<
>

Tourney's best defense to test top offense

4/3/2004

Editor's note: Earlier this week, Stacey Dales-Schuman broke down each team's defensive strengths and needs. Click here to see Dales-Schuman's more extensive analysis on the Final Four matchups.

Janel McCarville is averaging 19.8 points and 17.0 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament. Her Minnesota teammate, Lindsay Whalen, is averaging 22.0 points and 8.0 assists.

But the number that might matter most to the Golden Gophers? Eighteen. After averaging 65 points in the regular season, Minnesota is scoring 83 points per game in tournament play. Yes, 18 more points. Per game.

No one else at the Final Four has made its offensive or defensive numbers jump so dramatically, and right now, no one can match the Gophers' killer instinct or consistency. Minnesota is just demolishing people with its offense.

The other three Final Four teams, however, have ridden outstanding defensive efforts to New Orleans. And while Connecticut, LSU and Tennessee are all averaging the same or just slightly fewer points on offense as they did in the regular season, their opponents have not shot as well.

In the regular season, Connecticut opponents shot 35.6 percent from the field, but that number has dipped to 32 percent in the tournament. The field goal percentage defense for Tennessee and LSU have dropped one percentage point for each team (from 38 percent to 37 percent for Tennessee and from 39 to 38 percent for LSU.)

Minnesota is the only exception; the Gophers' tournament foes are shooting 44 percent, which is 3 percent higher than in the regular season.

In the NCAA Tournament, all four teams are shooting roughly the same as they did in the regular season, even the Gophers, who are shooting 48 percent from the field.

Minnesota's offensive is extraordinary, and when the Gophers are well-spaced it leads to points because the spacing stretches the opponents' defense, which opens the cutting lanes in Minnesota's motion offense. That also allows two exceptional passers -- McCarville and Whalen -- to operate. Coming into the tournament we knew Whalen was one of the best passers in the game, but McCarville has shown us she's the best passing post in the nation. In the NBA, Los Angeles' Shaquille O'Neal and Sacramento's Vlade Divac and Chris Webber have shown us how dangerous that can make a team, because efficient post passing makes everyone on the floor better. That is the effect McCarville has had with Minnesota.

Connecticut, however, also is an exceptional motion team, and the Huskies have played some of the best defense of the tournament -- which is why their match up Sunday in the national semifinals (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) might be the most exciting, electrifying game of the Final Four. Both teams move the ball really well, and thus far, no one has come up with more remarkable defensive game plans than Geno Auriemma and his staff.

And who doesn't want to see UConn's Diana Taurasi and Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen on the same court? Taurasi, as usual, has put on her tournament-time demeanor. UConn continues to feed off its two-time Naismith award winner, just like Whalen at Minnesota.

Both players were selected to last year's Kodak All-America team as one of the top-10 players in the nation, and are two of the most fiercely individual competitors in the tournament. They can take over a game, and when either one gets hot, their team also finds its offensive rhythm. And while scouting reports can tell them what they should expect from the opponent, you can take it all away and the bottom line is that these two players just know how to play basketball. Put a ball in their hands and watch them go.

Former Oklahoma standout Stacey Dales-Schuman, who has been a WNBA All-Star with the Washington Mystics, is an analyst for ESPN.