Thursday, March 27
Two great games expected in West
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
LSU vs. Louisiana Tech | Texas vs. Minnesota
Texas is playing as well as any team in the tournament. Minnesota continues to make waves. And LSU-Louisiana Tech might be one of the most tightly contested games in the regional semifinals.
Here's how we see Sunday's Sweet 16 games shaking out in the West, which remains the toughest region in the bracket:
(1) LSU vs. (5) Louisiana Tech
Tipoff: 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: LSU 29-3, Louisiana Tech 31-2
Series history: Louisiana Tech leads the all-time series 12-6. The teams last met in the Sweet 16 of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. The Lady Techsters won 73-52 in Los Angeles.
How they got here: LSU beat Southwest Texas State 86-50 in the first round, then downed UW-Green Bay 80-69 in the second, although point guard Temeka Johnson suffered two broken facial bones and a concussion against the Phoenix. Louisiana Tech rides a 29-game winning streak (longest in nation) into the Sweet 16 after defeating Pepperdine 94-60 in the first round and knocking off fourth-seeded Ohio State with a 74-61 win in Ruston, La., in the second. Tech senior Cheryl Ford had 25 points and 15 boards in the mild upset.
The skinny: Both these teams are very talented and extremely athletic, the programs are well respected, and this should be one of the best games to watch in the Sweet 16. La. Tech has a lot going for it, and of course is better than a fifth seed might indicate at first glance. The Lady Techsters are balanced and riding a 29-game winning streak after winning two games in Ruston, La., in the first two rounds.
Kurt Budke has done a very good job. This might be his first season at Tech, but you wouldn't know it. He has continued the success of this program, knows this system and knew exactly what to do. He has handled these players well and most importantly, has led just four returning letterwinners and nine newcomers back to the Sweet 16.
Tech still plays the same style of game, pressuring you offensively and defensively and really coming at you. Cheryl Ford has led the way throughout, and after her breakout season a year ago, only got better this year while earning her second straight WAC player of the year honor. With Tamaka Clay and Tasha Crain beside her, the Techsters are very athletic and get up and down the floor and pick you up well in the full court after made buckets. Amber Obaze and Erica Smith, last year's WAC co-freshman of the year who's even better this season after coming into camp in great shape and 15 pounds lighter, are almost interchangeable at the 2-3.
The X-factor for Tech, though, is junior forward Trina Frierson. Although she played in all 30 games last season, she wasn't fully recovered from an ACL tear she suffered prior to the 2000-01 season. But she was in great shape in the preseason and has been solid all season. She's undersized, but very smart around the basketball. She's got the fake, the spin, can draw fouls and is a good shooter from 15 feet in.
On the opposite bench, LSU and coach Sue Gunter get another chance to show the country how good they are. Aiysha Smith is a rock, and though she's a finesse player, she's very talented around the basket and excellent at sealing you. She can use her right or left hand, does a lot of good things for the Lady Tigers and is someone who will probably come up big.
The big X-factor for LSU is whether junior point guard Temeka Johnson will play after suffering those two broken facial bones in the second round. Johnson, who wasn't expected to even practice until Friday, can deliver the ball extremely well, and although she's only 5 feet 3, she dictates play and determines how LSU starts and finishes a game. She plays great on-ball defense, irritates her opponent and is lightning quick while also ranking among the nation's assists leaders.
Johnson's fellow juniors Doneeka and Roneeka Hodges will have an impact on this game, too, and it's very important that they shoot the ball well from outside (they combined for seven treys in LSU's first two tournament games).
Experience and a nice bench also are in LSU's favor. Ke-Ke Tardy, one of four seniors who see significant time, scored 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the second round. Coming off the bench are seniors DeTrina White and Kisha James. White, coming off a redshirt year, ranks third on LSU's career shot blocks chart, while James is a high-energy player who performed well while subbing in after Johnson went down. She only plays about 16 minutes a game, but with nine players averaging at least 11 minutes a game, any one of them will be ready to step up if needed. And they are all technically sound.
Of course, we haven't even mentioned freshman Seimone Augustus, who's even better than advertised. My pick for the national freshman of the year, Augustus has had a fabulous season. She plays with a lot of heart and desire, and her shot is automatic from 15 or 16 feet in. Her unselfishness and eagerness to learn also are very impressive.
Edge: LSU. Top to bottom, the Lady Tigers simply have more experience. And if Johnson ends up playing, La. Tech will have a lot to overcome.
