By: Jeffrey Newholm
In my preview of the women’s tournament, I said that the men’s tournament was less predictable, but there was a certain beauty to seeing excellent teams play really well in the ladies’ game. But that narrative was turned on its head this year, to say the least! Only one #1 seed made the Final Four, three teams are going to the finals for the first time and NBS’ women’s basketball “expert” has seen his bracket fall to the 50th percentile. Only eight- that’s right eight– brackets got the Final Four right, and only .33% got so much as three out of four. Uconn is so no surprise, and Oregon State only a mild one, but Syracuse and Washington are Cinderellas the likes of which the men’s tournament would be proud of. I’ll take a look at the last four teams still dancing, then preview both scheduled match-ups and my projected championship game.
Team capsule: Uconn
Recently a certain troll came out and said the Huskies were killing the game with their excellent play and he didn’t see the need to watch. And I must confess that, after the Uconn-South Carolina game that I did so much to promote ended up being another Husky blowout, I have sometimes wondered that myself. But having watched Uconn’s four regional games, and considering the superb storyline Uconn brings to Indianapolis, that I honestly don’t think that’s true. First of all this Final Four is the first time in tournament history that a three time defending champion returned to the Finals a fourth time to go for the “fourpeat” (the previous two threepeat teams lost in the regionals). Uconn’s seniors could become the only four time national champions in this history of college basketball (freshmen weren’t eligible in the UCLA dynasty era). That doesn’t sound boring to me! Also, while this does seem strange to say for an undefeated team, the Huskies have turned it up a notch in March. They have won their tourney games by an average of 45 points a game, including a record 60 point rout in the Sweet 16. That’s the game that made the troll roll his eyes. While, granted, a 60 point game may get dull pretty quickly, I find the Huskies’ transformation into a steamroller fascinating. Uconn and senior leader Breanna Stewart (aka just “Stewie”) have been transformed into “tournament Uconn” and “tournament Stewie”. Uconn is playing in another world right now, and it’s hard to imagine them being taken down. Early next week, either they complete the unprecedented fourpeat, or another team plays an inspired game and foils them. Don’t want to watch? I’d call that your loss.
Capsule: Oregon State
State hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1983, but for the #2 seed Beavers a trip to the Elite Eight wasn’t too much of a shock. But I predicted that the run would end there at the hands of mighty Baylor, who had been building towards a Final Four for years. But the Beavers’ biggest strength, their defense, came up big in the final minute. State gives up only 51 points a game and holds opponents to a minuscule 32% shooting average. With the game tied in the last minute, State stopped the Bears three straight times while the Beavers hit three free throws, sealing an unlikely win in Dallas. The Beavers are led by Senior Jamie Weisner, who averages 17 points a game and shoots 45% from three, and also feature Senior Ruth Hamblin and Junior Sydney Wiese, who both average double figures in scoring as well. State is probably the least surprising surprise this March considering they won the Pac-12, which proved to be the strongest conference this year, added the conference’s tournament trophy to their collection and were the highest #2 seed. Sure some (myself included) counted them out, but clearly the Beavers weren’t awed by Baylor’s rich history and had the composure to handle a rather biased regional crowd.
In the Elite Eight Texas seemed to reveal some chinks in the Huskies’ armor, giving them an all-around tough fight and taking away Uconn’s usual strengths. Uconn had only two points in transition, one point off turnovers and were out-rebounded by the Longhorns. But personally I think the “close” 21 point game helped the Huskies. It served as a wake-up call that the preposterously easy Sweet 16 game was an aberration and the next three would be hard fought battles. In 2010, Uconn won its Elite Eight game by 40, but were very nearly beaten in the Final Four. I think a (comparatively) tough battle will help the team enter Sunday’s game with the right mindset. Also, while the Beavers may be a great defensive team, some of their numbers on offense concern me. State turned the ball over 71 times more often than their opponent, which could spell doom if live ball turnovers prevent the Beavers from setting up their defense. Also, State only averages 35% shooting for three, meaning the team may have trouble keeping up with Uconn’s dynamic offense. Texas hit enough threes to keep it close, but not nearly enough to give the Longhorns a realistic chance to win. This one won’t be a 40 point thrashing, but Uconn will gradually build a 15 to 20 point lead, and the Beavers won’t have the firepower to come back.
