Commentary

Sunday's X factors: Stanford's Hones, Parker's shoulder

Updated: April 3, 2008, 9:52 AM ET
By Charlie Creme | Special to ESPN.com

Stanford and UConn have already met once this season. LSU and Tennessee will clash for the third time. So how will their rematches in Sunday's Final Four in Tampa shape up (coverage beings at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN)?

Stanford vs. Connecticut
(ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)

Forget the 66-54 UConn win between these two at the Paradise Jam on Nov. 22, 2007. UConn's Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene combined for 20 of the Huskies' 66 points that night, but injuries have since robbed Connecticut of those two guards. While UConn hasn't missed a beat, losing just one game all season, the approach has changed. Meanwhile, with the way Stanford's offense is clicking now, it's hard to imagine the Cardinal offense being held to 54 points again.

Strengths: The Huskies are usually associated with star players and big scoring margins, but down the stretch, the UConn key has been on the defensive end. Geno Auriemma's defensive philosophy is geared on aggressively taking away open looks. The Huskies simply don't give up many clean 3-point attempts; opponents shoot less than 27 percent from behind the arc.

Stanford's strength, however, is its ability to get open shots. The triangle offense is unique in the women's game, but it has worked to near perfection in the tournament for the Cardinal, who are averaging 86 points and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field in their four wins.

Key matchup: UConn's Tina Charles vs. Stanford's Jayne Appel. Auriemma has been starting Brittany Hunter instead of Charles (a move designed to help keep Hunter's troublesome knee loose after pregame warmups), but Charles is seeing plenty of playing time and should be on the court even more Sunday night. Appel has an array of moves on the low block and Auriemma needs Charles' agility, aggressiveness and length to combat that -- and turn Stanford into more of a perimeter team.

[+] EnlargeStanford-UConn
AP Photo/Brennan LinsleyKetia Swanier's UConn beat Rosalyn Gold-Onwude's Stanford 66-54 at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 22, 2007.

Backcourt/frontcourt edge: When Charles is also providing some offense, it's hard to beat the UConn frontcourt. Maya Moore is the best small forward in the country, not just in this Final Four, and then Auriemma can run Charde Houston, Hunter and Kaili McLaren out there, seeking the hot hand or best matchup. Stanford's Appel and Kayla Pedersen are outstanding offensive players, but they aren't defensive stoppers. Stanford also doesn't have much more after Jillian Harmon, whose strengths also lie on the offensive end.

Renee Montgomery might be UConn's most important player, and Ketia Swanier has been quietly effective. But with Thomas and Greene gone, the Huskies have no depth in the backcourt. Stanford doesn't need depth. It has Candice Wiggins, the best player in this tournament thus far. With Rosalyn Gold-Onwude handling the point, which allows Wiggins to run free, and JJ Hones toeing the 3-point arc, Stanford has a deeper, more diverse group of guards.

X factor: Hones was huge against Maryland but wasn't really a factor in Stanford's other three tournament games. Against a team like UConn, which is dedicated to taking away perimeter shots, the Cardinal can't rely only on Wiggins to pose a threat from deep -- it's unlikely the Huskies will let Wiggins beat them like the Terrapins did. So even with UConn concentrating on the entire perimeter, someone else is likely to get some clean jumpers. That someone else should be Hones. She'll need to make a few.

Who wins: Connecticut. If styles make great fights, this one should be intriguing. Which defense can make the most stops late is usually the winner in these types of games. As Rutgers now knows too well, the Huskies are a team that makes stops when it has to. That defense will be the difference.

LSU vs. Tennessee (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET)

There's no place like the Final Four to determine which team really was the best in the SEC this season. After LSU's regular-season title (and win over the Lady Vols in Knoxville, Tenn.) and Tennessee's tournament championship (over the Lady Tigers in the title game in Nashville, Tenn.), Sunday serves as the rubber match and will decide the league's best club in 2008.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker and Sylvia Fowles
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAll eyes will be on player of the year candidates Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker on Sunday. LSU beat Tennessee 78-62 on Feb. 14, while the Lady Vols returned the favor, 61-55, in the SEC tournament title game.

Strengths: Conference affiliation is not nearly all these teams share. They are eerily similar in their construction, and their experience is the chief reason both made it to Tampa. When the ball gets thrown up to start the game, nine out of the 10 players surrounding the referee will be seniors (remember, Candace Parker is a senior academically, but redshirted her freshman season). And we're talking big-game experience. Angie Bjorklund is the only player in Pat Summitt's rotation who doesn't have a ring. With LSU playing in its fifth consecutive Final Four, no one on the Lady Tigers' roster has played a Division I season and not been a part of the game's showcase event. Van Chancellor is in his first season at LSU but his 20th overall year of college coaching. Few in the game have his level of experience.

LSU's defense also gets plenty of attention. Tennessee's should, too, but is perhaps overlooked because of all the attention Parker garners. The Lady Vols' defense was absolutely brilliant in Oklahoma City, and -- like LSU -- the Lady Vols wouldn't be in Tampa without the commitment to getting big stops.

Key matchup: The onus of the key individual matchup falls on Tennessee's Nicky Anosike and her clash with Sylvia Fowles. North Carolina too frequently allowed Fowles to get on the offensive glass. Don't think Summitt didn't take notice. The coach and Anosike will have more than one conversation about that fact before Sunday night. Anosike will also have to accept that responsibility without getting into foul trouble. Alex Fuller off Tennessee's bench will be no match for LSU's All-American center.

Backcourt/frontcourt edge: Outside of Fowles and Ashley Thomas, LSU is really all guards. Erica White, RaShonta LeBlanc, and Quianna Chaney are relentless defenders, and that's what gives the Lady Tigers the slight edge in the backcourt. Chaney is also the scoring balance to Fowles on the inside. Tennessee's Shannon Bobbitt and Alexis Hornbuckle are perhaps more explosive, but aren't quite as consistent.

Parker is the best player in the game. If her left shoulder, which was dislocated twice in Tuesday's regional final, is close to 100 percent, then the Lady Vols get the advantage up front. As good as Fowles is, she is nowhere near as polished and versatile as Parker. Anosike has a way of coming up big in big games. If Bjorklund comes off the bench and hits a couple of 3-pointers, that really tips the scales Tennessee's way.

X factor: All things being equal, Hornbuckle would be the X factor. Her skills are so wide-ranging, and the 3-pointer she made down the stretch against Texas A&M illustrated the guts and confidence she possesses. She's good enough to be a Final Four MVP. However, with Parker's dislocated shoulder lingering, and less than a week for it to heal, her health is the No. 1 key to this game. If Parker happens to hurt it again and is hampered the way she was against the Aggies, Tennessee will have a tough time winning. The defense will have to be even more spectacular than the one Texas A&M saw in the final 10 minutes in the Elite Eight.

Who wins: LSU. Parker getting to 100 percent and maintaining that for an entire 40 minutes just seems unlikely. The Lady Tigers are too good if Tennessee is popping on all cylinders. That becomes the difference in the Lady Tigers finally getting over the hump to a national title game.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.

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Women's College Basketball
Charlie Creme projects the women's NCAA Tournament bracket for ESPN.com.