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Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The upside to predictability

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW

You look at one side of the bracket at the women's Final Four in Denver and see the equivalent of Evert versus Navratilova, Nadal versus Federer, Yankees versus Red Sox, Snoopy versus the Red Baron.

Two opponents who know the other's tactics, strengths and weaknesses just as well as their own. Connecticut and Notre Dame met four times last season, and are about to face off for the fourth time this season.

"It's crazy, isn't it? I mean, it's just ridiculous," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, although he meant just the fate part of it. He didn't intend it as criticism of the selection committee.

In fact, all four participants on Wednesday's Final Four coaches teleconference praised the committee for "getting it right" this year. Not to be snarky, but picking the four No. 1 seeds this season really wasn't that hard. But the fact that the semifinal matchups are slotted as they are creates a different vibe between the games.

In stark contrast with Notre Dame-UConn, Baylor and Stanford have met just three times in history, the most recent in 2008. Baylor is in the program's third Final Four, while the Cardinal are in their 11th and fifth consecutive. Stanford had an 11-year gap between going to three in a row from 1995 to '97 and this five-year run that began in 2008.

"When I wake up in the morning, I'm like, 'Are we really doing this?' It's so exciting," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "To me, it's so unbelievable because you go years and years without going, and then now I just feel like I've hit the lottery."

To really cash in on the big jackpot, however, Stanford first has to eliminate a Baylor team ranked No. 1 most of the season. VanDerveer said her Cardinal have been preparing for a while for the possibility of facing center Brittney Griner and Baylor in the NCAA tournament.

"In women's basketball, we can bring a 6-8 guy to practice, and we have all year," VanDerveer said of the advantage of having male practice players. "We actually started it last year, thinking we might play Baylor then."

Indeed, Stanford would have met Baylor in the national semifinals had Texas A&M not defeated the Lady Bears in the Elite Eight. Baylor and Texas A&M met four times last season, but the timing of the fourth meeting was what bothered Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey a lot.

"If I had been playing them the fourth time in a Final Four, I wouldn't have been as upset about it," Mulkey said Wednesday, reiterating her objection from last year: that the bracket was set up so the two Big 12 rivals met in the Elite Eight.

Still, that loss -- so often referenced by Baylor this season as its "unfinished business" -- has been put to good use.

"I think the biggest advantage somebody like Baylor has is Brittney Griner," Auriemma said. "The next-biggest advantage -- before you get to Odyssey Sims -- was having been right on the cusp of getting to the Final Four/winning the national championship last year when they thought they had the best team -- and having it taken away from them.

"That then fuels the fire, and I think they've managed it tremendously. They've not gone through the real highs. They've not gone through the lows. Not [to] an outside observer, anyway."

He's right, and no one in women's college hoops knows more about that comfortable-with-perfection mindset than Auriemma does. Of his seven NCAA title teams, four have had undefeated records. (No matter how many times you write or say that, it seems absurd.)

The Huskies were able to do it not just because of talent and good coaching, but a real team-wide self-confidence. Baylor has that same mindset now.

Some teams that are unbeaten late into a season seem nervous, as if perfection is forcing them to walk a tightrope. But other teams seem more confident with every win.

Auriemma's 2001-02 and 2008-09 teams, in particular, had that kind of attitude, and it manifested itself on the court with how opponents either never challenged them or couldn't sustain any challenge.

"It's that self-assurance," Auriemma said. "Like, 'We know we're good. We know what we need to do. We know what happened last year and why, and it's not going to happen again.'

"They keep going and going, and that's a dangerous combination: best player in the tournament, and most self-assured team in the tournament?"

But Auriemma also hastened to say that Baylor isn't his worry right now. Notre Dame is, and the Irish are a big concern. Notre Dame won the first two matchups this season before UConn came back to take the Big East tournament title.

After the Feb. 27 loss to Notre Dame -- which was preceded by UConn being upset at home by St. John's on Feb. 18 -- Auriemma was very critical of his team, saying it wasn't playing like a winner, nor were all the players listening to what the coaching staff was telling them.

What frustrated him most was that UConn -- despite losing superstar Maya Moore -- had started the season much better than he'd expected. Yet the Huskies then hit a lull in January that descended into about the closest thing UConn gets to a funk: two losses in two weeks' time.

Now, though, the Huskies have won seven in a row in the past month, have made the program's fifth consecutive Final Four and do look capable of winning an eighth title. Auriemma said the time between the loss to Notre Dame and the start of the conference tournament was pivotal to UConn's season.

"I think those five days changed everything for us," he said. "Changed our mindset, our approach, our expectation level of each other. And we grew up as a team that week. More so maybe in those five days than in the previous five months. Can that be enough to carry us through here?"

Auriemma looked back to the 2010 NCAA title game against Stanford, in which both teams shot atrociously in the first half and UConn trailed 20-12.

"Maya Moore came out in the second half and took over the game," he said. "If we're in that situation again, do we have somebody that can do that? I don't know."

The Huskies don't have a first-team Associated Press All-American, but that should not be confused with not having All-American caliber players. Because UConn does have plenty of those, including senior Tiffany Hayes.

The upside for opponents with Moore being gone is obvious. But it does change how teams prepare for UConn this season.

"Yeah, we knew over the last four years, the game plan was always centered around Maya," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She seemed almost superhuman at times. We never had a good matchup for her. We tried different ways to guard her, but never were successful.

"I think in some ways it is a little more difficult when everybody can score because you can't go double-team anybody. You can't leave anybody open. With Maya, you had to pick your poison and take a chance on leaving somebody. So I think this team creates different problems for us to guard."

Yet the Irish have done it well twice, on top of their being one of the best-executing teams on offense that McGraw has ever had. That's something all four squads share: They are fun to watch offensively but play very strong defense. McGraw, Auriemma, VanDerveer and Mulkey all have recruited players with a lot of offensive skills and even a degree of flash to them, yet have gotten those same kids to play blue-collar defense.

"I think it's that mindset and that pride that you take in how you can contribute to the team," McGraw said. "And there are a lot of really good athletic people that could be great defenders that aren't, because they'd rather outscore you.

"I think the [Final Four] players are more complete players. You used to have the defensive specialists. The 3-point shooter who couldn't guard. I think players now are so much better and so much more capable of playing the game at both ends, and it's great for the women's game."

What's also great is that the Final Four teams are the best the women's college game has to offer this season and that they are coached by Hall of Fame mentors who all have won NCAA titles already.

Mulkey, VanDerveer, Auriemma and McGraw are longtime commodities. All are respected for the savvy they have as bench coaches as well as their ability to judge and recruit talent. If there were a quiz show for hoops coaches, you couldn't pick four better people for a winning team.

People might criticize the "predictability" factor this season because all the No. 1s advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1989, but it does have a definite upside.

"If you win a national championship in women's basketball, you didn't sneak into it," Auriemma said. "You didn't beat somebody that was lucky to get there. So whoever wins this tournament will have earned it. Because they'll have beaten two of the best teams in quite some time."