Team Capsule: Syracuse
The Lady Orange, like their male counterparts, feature a distinctive defensive focus. For the men it’s Boeheim’s famed zone, and for the ladies it’s a furious full court press. The Orange force an average of 24 turnovers and 12 steals a game and completely overwhelmed the mid majors they faced in the sub-regionals at home. So making the program’s first Sweet 16 wasn’t too much of a surprise or too much of a struggle. What was a surprise was coming back and beating #2 overall seed South Carolina despite being down double figures in the second half and then blowing past the Tennessee Vols in the second half to win by 22 in the Elite Eight. The Orange aren’t led by one superstar seeing as four players average in double figures in scoring, but Junior guard Alexis Peterson is the closest thing to one as she averages a team leading 16.1 points and 4.7 assists a game (the assist figure being more three times that of any other starter). South Carolina seemed to be the game’s next dynasty in the making, but the Orange made them take a step back in their development while at the same time leaping ahead two or three steps themselves.
Team Capsule: Washington
The Washington Huskies are the Cinderella to end all Cinderellas. I’d put them right up there with the George Masons and VCU’s of the world. The Huskies hadn’t won a tournament game since 2006 and were given a .2% chance to go to the Final Four per FiveThirtyEight. And considering the Huskies had to go through Maryland on the road, Kentucky in Lexington and then conference rival Stanford to get to Indy, one could probably forgive Washington fans for planning a different vacation this year. But behind the nation’s third leading scorer in Junior Kelsey Plum and an inspired effort by regional MVP Chantel Osahor, the Huskies pulled off perhaps the most improbable four game run in NCAA women’s history. Those two scored a combined 50 points in the Elite Eight, with Osahor pulling down 18 boards. In that game against the Cardinal the Huskies again proved that they aren’t the deepest team with three players playing the whole game and Osahor playing 39 minutes. But if Plum and Osahor can play so marvelously, then what’s the need for a substitute? The one concern I have is that those two finished with four fouls, with two of the other key players picking up three. Depth may be overrated, but the Huskies could be in trouble if someone fouled out or suffered an untimely injury.
This one’s much tougher to call than the early semifinal. One could argue the Orange’s press would eventually wear the Huskies out, just as the Orange wore out the Vols in the regionals. But the Vols were playing their second game of the weekend and had no idea until two days earlier that they would be playing Syracuse. The Huskies’ lack of depth hasn’t been a problem so far this tournament, and they looked poised in the last two minutes against the Cardinal desperation press, only turning it over once on a questionable charge call. I like the Huskies for the same reason I liked Oklahoma in the men’s regionals: they have a player-two players actually-who are capable of taking over the game and carrying their team. Plum is a well known elite talent, and Osahor always seems to be one step ahead of her opponent. This should be an entertaining night cap but in the end Plum and Osahor will step up and make the big plays down the stretch to get the Huskies to the championship game.
Washington Uconn Final Match-up
FiveThirtyEight gives the Uconn Huskies a lofty 93% chance to win everything while only crediting the Washington Huskies with a paltry 1% chance. Seems like a pretty easy call. However, those probabilities are based off computer rankings, preseason polls and team’s seeds, all three of which I’d call into question at this point. Preseason polls are irrelevant now, and clearly Washington is playing better than your typical #7 seed (although Uconn looks like a good pick for the #1 overall seed so far). I also don’t put too much weight on those fancy computer rankings because they, like the old BCS computers, don’t have eyes. They can’t see the passion and desire Washington played with in the regionals, or Osahor’s supreme and intangible command of the game us humans could see against Stanford. But the problem for Washington is that the Uconn Huskies play with a lot of heart too. I remember one expert commented last year that “you better get Stewie her Junior year, because you’re not going to get her her Senior year”. Four years ago Stewart arrived on campus and declared she would deliver a fourpeat, which may not have been that serious a boast and certainly wasn’t taken too seriously by many fans. Well now Stewart and her classmates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck-the “big three”-are two wins away from backing up her tough talk. Against Texas, the bit players build the lead up to 15 at the half, and then the big three took over and closed out the game. Washington in the end is too much like the Louisville Cards in 2013-a team on an inspired run that eventually has to meet their match and run out of gas. Those Cards somehow beat Baylor, Tennessee and Cal, but Uconn proved to be too much and dispatched them by 33. I think the Washington Huskies are an inspiration to the game, but Uconn will be ready. If Stewart can get them to Tuesday’s final, plays with a champion’s mentality, and doesn’t blink under the lights her team has played under so many times, no way will she lose. From the beginning this tournament was called the Uconn invitational. Washington would be honored to be the final guest left, but in the end they too must be asked to leave.
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