The matchup isn't at all unique, but when Louisville plays Connecticut on Tuesday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), the Cardinals are hoping the result is.
The Cardinals and Huskies have met twice this season with the Huskies' two victories coming by 28 and 39 points. The second meeting in the Big East tournament title game on March 10 was enough to elicit cringing from those who stuck with the game deep into the second half. The Cardinals managed just 36 points, and when UConn's Maya Moore left the game with eight minutes still remaining, she had outscored Louisville 28-27.
Does that inject Louisville with motivation or intimidation? The Cardinals are playing to shock the world. Connecticut is playing to make history with another unbeaten championship season.
Strengths: Louisville has become the little engine that could in this tournament. It's the team -- in the last two games, at least -- with less perceived natural ability than its opponents, but a greater will. Each night, coach Jeff Walz has expertly devised a game plan -- make Baylor shoot from the outside, go right after Maryland, disrupt the comfort level of Oklahoma's guards -- and his team has executed well each time. Despite a gaudy 34-4 record and the fact the Cardinals beat every highly regarded team they faced except UConn, Walz has convinced his team to embrace this underdog persona that no doubt started with the No. 3 seed Louisville received on Selection Monday.
Louisville has done two things in its five NCAA tournament victories distinctly better than its opponents: defend and control the tempo. Certainly, Louisville has become better at this methodical, defense-first approach since its two previous meetings with UConn. One last improvement will be necessary on Tuesday.
Geno Auriemma might lament at times that his team turns over the ball too much or fouls too frequently or that Tina Charles doesn't assert herself enough or the young players still play like young players. But the fact is the Huskies don't have a real weakness. They are first in the nation in field goal accuracy, second in field goal defense, third in rebounding margin, first in scoring margin (by a mile), and have simply taken apart every highly ranked opponent in their path.
In fact, UConn has been so thoroughly dominant that identifying one distinguishable strength is as equally difficult as finding one nonexistent weakness. In the end, defense is the ultimate fuel that ignites this engine of domination and Stanford can attest to that.
Key matchup: Renee Montgomery versus Deseree' Byrd. Even if Sunday's game against Stanford had been close, the look in Montgomery's eyes revealed that she wasn't going to let the Huskies lose. She's the leader, glue and catalyst for everything UConn does on both ends of the floor. It would be unfair to ask Byrd, who is playing just her 39th game ever as a point guard, to check Montgomery all night and outplay Montgomery. Realistically, what Byrd needs to do for Louisville to have a chance is to make Montgomery's life just a little bit difficult. The UConn senior was able to do whatever she wanted against Stanford. If Byrd can just put up a solid performance and not let Montgomery become the runaway winner of the matchup, perhaps even make her feel a little uncomfortable on occasion, then the Louisville sophomore will have succeeded. Byrd can't get blown out the way Stanford's guards did.
Backcourt/frontcourt advantage: The knock on Louisville all season has been that it lacks a post game. And it's accurate to say that Keshia Hines and Monique Reid in the low block won't make anyone worry. However, forwards Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham are such unique players that Hines and Reid haven't had to. Louisville's two seniors, especially McCoughtry, are chameleons, adapting to the game's defensive environment. Most nights both are able to find ways to score, discovering the areas that the opponent isn't taking away and eventually exploiting them.
McCoughtry's second half against Oklahoma was a prime example. Unfortunately for Louisville, UConn's Maya Moore is at least McCoughtry's equal in that area, also damaging an opponent in every area of the game -- defense, rebounding, transition offense, midrange offense -- but with better 3-point ability. Moore can do it so unsuspectingly, so smoothly, that the numbers aren't always apparent until the stat sheet comes out. Center Tina Charles isn't as consistent as Auriemma would like, but she remains one of the two or three best post players in the country, thus giving UConn a huge edge in the paint.
Byrd and backcourt mate Becky Burke might be the two must unsung players in this tournament. While Byrd's stat line doesn't always look pretty (she has scored in double figures only once in the tournament and is averaging over three turnovers in the five games), she has taken the unique game plans Walz has devised on paper and been the catalyst for their success on the floor. Burke has seemed to hit the 3-pointers in the last three games that sting the most. But it's her defense, particularly her second-half harassment of Oklahoma's Whitney Hand, that has been the biggest contribution.
Tiffany Hayes and Kalana Greene are UConn's chief role players and they each went for double figures in the national semifinal. Another scary thought for Louisville: Montgomery averaged merely nine points on 5-of-22 shooting in the two UConn blowouts of the Cardinals. The UConn senior point guard doesn't have to score to be good, but when she does, she's devastating. Montgomery is a huge advantage for the Huskies simply by putting on the uniform.
X factor: UConn's Charles. Louisville just doesn't have an answer for the 6-foot-4 junior. Hines and Reid were undersized against Oklahoma, too, but the Paris twins aren't the athletic equivalent of Charles. Plus, Bingham could give more help than she will be able to against UConn. Charles averaged 19.5 points on 14-of-23 shooting and 12.5 rebounds in the two early meetings between the two clubs. Generally, Charles has been the easiest of UConn's big three to take away and Louisville hasn't been able to do it.
Who wins: Connecticut. The Huskies have already proved they are much better than Louisville and are too close to finishing this job to let it slip away now. The Cardinals will need their absolute best performance and the Huskies' C-game just to stay in it.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.