The Rutgers Scarlet Knights can win the NCAA title if: nobody stands up to them in the schoolyard
Put into practice, the old adage that a bully doesn't like to be bullied back tends to leave unsuspecting kids with a bloody nose and an angry bully as often as it improves matters. But like any adage, it works just often enough to keep getting repeated. And if a team is going to beat the defensive bullies from Piscataway, N.J., in the NCAA Tournament, they had better be willing and able to look them in the eyes and swing from the heels.
To be clear, C. Vivian Stringer's team is a bully in only the most complimentary sense on the court. They play relentless, aggressive and downright annoying defense that doesn't cross the line to dirty. Saying it's a physical game when Rutgers is involved is redundant. For the season, the Scarlet Knights held opponents to 36 percent shooting from the field and a ridiculous 29 percent from behind the arc. And despite a style of play that limits possessions compared to other elite teams, Rutgers forced nearly 17 turnovers a game.
Even the Rutgers offense serves as essentially another component of the defense, with the constant threat of Cappie Pondexter going on a scoring binge only compounding the pressure on opponents to get something out of every possession on offense. There is nowhere to hide from the fight when playing the Scarlet Knights.
This isn't to say that Rutgers is invincible. One common theme pervades losses against Mississippi, Michigan State, Temple and West Virginia, and it's not overwhelming talent on the part of the opposition. The Spartans and Owls are both threats in March, but the Rebels and Mountaineers are far from the top of the heap. What all four opponents managed was matching, and even exploiting, Rutgers' aggressiveness.
Ole Miss' Armintie Price, who has never backed down from a challenge in three years as an undersized rebounding machine in the SEC, got to the free-throw line 14 times and scored 22 points against Rutgers. Michigan State's Lindsay Bowen also got to the line 14 times and scored 22 points, while turning the ball over just three times. Temple won without the benefit of free throws, but Dawn Staley's team beat Rutgers on the boards and always plays a style of basketball best described as "Stringer, version 2.0." And in the most unlikely result of all, West Virginia freshman point guard Ashley Powell simply refused to be flustered by an admittedly substandard defensive effort from Rutgers.
It's the chink in the Knights' armor. Inherent in any system that slows down the game (Rutgers isn't Villanova, but the Scarlet Knights don't force the action) is a smaller margin of error than for teams that get enough looks to erase mistakes. If Rutgers slips at all, an upset could turn on one or two friendly rolls for the opposition.
Villanova coach Harry Perretta might have put it best after his Wildcats fell to Rutgers in the Big East quarterfinals, saying, "If you're not overwhelmingly mentally prepared, you've got a problem."
And if Rutgers doesn't run into a team that puts talent and mental toughness together in just the right way, the Scarlet Knights could walk away with the title.
Of course if Kia Vaughn, who almost has more potential than her 6-foot-4 frame can hold, has the same kind of breakout tourney run as LSU's Sylvia Fowles had last season, the rest of the bracket might just want to fork over its meal money ahead of time.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.