Spartans' backcourt could be difference
Tennessee will travel all the way to Indianapolis to see a defense it's very familiar with. For years, Auburn has given its SEC counterparts fits with its matchup zone. Now Michigan State has ridden the same defense into its first Final Four.
At times, both Stanford and Vanderbilt were successful against the Spartans' zone, and Tennessee should follow the Cardinal's game plan of setting up flare screens to shift the zone and then find a post on the weakside reversal. By the time the Spartans caught on, they were getting picked off on the screen, and they couldn't recover quick enough as Stanford threw the ball over the top and got its shooters some open looks. That's how Stanford made its second-half run.
Expect Tennessee -- which is more athletic than anybody else Michigan State has seen in this tournament -- to set a lot of flare screens. That opened up things around the foul line for Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols must also take advantage of looks that might open up on each wing. That, of course, means Tennessee's shooters need a good performance, which might be the biggest X-factor of all. I'm not sure the Lady Vols are as good a shooters as Stanford or Vanderbilt.
A look at how Tennessee and Michigan State match up:
Somebody on Tennessee is going to have to stop Kristin Haynie, who had a triple-double Sunday and followed it up with 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists Tuesday. She has proven she should be an All-American and is one of the best point guards in the nation.
Haynie's athleticism, fearlessness and constant movement make her a tough defensive assignment, and Tennessee point guard Loree Moore is going to get tired in this game. That's not to say Moore isn't up to the challenge, but it's a heck of an assignment. Moore must look to box out Haynie and harass her from end to end. And one disadvantage Moore has is the fact she has never seen Haynie before. As good as LSU's Temeka Johnson is, Moore at least has faced her for several years. But with Haynie, you really don't realize how quick or good she is until you're on the court with her.
Expect Lindsay Bowen to have a better shooting night than she did Tuesday (1-for-8 from field, 0-for-3 from beyond the arc). And even though she struggled, she had the confidence to hit her only basket at perhaps the most crucial time of the game -- after Stanford drew within one point with 43.6 seconds left, Bowen hit a 15-footer. She might be the most consistent 3-point shooter on the floor and can handle the pressure like any veteran.
Advantage: Michigan State. Haynie and Bowen are a formidable combo. Yes, Tennessee freshman Alexis Hornbuckle is amazing, but she's still a rookie. And Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson are great complements, but collectively the Spartans -- who committed just five turnovers Tuesday -- get the nod.
Shyra Ely is the X-factor. When she doesn't reach double figures, the score is usually close and at times this season Tennessee has lived and died based on her performances. The Lady Vols need her to produce big numbers to distance themselves from the opponent.
Rebounding will also be a huge factor in this matchup. Tennessee has been at its best in this tournament when it has dominated the boards and looked to run. In fact, at times, Tennessee's offense has looked better than it has in years.
But take away the Lady Vols' dominance on the glass, like Rutgers did at times Tuesday, and they struggle. It's not that they can't beat you in the halfcourt, but they're at their best when they can run in transition and be diverse in their offense. Earlier this season, Tennessee struggled through long scoring droughts when it didn't dominate the boards and get in transition.
Luckily for Tennessee, the Lady Vols are a great rebounding team in almost every position, and freshman Nicky Anosike is a monster on the glass, too. I love everything about her game. The Spartans could be hard-pressed to keep up with her speed and rebounding.
Michigan State's frontcourt is very underrated. Kelli Roehrig is a pure post, very smart and knows how to use her body. Liz Shimek is very skilled and also does an excellent job of using her body to create space and opportunity. On Tuesday, she scored with her left and right hand. To be successful against Tennessee's quicker posts, the Spartans must look to use their counter moves and step-throughs.
Rebounding-wise, Michigan State has been successful. They boast a plus-8 rebounding margin.
Advantage: Tennessee's depth wins out. Plus, the Lady Vols' posts are very physical and a lot quicker and will end up beating the Spartans to the spot on the initial move inside. And though she needs to come up big, Ely was a Kodak All-American a year ago for a reason.
Nobody knows Tennessee better than Michigan State assistant coach Al Brown, who spent seven seasons (1995-2002) with Pat Summitt. While in Knoxville, he helped direct the Lady Vols to five Final Four appearances, including consecutive national championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Joanne P. McCallie deserves all the credit for Michigan State's success, but Brown has played a big role. Watch them during timeouts and you'll see Brown in command of the coaches' huddle. Credit McCallie because she's smart enough to defer to Brown, who's scouting reports are better than just about anybody's. He's detailed and precise and an amazing scouter.
Another intangible is how well Michigan State can throw off Tennessee's offense. Already this tournament, the Spartans have derailed the third-leadnig scoring offense in the nation (Vanderbilt) and the sixth-best scoring team (Stanford).
Tennessee's bench has the edge. The Spartans really only go six or seven deep. Of course, Rene Haynes (about 8.0 ppg in 24 minutes) has done a fantastic job in the tournament, and she and Victoria Lucas-Perry (7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are as athletic as anybody on the court for either team.
But Tennessee just has so much more depth and talent on its bench.
I rarely bet against Pat Summitt. But I'm going with Michigan State. Tennessee has more Final Four experience, but the Spartans' balance -- four players in double figures -- wins out.
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.