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Friday, December 16, 2011
UConn-Baylor? Jeff Van Gundy is ready

By Joy Russo

Back when the NBA was still in a lockout, Jeff Van Gundy was looking to earn his keep as an ESPN analyst. First stop, a few men's college games.

He happened to be on assignment with ESPN colleague Doris Burke, and of course, the two started talking hoops. He asked Burke which games she was looking forward to this season, and without hesitation Burke said "Connecticut-Baylor."

"Aw, I wish I could do that," Van Gundy said.

Van Gundy asked, and ESPN obliged. The former college and NBA coach will join Burke, Rebecca Lobo and Dave O'Brien in the booth for Sunday's big clash between No. 2 Connecticut and No. 1 Baylor (ESPN and ESPN3, 8:30 p.m. ET).

"Obviously, I am not as well-versed in the women's game like [Burke and Lobo] are, but with a daughter that is a high school player now, we watch a lot of women's basketball," Van Gundy told espnW on Friday. "Obviously, [Baylor center] Brittney Griner being from Houston, where I live, it's a tremendous story. She's an absolutely fabulous player, and also I like how she has conducted herself. They [the Lady Bears] have a great point guard-center combination.

"You throw in No 1 versus No. 2, sold-out [crowd], you can't ask any better than that. How often do you get a chance to broadcast the top two teams in the nation?"

Van Gundy will also get to take his daughter and a few of her teammates to the game. "We bought some scalped tickets and we're all set," he said.

Van Gundy had to scalp tickets?!

"Yes, scalped tickets! The game should be good."

And with that, Van Gundy weighs in on UConn, Baylor, the state of women's basketball and the three things he'll be watching for in Sunday's big clash:

State of women's hoops and how much top teams are tested

I am surprised, quite honestly, that the players don't get more bored. Some of these games for both teams are just, they're not competitive. Back in November, UConn played Stanford, and after that, they just hammered everybody else, even Texas A&M. Baylor has had two tough games [Notre Dame and Tennessee].

When you're winning by 40 or 45, I think subconscious boredom sets in. [UConn coach] Geno [Auriemma] or [Baylor coach] Kim Mulkey can say whatever they want, but when you're hammering these teams so bad, subconsciously you're not going to be as sharp. And then, all of a sudden -- boom -- you're playing a team every bit as good as you, or better. Sometimes your habits can slip. And this is where I think the coaches play such an important role because they seem to be so demanding that they do the best job they can in limiting that slippage, even as they are playing these overmatched teams.

I think that's the one step forward for women's basketball. There seems to be a steep drop-off from the top 10 to the next 10 to the next 10. When you see No. 2 UConn beat No. 7 Texas A&M by 30, that's where the game has got to grow, where there's more good teams and more tight games. ... The game is great when you get the equal teams [playing each other].

Watching Texas A&M more than other teams because of their proximity [to where I live], I was amazed at their talent and their defensive tenacity. They were just nasty, they were great to watch. And then you have the "Aw, shucks" Coach [Gary] Blair and, at the same time, he's released the pit bulls on teams and you'd never know it. But that drop-off takes away from every-night excitement, even in league play. There is such a discrepancy between UConn and the rest of the Big East.

[The women's game] has come a lot way. Look, you can't rush something like this. It's going to progress at its own nature. I think the quality of coaches is so important to produce more good high school players, which opens up more opportunities going forward and more good players coming out, so they don't all go to the top-five teams. Then slowly but surely, like Texas A&M, build from the ground up and become a national power. There needs to be a few more -- just keep grinding away until you get a few more.

I think the game is really fun to watch. I am so impressed with the coaching. Because a lot of things have to be designed a little differently when you're not throwing the ball to the rim a lot. Like on penetration. In the men's game, you penetrate, you throw it to the rim, lob, dunk. Sometimes in the women's game, you actually have to be a little bit more precise, because you don't have all the one-on-one breakdown players who can create their own shot or throw it up above the rim and create a shot that way.

Griner and her impact

When you're an inside player, the No. 1 thing you have to concentrate on is where you catch the ball, how deep, how close to the basket. Because when you're so good, sometimes you can overlook the fact that the depth of your catch is more important than your moves. If she catches the ball with two feet in the paint, there's no stopping her. Her size will just overwhelm everyone else. Post depth is No. 1.

Two-way players like Griner are hard to deal with. She's not just an offensive player. She impacts the game greatly on the defensive end of the floor. That being said, if you're trying to defend her, I think the first thing you have to do is understand that with great players you can't give them everything. You can't give up layups, free throws, second shots; you have to take away the stuff that you can. And then you have to play her physically without fouling. That's the problem with great players like Griner; they get your front line into foul trouble, and when that happens, you have bench players playing against arguably the best player in the country, and that rarely works out.

Then you have to decide, "Hey, are we better served single-covering her and trying to limit other people, or do we have to try to double because she's just that dominant?"

[Connecticut center Stefanie] Dolson is going to have to play well and she's going to have to take advantage of her strengths and try to draw Griner away from the basket some, either with her screen action or making a face-up shot. Defensively, she does have a big body and she can try to move [Griner] out, but then she can't finish her off with too much physical play. ... She can't be sitting there next to Geno for them to win against such a tough team on the road.

The love-hate relationship with Geno

Well, don't you think it's intentional, too? He's kind of like the provocateur. I think that gives the game a lot of energy. Because it's hard to hate any of his players because they are so good. He has chosen to be the villain in some of these things. I think it's all done for show, and he's so funny. He's built something from really nothing. The passion level of their fan base is incredible.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey

She was my favorite player growing up. Back when she played at Louisiana Tech, she was playing with her pigtails and all that, I watched her as a player. She's a tremendous coach -- great intensity; she scares me sometimes when I am watching her. I'm like, "Wow, I don't want to ask her a tough question." [Laughs.] She gets her players to play hard.

It's not sometimes as easy as [Auriemma and Mulkey] make it appear, coaching great players. Great players, they have great talents and great work ethic, but sometimes they're stubborn. That also makes them a challenge, to coach the great players really well and constantly challenge them to improve. I think you saw that with Maya Moore, and you'll continue to see that with Griner and Odyssey Sims.

Van Gundy's three things to watch

We originally asked for Van Gundy's "keys to the game," but he protested.

"I'm a terrible 'keys' guy. [Show crews] always ask for the keys and I say, 'They're always the same, why do you keep asking me?'" Van Gundy said with a laugh.

So, here are three things he'll be watching for:

1. Connecticut on the road: They haven't been really tested since the Stanford game. How will they handle this kind of pressure away from Storrs?

2. Impact of the home court: You just don't get too many sellouts really at any level. How will both teams deal with it? Can Baylor not be emotionally drunk with that crowd there? Can they stay patient and deal with the level of the game and not get out of whack?

3. Brittney Griner: She's so unique and so dominant. Her physical presence and mobility, you're not seeing that [often]. There are not many games where you get the chance before the national tournament to really show that you have the ability to elevate your team against a very worthy opponent. She played in high school here in Houston, so I saw her on TV in the state tournament, but this is the first time I'll get to see her in person, so I am interested to see how she responds.