're not just plain stupid.
We could go on. But now, let's talk about the ways UConn and North Carolina are alike. OK, really, there are at least two ways. At least.
For instance, both head coaches have incredibly loyal top assistants who've been with them every step of the way at these programs. Auriemma has Chris Dailey; Hatchell has Andrew Calder. It's hard to imagine either Auriemma or Hatchell without their No. 2s.
Then there's this: Both programs strive to be entertaining, because their coaches value that.
Now, that might not sound like a big deal but think about it. A lot of coaches are interested in wins any way they can get them. Auriemma and Hatchell want wins in which the basketball is fun to watch.
"I think it is important," Hatchell said. "I watch some of these games where it's 48-45 or whatever, and I'm thinking, 'Who wants to watch that?'
"But also, the players love playing like this. They want to run. They want to score. OK, sometimes it looks a little wild and crazy, and it can be sloppy. I know that. But they're going up and down the floor."
None of this means Hatchell doesn't believe in defense, of course. She just thinks offense is, well really fun. To her, it's not the necessary evil as some coaches seem to treat it.
"Why do you think volleyball changed the rules [to rally scoring] a few years ago?" Hatchell said. "Hey, look who played for the national championship in football. Those two teams score points. And more teams are playing like this. We're going to go up and down the floor no matter what."
UConn is a crisper, more efficient team than Carolina. The Huskies as a program have come through in big games more times. They have five NCAA titles to the Tar Heels' one.
It's hard to compare any program other than Tennessee to UConn in terms of the speed and power with which its players consistently operate while still under control. That's because Auriemma teaches the game and runs practices at a high level and demands everyone on his team perform that way.
But give Carolina and Hatchell credit: The Tar Heels race and rebound, year after year, with a boundless energy that comes from their coach's philosophy and personality.
OK, all that said, here's what could be the keys to Monday's game:
• Will UConn's defense ultimately take control of the game? After UConn's win over Syracuse on Saturday, Auriemma theorized that perhaps his group might be in for a slight change in defensive philosophy.
"We might ultimately be a zone team, who knows?" he said. "We've been trying to play man-to-man all the time; maybe we're a zone team. With the two big guys inside, it gives us a whole different look."
The two big guys being Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren. North Carolina's Jessica Breland and Chay Shegog, a freshman, will have to battle those two inside. But the other obvious element to the Tar Heels' being effective no matter what defense UConn leans on is whether Carolina can hit from the perimeter.
The Tar Heels had nine 3-pointers in their 103-74 victory against Virginia on Friday, but in the second half of that game, the Cavs' defense just fell apart. UConn will not fall apart.
• The Maya Moore factor. Simply put, she can take over any game. Still, recall who won the game for the Huskies against UNC last season: Renee Montgomery.
"[Montgomery] is the engine that makes them go," Hatchell said. "She's so smart. She's turned into a really intelligent point guard."
• Will UNC's Rashanda McCants hit shots and be truly engaged mentally? McCants is one of those players who sometimes, as the saying goes, thinks too much, taking away from her focus. If she's sharp and takes good shots, she can be a very effective player who does a lot on the court. If she's not playing that way, she will drive herself and Tar Heels fans crazy. She was excellent against Virginia, with 23 points (on 9-of-14 shooting), eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and just one turnover.
• How much emotional hangover will UConn have from losing Caroline Doty for the season to an ACL injury, suffered Saturday against Syracuse? The Huskies dealt with it twice last season. Unfortunately, they'll have to adjust to losing an important cog once again.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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