(2) Texas vs. (6) Minnesota
Tipoff: 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Records: Texas 27-5, Minnesota 25-5
Series history: Texas leads the all-time series 2-0, but the teams haven't played since 1978 -- 25 year ago and pre-NCAA competition. Texas won 91-56 on March 16, 1978, in the WNIT at a neutral site, and 114-53 on Dec. 14, 1978, in Austin, Texas.
How they got here: Texas routed first-round opponent Hampton 90-46, then beat old-time rival Arkansas 67-50. Minnesota topped Tulane 68-48, then upset third-seeded Stanford 68-56 on the Cardinal's home court in the second round. The Gophers put four players in double digits against Stanford, committing just 10 turnovers and shooting almost 43 percent from 3-point range (6 of 14).
The skinny: The individual matchups in this game -- Jamie Carey vs. Lindsay Whalen, Stacy Stephens vs. Janel McCarville and Heather Schreiber vs. Corrin Von Wald -- might make for some of the best moments in the tournament.
This could be Jody Conradt's best team in a decade. The Longhorns are stacked. Stephens was a stud when she arrived on campus and now as a junior has played well enough to be a Kodak All-American this season. She leads the team in scoring and rebounding and has the biggest hands. They're not only big, but they've got "sticky" fingers, too. If she catches the ball, it's not coming out until she wants it to.
The biggest difference for Texas this year is Stephens' "supporting cast," although the other most well-known players -- Schreiber and Carey -- are pretty legit stars in their own right. Schreiber, a sophomore who's much improved from a year ago, reminds me of Toni Kukoc. She's a lefty who's very smooth and can take you off the dribble. She also creates a lot of mismatch problems, because players such as Plenette Pierson don't want to go out on the perimeter and chase her.
Texas also has Kala Bowers, Tai Dillard and 3-point threat Alisha Sare back, but Carey's addition has had the biggest impact. Carey, a Stanford transfer who "retired" from the game two years ago after suffering multiple concussions but was later cleared to play by doctors in Austin, is a winner. She's so good, so confident and is the tremendous point guard Texas needed to win consistently. She not only is an incredible 3-point shooter who makes great decisions, she also brings everybody together and gets the ball to the right people in the right positions. Carey can also stretch your defense; she'll penetrate and then find Schreiber, which in turn opens things up for Stephens inside.
Minnesota, however, is playing very good defense right now, rebounding well and forcing teams into turnovers. After allowing opponents to average 64.6 points in the regular season, the Gophers held their first-round foe, Tulane to 48 points, and Stanford scored just 56.
Whalen will dictate how far this team goes. She is a bonafide star, and is that one player who can do it all -- take you off the dribble, shake and bake or get to the foul line. Whalen also is a fantastic shooter and is so good at using her body to lean into you and make you commit those bailout fouls. But the best thing about her is that she's a great passer, too.
Von Wald and McCarville perfectly complement Whalen. Von Wald is a heartbreaker and smart senior whose ability to come up big when it matters takes the pressure off of the other two. And McCarville, who plays with incredible passion, has to be one of the most fun players to watch in the tournament. She's big, but very deceptive and skilled for her size, with the ability to pass, shoot, run and track down every loose ball.
Minnesota is just a fun team to watch, and as we said months ago, one of the most balanced teams in the country. The Gophers have a lot of depth, and the ability to score, and that means something in college basketball today.
So don't count out Minnesota just yet. Not many teams have been able to go into Maples Pavilion and beat Stanford this time of year. The first team to do it was a very intelligent Harvard team that had one great All-American in Allison Feaster. Minnesota has three weapons. And if Whalen shoots the lights out, anything could happen.
Of course, Carey will be out to try and prevent that from happening. Marking Whalen is a monster assignment for Carey, and if Whalen is able to score, that'll put Texas in trouble. If, however, the Longhorns make Whalen more of a passer and keep her from erupting scoring-wise, Texas should move on.
Edge: After playing in a tough conference and having one of the best coaching staffs around lead them, the Longhorns get the edge. Texas has more depth and is more battle-tested (the Longhorns' rank eighth in RPI and fifth in strength of schedule).
What they're saying about the West
"I'm looking forward to seeing Janel McCarville vs. Stacy Stephens. They're both big, strong women who like going after the boards." -- ESPN analyst Nell Fortner
"Cheryl Ford is such a physical presence and very hard to keep off the boards." -- ESPN analyst Nell Fortner
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.