| MESSAGE BOARD
RECORD: 31 - 4
REGION: East SEED: 2
COACH: Geno Auriemma CONFERENCE: American
Road to the Final Four ...................................................................................
Congratulations, world. You've had four years to try and figure out some way to guard Diana Taurasi, and you've finally gained a little ground. Yes, Taurasi and the Huskies have struggled offensively lately and need to get back on track. That's tough to do when everybody is gunning for you. Still, it does seem everyone's a little wiser in how to take away Taurasi's strengths and devise a game plan for her. Opponents are going at her on the defensive end and really trying to make her play both ends of the floor, banging on her, being more physical and contesting everything. So what's the answer? Balance. When Taurasi struggled in the Big East quarters, Barb Turner came up big. That supporting cast needs to continue to take the pressure off, because when they play well, it forces foes to change their game plans and slack off Taurasi a bit. In the past, Taurasi has come up big in big games, and UConn not only expects it but needs it. But the bottom line is that regardless of what defense she's seeing or what her teammates are doing, Taurasi, who is obviously playing with some pain, ultimately must step up and shake off this funk, too.
|PLAYER TO WATCH|
She's nicknamed "Dee," and it could stand for dominating, dangerous or just plain "done it all." Because she has. Player of the Year? Check. NCAA title? Check, check. Sure, she might have "slumped" a bit in late-February, produced a four-point game in the Big East quarterfinals and fallen short of Nykesha Sales' career scoring record at UConn, but Taurasi has something even more impressive in mind: helping the Huskies become the first team in NCAA history to make five consecutive Final Four appearances. Taurasi's confidence and ability to back it up are unmatched at this level. And though she's averaging 15.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and sporting a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, Taurasi's most impressive stat might be that UConn is 6-1 vs. archrival Tennessee since she arrived in Storrs. In the end, UConn foes probably just hope Dee doesn't stand for dejá vu.
ANALYSIS BY ESPN'S STACEY DALES-SCHUMAN
It seems like the basketball world has been whipped into a state of shock this season. The invincible Huskies happened to lose not just one or two games, but four!
But realize one thing: When a good team loses games, it doesn't mean it's vulnerable. It means that they are normal and healthy and they go through growing pains just as everybody else does. UConn's losses are nothing more than the fact that another team was better on a given day, and that the Huskies still have some steps to rehearse before the music starts.
Diana Taurasi's plight this season might in fact be more impressive than last. Besides the fact that the consensus 2002-03 national player of the year has battled through nagging aches and pains in addition to having the duty of literally hoisting the UConn program on her back, she has remained unwavering. She still leads the team in minutes, points and assists while shooting 42 percent from downtown -- and taking a beating along the way.
Sophomore guard Ann Strother needs to score plenty of points, which will force opposing defenses to spread the floor and concentrate less on Taurasi. Junior big Jessica Moore has to touch the ball down low and use her blistering quickness on the block to get to the rim. Sophomore forward Barb Turner, a woman with the body of a superhuman, needs to chip in her 14 points a game.
You might be thinking, "Yeah, everyone needs to score and get touches, so what?" Well, that's precisely the key. When you wear the biggest bull's-eye to ever don a jersey, you're bound to get everyone's most heroic effort. Therefore, UConn must take advantage of its balance and look to destroy an opponent based on what that opponent tries to take away. Balance, then, is critical.
Additionally, UConn needs the play of its bench. The Huskies have gotten 20-25 points from their reserves this season. The keys to the UConn reserves are forwards Willnett Crockett and Ashley Battle.
Crockett has the athleticism to compete down the stretch. She can score, she can board like a crazed machine, and she can use her overall physical presence to wear down the other team. Keep in mind that she was the main rebounding catalyst for UConn's win over Texas in last year's tournament semifinal. Battle is the team's defensive guru, and her energy never wavers.
Ultimately, look out for an insanely possessed UConn team in this year's tournament, especially after closing out the regular season with a loss to Villanova and then falling to Boston College in the Big East tournament semifinals.
Expect the high-intensity, pressure defense that has finally earned its due, plus an experienced club that understands the hoopla surrounding tournament action.
And above all, understand one thing: Geno Auriemma will have his team raring to go for the big stage showdown.