Final Four features different makeups
A city that likes to call itself the "Crossroads of America" is as good a spot as any for the best college basketball teams from east, west, north and south (if only barely, in north's case) to gather and settle a national championship.
But Indianapolis is also a place that understands the disparate directions from whence Connecticut, Stanford, Notre Dame and Texas A&M come on the basketball map. Hoosiers have long lived in the middle of the philosophical quandary soon to be at the heart of the games now set for Conseco Fieldhouse. And if your interest is more traditional than tabloid, it's every bit as interesting as Geno Auriemma vs. Pat Summitt or Maya Moore vs. Brittney Griner.
Whether 'tis better to build a champion around one player or around one player at a time.
Indiana is the state that provided the backdrop for fictional coach Norman Dale to lead a small group of Hoosiers to a state title by reminding them that basketball must be, "Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team, no one more important than the other." It's where Bob Knight rose to prominence with a system whose most famous tenet might have been an edict to make at least four passes before attempting a shot. And it's a state where Butler is returning to the men's Final Four for the second year in a row, despite losing its best player to the NBA.
Team is triumphant. No one person is bigger than the game, which is music to the ears of Stanford and Notre Dame.
Only, as it turns out, this is also a state that celebrates the individual -- Dale's Hickory High team would have taken its fundamentals home in the sectionals without Jimmy Chitwood, or real-life counterpart Bobby Plump in the case of Milan High School. Indiana produced Oscar Robertson and the legendary Crispus Attucks High School teams he led to two state titles in the 1950s. And long before Brad Stevens ever diagrammed a play or bumped a chest, Indiana State carried the small-school banner to the Final Four on the strength of Larry Bird's individual brilliance.
So on second thought, maybe single stars shine brightest here.
NOTRE DAME VS. UCONN
Connecticut and Notre Dame will meet Sunday at the Final Four. The Big East rivals already have played three times this season, most recently March 8 in the Big East championship game in Hartford, Conn.
|Jan. 8||UConn 79, at Notre Dame 76|
|Feb. 19||At UConn 78, Notre Dame 57|
|March 8||UConn 73, Notre Dame 64|
How have each team's stars performed in the series? Diggins, a 42.5 percent shooter on the season, has shot 35 percent against UConn. Maya Moore's stats include a 31-point performance in their first meeting.
Enter Connecticut's Moore, a small forward who brought the skills of so many of her predecessors to their next logical evolution, and Texas A&M's Danielle Adams, a 6-foot-1 post player who is perhaps the steam engine of yesteryear to the bullet train of tomorrow that is Griner -- but who is also about as difficult to dislodge as the former at full power.
Already the two-time reigning Wade Trophy winner as the nation's best player, a streak she's almost certain to stretch to three in the days ahead, Moore was no less of a player the past two seasons than she is now. But Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles preceded her arrival in Storrs and shared the leading role, both figuratively and literally (splitting shots almost equally three ways in 2008-09 and two ways in 2009-10 after Montgomery graduated). The simple math that shows Moore taking 200 more shots than any of her teammates this season tells a different story this time around, but she is also the less tangible leader in tone, demeanor and spirit for the Huskies.
She can't lead if she doesnt have Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley, Kelly Faris, Tiffany Hayes and Lorin Dixon to follow, but as she showed for only the most recent time in taking control of the regional final against Duke, she sets the route.
Adams may not program the GPS for the Aggies like Moore does for the Huskies, but the Final Four didn't lose a second outsized presence just because Baylor's Griner didn't make it. Like her Connecticut counterpart, Adams took 200 more shots than any of her teammates, not to mention more free throws than any two of her teammates combined. She is the offensive cornerstone around which Texas A&M coach Gary Blair finally built a Final Four team with his trademark defense.
That Texas A&M can survive an occasional poor shooting night from her was evident in the regional final against Baylor, when Sydney Carter stepped into the void of Adam's 3-of-12 shooting and scored 22 points. That it can't hope to do so and win two more games at this time of year was evident in the three losses against its in-state rival that preceded Tuesday night.
As for the opponents when Moore faces Notre Dame for a fourth time and Adams faces Stanford for the first time, good luck predicting a leading scorer.
Stanford's heart and soul is Kayla Pedersen, the senior any-position-you-want-her-to-play who combines an inside-outside game with unflappable intensity. Its most talented player may be Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who put up 38 points and 16 rebounds in a national semifinal against Oklahoma last season and led the team in scoring in each of the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament this season. But its All-American is Jeanette Pohlen, the senior point guard who still has the offensive capability of her scoring roots, as she demonstrated in scoring 31 points to lead the Cardinal past Connecticut in December. And that doesn't even factor in Chiney Ogwumike, Nnemkadi's younger sister, who may someday be the best of the entire bunch.
Notre Dame has its own face of the franchise in Skylar Diggins, who looked every bit a star in leading her team past Tennessee in a regional final, but as Summitt noted in defeat, Diggins scores when she needs to but is just as comfortable keeping everyone else happy. And there are plenty of people worth keeping happy, a list that begins with leading scorer Natalie Novosel, a good trivia answer as the Final Four participant with the most free-throw attempts this season. Throw in Devereaux Peters as a game-changing athletic presence in the frontcourt, an outside shooter in Brittany Mallory and a crafty low-post presence in Becca Bruszewski, and it's remarkable Diggins had time to get the shots off that she did.
None of this, of course, is more than an outline.
Connecticut will need Hartley, Dolson, Hayes or all three to come up with big moments or big games, just as Texas A&M will need Carter to reprise her heroics against Baylor or point guard Sydney Colson to pull off a similar trick.
Stanford could ride an Ogwumike weekend, be it Nneka or Chiney, to a title, or South Bend native Diggins could make Indianapolis her second home in the Hoosier State, as Ruth Riley did for Notre Dame in 2001.
But one truth in a state that adores basketball above all else is that the best philosophy is the one that wins.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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