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Thursday, March 22, 2012
Kingston Sweet 16 breakdown

By Graham Hays
espnW

The smallest state in the country could play host to some of the biggest scores of the tournament's second week.

Top-seeded Connecticut, No. 2 seed Kentucky, No 4 Penn State and No. 11 Gonzaga make for a geographically disparate quartet in Kingston, R.I., but the four teams there still dreaming of Denver share a propensity for scoring points. All rank in the top 20 nationally in points per game. The other three regions feature just six such teams among them.

And yet for all those points, there's a case to be made that defense gives each team its identity. From the nation's top field goal defense at Connecticut to a defense at Kentucky that leads the nation in turnovers forced, it's a group for which stopping offense is a collective calling card. If it's true that defense wins championships, that might be why this is also the only regional in which all four teams won either a regular-season or conference tournament title.

We look at three X factors for each matchup.

(4) Penn State vs. (1) Connecticut

ESPN2/ESPN3: 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday

History: Last time we saw Penn State head to New England to play a top-seeded Connecticut team in the NCAA tournament, the Lady Lions had a trio of standouts on the perimeter. But Kelly Mazzante, Tanisha Wright and Jess Strom combined to shoot 11 of 44 from the field in a 2004 regional final loss in Hartford. Coquese Washington wasn't around then, but there are certain similarities to the current trio of Maggie Lucas, Alex Bentley and Zhaque Gray. There's no Diana Taurasi to worry about, but history will repeat itself if those three aren't hitting.

Green flag racing: Not many teams can play at the pace of Connecticut for 40 minutes, but not many teams score 90 points against LSU in Baton Rouge, either, as Penn State did in the second round. The Lady Lions take better care of the ball this season than at any point in recent seasons, but the best up-tempo teams they beat -- Ohio State, North Carolina, Nebraska -- don't play defense on anything close to the same level as Connecticut.

Stefanie Dolson: This has been an up-and-down sophomore season for the 6-foot-5 Dolson, but the "up" part of that equation is still something Penn State will struggle to defend. The Lady Lions have big bodies to throw at Dolson, namely Nikki Greene, but Dolson is one headache too many for teams to deal with when she's aggressive and in the mix on the offensive end. The Huskies can win without her playing a major role; they might not be beatable if she does.

Pick: Connecticut.

(11) Gonzaga vs. (2) Kentucky

ESPN2/ESPN3, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Kentucky's turnovers: The Wildcats led the nation in turnover margin entering the NCAA tournament, but they are mired deep in the red through the first two rounds. Kentucky's 54 total turnovers against McNeese State and Green Bay are the team's most in any two-game stretch this season. The 34 turnovers against the Phoenix, including 20 in the second half, seem to lend credence to the old adage that teams that pressure the ball don't like to be pressured. Gonzaga doesn't create turnovers at anything close to the same rate as Green Bay, but it does force its share and doesn't give many away -- the Bulldogs rank seventh nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.

The 3-point line: Neither team shoots the 3-pointer with any particular efficiency as a whole, each ranking outside the top 50 in 3-point field goal percentage. But both teams have individuals capable of turning the tide on a given day. Gonzaga dared Miami to beat it from the outside in the second round, but without Riquna Williams, the Hurricanes hit just a solitary 3-pointer. Were the Bulldogs to simply pack it in against the Wildcats, A'dia Mathies, Keyla Snowden and Kastine Evans could punish them. On the other side, Gonzaga leans almost exclusively on Haiden Palmer and Taelor Karr for its 3-pointers. Those two shoot a combined 35.9 percent; the rest of the team shoots 28.3 percent.

Samarie Walker versus Kayla Standish: Walker, who gained eligibility in January after transferring from Connecticut midway through the 2010-11 season, had three double-digit rebound performances in 21 appearances for the Wildcats in the regular season. She did it in back-to-back games to start the NCAA tournament, a big boost inside for a team that leans heavily on its guards. Standish has a much longer track record as a postseason star, a reputation she burnished with 23 points against Rutgers and 19 points against Miami this year.

Pick: Gonzaga