Wednesday, March 26
Updated: March 27, 11:32 PM ET
Lady Vols, Villanova are favorites
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Villanova vs. Colorado | Tennessee vs. Penn State
Tennessee, the top seed in the Mideast, is 42-0 all-time in NCAA Tournament games played at home. Can Penn State put an end to the streak, and which team -- Colorado or Villanova -- will be waiting in the Elite Eight?
Here's how we see Saturday's Sweet 16 games shaking out:
(2) Villanova vs. (6) Colorado
Tipoff: Noon ET (ESPN)
Records: Villanova 27-5, Colorado 24-7
Series history: Villanova leads 2-0, including 59-54 win on Nov. 30, 2002, in Boulder, Colo. Villanova also won the previous meeting, 61-58, but that was back on Jan. 10, 1980.
How they got here: Villanova earned the Big East's automatic bid after snapping UConn's NCAA Division I record 70-game winning streak in the conference tournament final. The Wildcats beat St. Francis 51-36 in the first round, then George Washington 70-57 in the second. Colorado, appearing via an at-large bid, beat BYU 84-45 in the first round, then upset third-seeded North Carolina 86-67 in the second. Colorado's Tera Bjorklund's 34-point performance against the Tar Heels is the second-best individual scoring effort so far in the tournament.
The skinny: After that win over UConn, everyone's talking about Villanova right now, and after all these years, coach Harry Perretta and the Wildcats are finally getting the attention they deserve. Villanova is a very patient, deliberate and methodical team, and understands the importance of time-score-possession. Most teams make you play against three or four passes, but Villanova usually gets in six, seven or eight passes on every offensive possession, which really tests the patience and cohesiveness of opposing defenses and exposes their mistakes.
The Wildcats also have some excellent 3-point shooters (they've hit 20 3-pointers in two tourney games so far), and play very tough defense. Only two teams managed to score more than 60 points on the Wildcats in the regular season and nine teams didn't even crack the 50-point mark. So if the Wildcats hit some early 3-pointers, the opponent is already at a huge disadvantage. It's tough to push tempo and try to make up some quick points when Villanova milks the clock, which cuts down on your number of possessions. That's what happened in the first two rounds. St. Francis attempted just 47 shots and the Colonials got off 51 (for comparison, both Duke and Tennessee each attempted 61 shots in their opening games).
Colorado's defense also is top notch, however, and Ceal Barry's teams always play great man-to-man defense. It starts with the point guard, then the Buffs turn you in the backcourt and frontcourt and get in the passing lanes. They switch up their defensive schemes, and Colorado's posts also do a good job of playing early defense on you.
Offensively, the Buffs are very balanced, although center Bjorklund is clearly the team's star. But Kate Fagan is very smart and can spread the opponents' defense with her shooting abilities. Colorado hit 21 3-pointers in its first two games of the NCAA Tournament.
The key for Colorado is ball pressure and to get in position early on defense. When a Wildcat catches the ball, Colorado can't react and try to recover and contest. The Buffs have to be there already.
Edge: Villanova. The Wildcats are playing with tremendous confidence right now and nobody's quite shooting the ball from 3-point range the way Villanova does. This is a really good mix of players. They don't turn the ball over because they're playing so far from the basket. They have some nice balance and usually take care of things at the foul line. Perhaps Villanova's biggest advantage is that the Wildcats already have been able to win against some very tough defensive teams (such as UConn and Notre Dame) this season.
(1) Tennessee vs. (4) Penn State
Tipoff: 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Records: Tennessee 30-4, Penn State 26-8
Series history: Tennessee leads the all-time series 7-1, but they haven't played since Dec. 3, 1995. Penn State and Tennessee have never faced each other in the NCAA Tournament.
How they got here: Top-seeded Tennessee, which went unbeaten in the SEC before losing in the conference tournament final, routed Alabama State 95-43 in the first round, then beat Virginia by 30 points in the second. Penn State, the Big Ten regular-season champ appearing via an at-large bid, topped Holy Cross 64-33 and beat South Carolina 77-67 in the second round.
The skinny: Tennessee is playing great basketball right now, and along with Texas, has been one of the tournament's most impressive teams among the high seeds. The orange and white are playing vintage Tennessee basketball and really have it going on at both ends of the floor. In the past two games, balance has really turned into a big strength. Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson have elevated their games, which has only taken pressure off Gwen Jackson and Kara Lawson and made them that much tougher for opposing defenses to focus on.
We've said that Tennessee's longevity in the tournament will depend on consistent play from Gwen Jackson and Lawson, and so far, they've played pretty well. Lawson is the sort of player you want on your side in situations like these, where survival and toughness mean everything.
Of course, Penn State has its bonafide star in junior Kelly Mazzante, who led the nation in scoring last season and ranks among the best scorers in 2003. She is everything as advertised and then some, and although she was named the Big Ten player of the year, she's legit star who still sometimes gets overlooked in the talented junior class. Mazzante, who's just 27 points shy of tying the all-time scoring mark in Penn State history, plays better defense than people think. She gets in the passing lanes, makes a lot of steals and has great anticipation with those long arms. Mazzante also is smart as a whip.
Penn State is an experienced squad and coach who reached the 2000 Final Four. They know what it takes to get there, and right now, get an added boost since Tanisha Wright, Jess Strom and Jessica Brungo have each really stepped up their games. Mazzante, Strom and Wright work very well on the perimeter.
Still, shutting down Mazzante will be part of Tennessee's game plan. The Lady Vols will look to apply ball pressure and deny the passing lanes to her, and try to force the ball into the hands of other Penn State players. Tennessee will look to contain her by committee, but I wouldn't be surprised to see either of the Jacksons stepping up for some one-on-one defensive duty at times. Mazzante has seen this before, though, and is very good at drawing fouls. She is very deceptive and can create problems off the dribble, too.
Edge: Tennessee. I love Penn State and am a big fan of Mazzante's. But as I've said dozens of times, you just don't bet against Pat Summitt, especially in Knoxville, which might as well be called "Knoxvegas" because the house almost always wins. And nobody is smarter than Joan Cronan, Tennessee's women's athletic director who years ago had the foresight to bid for this regional. Now knowing that the committee is using predetermined sites for the first and second rounds, Cronan's timing was incredible and very important to the big picture.
What they're saying about the Mideast
"We all know Tennessee can clamp down and play tough defense. Rene Portland is going to have to be really creative in finding ways for Mazzante to get some shots." -- ESPN analyst Nell Fortner
"Kelly Mazzante has shown the country that she can do so many things with or without the basketball. She has really raised the level of her game, moving without the basketball, scoring off the dribble and is such a dangerous downtown threat." -- ESPN analyst Nell Fortner
"Pat Summitt is religious about rebounding the basketball. Tennessee got outrebounded 42-41 in its last game, but I don't see that happening again. Rebounding will be a big factor in this game." -- ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman
"Penn State has a lot of different schemes to free up (Mazzante). She makes very good reads. They bring her off staggered screens and screen in the zone for her. It is going to be a challenge for us. Typically, we play people straight up, but we are not opposed to look at other options within our defense to try and limit touches. That's a difficult task for someone that has taken over 650 shots." -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt
"I think at this point you advance with defense." -- Colorado coach Ceal Barry after beating UNC
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.