UConn, Louisville the favorites
Louisville-OU point guard battle, Appel vs. Charles are key matchups Sunday
The national semifinals will be played Sunday in St. Louis. So how will the Final Four (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) shape up?
Louisville vs. Oklahoma
(ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
The similarities are few but profound. Both clubs have senior leaders (OU's Courtney Paris and Louisville's Angel McCoughtry) who have defined their respective programs over the past few seasons and will go down as all-time greats, but who still feel they have something to prove. Each also has a point guard (Danielle Robinson and Deseree' Byrd) who is just now truly understanding how to play the position. Both have head coaches (Sherri Coale and Jeff Walz) who have done wonders with programs that weren't much before them. Only one gets to play in the national championship, though.
Strengths: Louisville has won all season, but especially in the NCAA tournament, with its defense. The Cardinals held Baylor 30 points below its season scoring average and Maryland 19 points short of its season average. Louisville's first two opponents -- Liberty and LSU -- went for 42 and 52, respectively. In all four games, Walz's club has imposed its will from the early stages and never really let it go. Part of that will is also getting McCoughtry into space where she can create scoring opportunities. McCoughtry is the best player on the floor, and she rarely fails to live up to that description.
Conversely, Oklahoma is a team of runs. This tournament, specifically the wins over Georgia Tech and Purdue, has illustrated that the Sooners don't need to be the best team for all 40 minutes. Just being the best team for the right stretch of minutes is enough. Dangerous, perhaps, but successful nonetheless. Oklahoma is most lethal when it is working the offense inside-out, better able to maximize the assorted weapons it has.
Backcourt/frontcourt edge: Courtney Paris is the most statistically dominant frontcourt player in the history of collegiate basketball but in this tournament has arguably played the worst offense of her brilliant career. And that has been OK. She still delivered when it counted most in the second half against Purdue. That included as much passing out of the double-team for open looks as it did going to the basket herself.
Some of those passes went to Ashley Paris, who at times in March has been the better twin. Louisville's 6-foot-1 Gwen Rucker and 6-2 Keshia Hines really lack the size to play with the Paris sisters (Courtney is 6-4, and Ashley is 6-3), yet McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham are really the best pair of wing/midrange forwards in the game. And that's the real story line here: The frontcourt battle is divided in two, with the power and size of Oklahoma's twins versus the finesse of Louisville's pair. How the coaches decided to defend each other up front might decide who wins this battle. McCoughtry's all-around game and Bingham's ability to defend inside and out give the Cardinals the slight edge.
In the backcourt, Robinson and freshman Whitney Hand have become the enthusiasm that often leads the Sooners. Robinson's penetration and Hand's spot-up jump shooting complement each other perfectly. Carlee Roethlisberger has played well off the Oklahoma bench thus far in the tournament.
Byrd, meanwhile, played an exceptional floor game against Maryland, much of it on a bad leg. She has figured out how to run the team the Walz way and maintain her status as the third option. Freshman Becky Burke has been coming off the Louisville bench but playing starter minutes. If she hits a few 3-pointers, it spreads the floor that much more for McCoughtry and Bingham. Her game is similar to Hand's.
X factor: Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said it after the regional final win over Purdue: When Whitney Hand makes a 3-pointer, the Sooners come alive. They truly are a different team with a different energy when Hand's shots find the bottom of the net. Tuesday was the perfect example. Hand, despite playing hard, didn't score in the first half, and Oklahoma trailed Purdue by five. The freshman hit three 3-pointers after the break, and the Sooners won the second half by 11.
The health of Amanda Thompson's foot is also something to watch. The junior, a starter most of the season, gave the Sooners a fairly active and productive 12 minutes against the Boilermakers after just a three-minute stint a game earlier against Pittsburgh. A healthier Thompson is one more key weapon at Coale's disposal.
Who wins: Louisville in a nail-biter that, other than the close score, might not be all that aesthetically pleasing. The Cardinals play defense a bit better and in crunch time have a star in McCoughtry who can create her own shots and opportunities. McCoughtry is taking any big shot for Louisville. Paris still needs someone to get her the ball, and Robinson is just as likely to be taking Oklahoma's biggest attempts. The edge in that department goes to the Cardinals -- and so does the game.
