Friday, March 21, 2008
Will these rematches be any closer after regular-season routs?
By Graham Hays
A look at how Sunday's regional semifinals in Greensboro, N.C., stack up:
No. 5 Old Dominion vs. No. 1 Connecticut (ESPN, noon ET)
One of two regular-season rematches on the schedule in Greensboro, Old Dominion and Connecticut meet four months after the Huskies won by 43 points in a tournament in the Virgin Islands. A lot has changed since then, with Geno Auriemma's team losing two starters to season-ending injuries and Wendy Larry's team gaining momentum over the course of the season. Still, the task ahead remains monumental for the Lady Monarchs.
Strengths: Despite injuries that eliminated both its most proven outside shooter (Mel Thomas) and its best all-around player (Kalana Greene) -- at least before Maya Moore's arrival -- Connecticut's biggest strength is its balance across the basketball spectrum. Moore, Renee Montgomery and Ketia Swanier can knock down shots from outside. Tina Charles is a constant in the post, and Brittany Hunter, Kaili McLaren and Charde Houston add plenty of additional size. And on top of all that, no team in the country is statistically better on defense or at turning defense into offense in transition.
A team that shoots the ball well from all over the offensive zone is dangerous this time of year. A team that forces a lot of turnovers and gives itself extra opportunities to score is dangerous this time of year. A team that does both is the cause of sleepless nights. Old Dominion shoots well, rebounds well and forces nearly 21 turnovers per game. And before you chalk that up to feasting on the Colonial Athletic Association, the Monarchs built their record with a nonconference schedule that included Connecticut, Purdue, Stanford, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Key matchup: Who hits free throws? Old Dominion almost didn't make it to Greensboro after an overtime thriller in the second round against Virginia. Part of the reason the Lady Monarchs needed Jazzmin Walters' late-game heroics was that they hit just 13 of 23 shots from the free-throw line. For the season, the Lady Monarchs are shooting 65 percent from the charity stripe -- not that Connecticut is much better at 67 percent.
Backcourt/frontcourt edge: It's not a cakewalk, considering Old Dominion's TJ Jordan and Walters both shoot the ball well from behind the arc and own positive assist-to-turnover ratios. But no backcourt is quicker than the tandem of Montgomery and Swanier, and both have thrived since Montgomery moved to shooting guard after Thomas' season-ending injury. One thing that might work in Old Dominion's favor is depth. Jen Nuzzo is a veteran with a great touch from outside and nearly twice as many assists as turnovers; Connecticut's Lorin Dixon has shown flashes of future brilliance, but she's a relatively unproven freshman.
As for the frontcourt, once again, it's not about any lack of talent for Old Dominion. But there is simply too much available to Connecticut -- regardless whether you consider Moore part of the frontcourt or backcourt. Old Dominion is a good rebounding team; Connecticut is a great rebounding team.
X factor: Hunter is a permanent X factor for the Huskies, not because of any inconsistency in her basketball abilities or approach but because her right knee is a day-to-day joint. When she's in the game, either with Charles or in place of her, it adds another dimension on both ends of the court.
|ODU's TJ Jordan had 13 points against Connecticut when they met in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 23.|
No. 6 George Washington vs. No. 2 Rutgers (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m. ET)
It's not often that a rematch pitting the higher seed against a team it beat by 25 points earlier in the season -- on the loser's home court -- offers much intrigue. But George Washington is 22-3 in its past 25 games and proved it's playing its best basketball at the right time by beating third-seeded Cal in the Bears' backyard in the second round.
On the flip side, George Washington will have its work cut out for it against a Rutgers team that bounced back from a disappointing end to the conference season with two of its most productive offensive performances of the season in the first two rounds.
Strengths: It might not be the only strength but it's no secret that success for Rutgers begins on the defensive end. C. Vivian Stringer's team holds opponents to 34 percent shooting, including 28 percent on 3-pointers. Injuries have limited Stringer's ability to press this season, but Essence Carson, Matee Ajavon and Epiphanny Prince make it very difficult for opponents to run sets that produce quality shots.
Speaking of defense
George Washington does things a little bit differently with Joe McKeown's matchup "Blizzard" zone, but the end result is just as stingy. The Colonials force about 3.5 more turnovers per game than the Scarlet Knights. They're also extremely good at taking care of the ball on offense.
Key matchup: Kia Vaughn vs. Jessica Adair. There are a bevy of good guards capable of excelling on both ends of the court, but what happens down low could prove decisive. Rutgers is a much more dynamic team when it's able to get Vaughn involved on offense, but she's averaging significantly fewer field goals and free-throw attempts per game this season (and shooting 48 percent at the line).
But Vaughn remains one of the best post defenders in the country and she'll have to be in top form against Adair, who leads the Colonials in scoring and offensive rebounds.
Backcourt/frontcourt edge: Neither team fits in a backcourt-frontcourt model with wings such as Carson for Rutgers and Whitney Allen for George Washington, but strictly pitting Kimberly Beck and Sarah-Jo Lawrence against Ajavon and Prince, Rutgers gets a fraction of an edge with its overall quickness.
If the guards aren't as close to even as you can get, the frontcourts might be. If Vaughn offers anything on offense, she and understudy Rashidat Junaid look like a wash with Jessica Adair and sister Jazmine Adair. The Colonials' Antelia Parrish shoots the ball a little bit more than Scarlet Knights counterpart Heather Zurich and has a bigger impact on the boards. And given how well Allen functions in McKeown's system, she and Carson are closer than one might think. But the edge goes to the Final Four experience.
X factor: Will anyone be in the zone?
As good as the talent level is in this game, it doesn't include a lot of consistent shooters. Of Beck, Lawrence, Ajavon, Carson and Prince, only Prince enters the game shooting better than 42.6 percent from the floor. Considering the level of defense all are likely to face against each other Sunday, the game could turn if one of them starts to feel it.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
|Vaughn the key for Rutgers
In Rutgers' losses this season, Kia Vaughn was the team's fourth option, averaging only about six shots a game. But in the first and second rounds, the Scarlet Knights have done a terrific job of establishing Vaughn from tip-off.
Against Iowa State in the second round, Rutgers got her the ball early and the Cyclones couldn't stop her. Vaughn had 17 points by halftime.
After the break, Iowa State began to double down on Vaughn, but that opened up the 3-point shot for Rutgers -- and a ripple effect followed. The Scarlet Knights began knocking down their treys, which forced the Cyclones to go out and contest them. But that opened up Rutgers' dribble penetration.
Rutgers is already incredibly tough to score on. Iowa State struggled to even get a shot off. But the Scarlet Knights will be even tougher to beat if they continue to make a concerted effort to get Vaughn early touches in the game and hit their 3-pointers. -- Beth Mowins