Baylor the favorite among ESPN experts
A new champ will be crowned Tuesday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). Our experts define the game's biggest X-factors -- and predict the winner.
ESPN's Stacey Dales-Schuman
Ask the Spartans what's the toughest part about playing a zone all the time and they'll tell you it's facing opponents who screen a lot. Baylor, however, is a very good screening team.
Baylor also might not be as unfamiliar with the matchup zone as some people think, having faced Iowa State in conference play. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said Monday that Bill Fennelly and the Cyclones play as good a matchup zone as you can find. Fennelly is a mastermind at it. When the two teams met on Feb. 19, Baylor won 82-77.
That brings us to Baylor point guard Chelsea Whitaker, a player everybody criticizes for her inconsistency. Admittedly, she doesn't always pass with precision, but she's a very smart player who has excellent clock management. I like her attitude and poise. And against Iowa State earlier this year, Whitaker helped Baylor tally 23 assists and commit just nine turnovers. Whitaker, in fact, scored a career-high 20 points vs. the Cyclones.
Baylor and MSU are very balanced, and that's one reason Spartans sophomore Rene Haynes is so important. She only had four points Sunday, but I like what she typically brings off the bench, especially against an athletic team. Haynes is MSU's best defender and most athletic player. Teammate Liz Shimek continues to be a key. When she gets touches, MSU is a better team. The Spartans tend to get the ball to her at the end of the game, when she hits her left hook, but they should look to do that earlier in the game.
Expect MSU to try and take away Baylor's posts, who are unbelievable. And the beauty of Baylor this season is that a different player has stepped up every single game. Rebounding, as always, is important.
ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
More than anything, the Spartans' zone might be the biggest X-factor. Everybody from Vanderbilt to Stanford to Tennessee in this tournament, and from Connecticut to Ohio State to Minnesota in the regular season, has tried to figure out the 3-2 zone. So far, no one has been successful, including Tennessee, which is more familiar with it than most after facing Auburn all these years in the SEC. The zone remains an unknown and takes opponents out of their comfort zone. And though Baylor saw a similar zone from Iowa State earlier this season, this marks the first time the Lady Bears will see Michigan State's matchup zone, which is slightly different. More
ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
I think it'll come down to whether Baylor can control the offensive boards. Both teams are used to getting a lot of second-chance points. Whichever team is able to come out on top in that category Tuesday has a pretty good chance of being the winner. Tennessee did beat Michigan State handily on the boards and still lost. But I wouldn't expect Baylor's offense to have the type of breakdowns that the Lady Vols' did if the Spartans find themselves having to come back.
ESPN's Beth Mowins
It's going to be a great game. There's no pressure on either team and I expect them to come out and play and have fun. I think Michigan State point guard Kristin Haynie is going to look to bounce back offensively and have a big night.
But it's all going to come down to Baylor's Sophia Young and whether Michigan State can handle her defensively. On Sunday, Young tried to go at LSU's Sylvia Fowles inside and got her shot blocked. So Young started stepping out to the foul line -- and Fowles didn't step out with her. Michigan State's Liz Shimek will handle Young better than Fowles. Shimek has the ability to step out with Young and the speed to get by her on the dribble. That'll be a very interesting matchup.
ESPN's Doris Burke
The game will come down to the supporting casts once again. As well as Baylor's Emily Niemann played in the semifinals, she has to play well again. She's a big body who's deceptive in her ability to beat people off the bounce. But she can also stick the jumper.
Obviously they're going to focus on taking away the inside game. Though Kelli Roehrig's lateral speed's not great, she can create problems because she takes up so much space. Steffanie Blackmon will occupy her.
Sophia Young had to step away to 15 to be effective Sunday. On Tuesday, she'll be able to go off the bounce, use her speed, her elevation to go off people. I think she'll play well, but somebody else like Niemann or Chameka Scott has to step up.
It has been feast or famine with Scott in this tournament. She was 0-for-9 from 3-point range before her big night in the regional final. So is she going to knock down some shots Tuesday? Baylor doesn't need a lot. But if Scott hits a couple timely 3s, everybody else relaxes and Young and Blackmon don't feel the pressure.
Two things can hurt Michigan State's matchup zone -- dribble penetration and uncontested jump shots. And one can be the product of another; you can get uncontested jump shots with great penetration.
ESPN.com's Graham Hays
With a rotation that goes deeper than six players about as often as Pat Summitt cracked a smile in the second half of her national semifinal, Michigan State doesn't have a lot of candidates for X-factor status. The point totals might fluctuate, but you know what you're getting out of Kristin Haynie, Liz Shimek, Lindsay Bowen and Kelli Roehrig.
But for the Spartans to knock off Baylor on Tuesday night, either Rene Haynes or Victoria Lucas-Perry will have to make a significant offensive contribution. Lucas-Perry did just that against Tennessee, draining three 3-pointers on her way to 14 points. On the season, both averaged just less than one 3-pointer a game on 31 percent shooting from behind the arc. All of which means both are just good enough from outside to occasionally get on a roll. And if one of them does against Baylor, it could lead to a national championship.
ESPN's Ann Meyers
Defending inside is key. Sophia Young is going to be solid and will likely have the same kind of game she has produced all season long.
Liz Shimek and Kelli Roehrig will look to dominate in the paint. Kristin Haynie had an off night offensively on Sunday, finishing with four points and seven turnovers, but I don't expect her to struggle in the final. And even if she does, the Spartans have proven they can still win.
That's the great thing about Michigan State -- other players do step up. Victoria Lucas-Perry hit some crucial 3-pointers Sunday, and Rene Haynes, who came off the bench and did nothing for Michigan State in the semifinals, will likely turn things around Tuesday.
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