Stanford vs. Connecticut (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
Strengths: The Huskies are the nation's highest-scoring offense for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Auriemma has a brilliant collection of talent and more players who simply have the ability to put the ball in the basket than anyone else. And it doesn't always have to be the big three of Renee Montgomery, Maya Moore and Tina Charles, as the regional semifinal win over Cal illustrated. Montgomery wasn't particularly good against the Bears, and Charles was a non-factor most of the night, but Tiffany Hayes was spectacular -- nearly perfect, in fact -- going 9-for-10 from the field.
Against Arizona State, Hayes, like most freshmen, played inconsistently and didn't have the same impact. But Montgomery reverted to her All-America self against the Sun Devils, finding numerous ways to score in an 11-for-16, 22-point night. The Huskies can score in so many different ways -- perimeter shooting, in the post, off the offensive glass, on the break -- with a precise execution in each area that makes them impossible to stop, or even slow down, for an entire 40 minutes. Of course, UConn's defense is also among the best in most major statistical categories. Little mystery exists behind the 37-0.
Perhaps it's cliché to call Stanford players smart, but the fact is they are. (Heck, after winning the Pac-10 tournament title, Jillian Harmon ended a postgame interview saying she had to go study for a final that night in a class most of us couldn't even pronounce, let alone pass.) It's definitely not cliché, however, to call Stanford players tall. All five starters are 6 feet or taller.
The brains contribute mightily to a triangle offense run as well as anything this side of the '98 Bulls. Stanford produced the second best assists-per-game average and assist-to-turnover ratio in the country, and the size turned out the nation's best rebounding margin. In other words, the Cardinal get the ball better than anyone, keep it, and know what to do with it.
Both offenses are clicking right now and are just plain fun to watch.
Backcourt/frontcourt edge: Appel has been the player of the tournament so far, averaging 24.5 points and 12.3 rebounds. What's even scarier is her added ability to block shots and that she ranks second on her squad in assists. The junior center has also been getting much more help from already useful Nnemkadi Ogwumike. The freshman has contributed 15.5 points and 8.8 rebounds in Stanford's four NCAA tournament wins, an increase of five points and three rebounds over her regular-season stats. By the end of this Final Four a number of people still won't know how to pronounce her name, but they will likely recognize her game.
Kayla Pedersen sacrificed some of her offensive game in the move to small forward (a result of a domino effect when Jeanette Pohlen became Stanford's point guard after JJ Hones went down with an ACL tear), but the change opened the door for Ogwumike's steady development and has made Pedersen more versatile. She's Stanford's version of Maya Moore, though no one on the floor is as versatile or talented as Moore. Charles is at her most effective when she's active on the offensive glass. As long as Charles can get some easy ones and make Appel's life difficult on the other end, Moore becomes the difference-maker, tipping the scales slightly to UConn.
Stanford's offense is such that it doesn't necessarily need a point guard in the traditional sense. Pohlen does a good job of getting it started on many possessions, moving the ball up the floor via the pass as much as with the dribble. The sophomore will share some of the backcourt ball-handling duties with junior leader Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who otherwise contributes mainly as the team's primary on-the-ball defender. Harmon, Stanford's lone senior of significance, does a little bit of everything.
Yet no one fills that role as well as Montgomery on the other side. She's UConn's MVP because she gets the Huskies started on both ends. Montgomery also has all her teammates playing for her in the pursuit of getting Connecticut's favorite daughter a national title before she departs Storrs. While Montgomery alone might be enough to give the Huskies the upper hand in the backcourt, Hayes and Kalana Greene are as good a fourth and fifth option as there are in the game. The Cal game showed exactly what Hayes can be, and Greene has a nose for the basketball.
X factor: UConn's Moore. If, somehow, all else is failing for UConn on the offensive end, Auriemma always has the option of running a play for Moore. No one delivers in those situations quite like the super sophomore. Look no further than last year's Final Four meeting between the Huskies and Cardinal to see how important having one player to save a bad possession, consistently finish in transition or create a scoring opportunity at the end of the shot clock can be. Candice Wiggins' ability to do that a year ago was a key to Stanford's upset. When she gets just a little selfish, Moore is brilliant in those circumstances, rarely taking a bad shot or forcing a pass. Stanford no longer has that player. And Moore is the one Husky who won't have a completely off night. She will find a way even if the stroke isn't there.
Who wins: Connecticut. The Cardinal are playing exceptional basketball right now, as well as they've played all season and better than anyone in the country except UConn. The Huskies are just too good. With a national championship and an unbeaten season just two games away, the idea of sending Montgomery out with the one thing she doesn't yet have in her career, and last year's disappointment against Stanford still lingering, it is hard to imagine the Huskies' not delivering in this one.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.
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