Commentary

1-2 showdown to be defensive battle

Originally Published: November 18, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Skylar Diggins and Brittney GrinerGetty Images/AP PhotoSkylar Diggins and Notre Dame travel to Waco to face Brittney Griner and Baylor (2 p.m. ET Sunday).

At least we know this meeting between No. 1 and No. 2 will end with more than five field goals scored.

No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Notre Dame are as good as it gets on the defensive end, but they aren't that good.

A Big 12 team from Texas was all that stood between Notre Dame and a second national championship seven months ago. Sunday's Preseason WNIT championship in Waco won't settle anything as far as spots in Denver for the Final Four next April, but it's undeniably an opportunity to test the consensus opinion that a similar roadblock awaits the Fighting Irish this time.

It's a game with star power and style to spare, both on the sideline from Kim Mulkey and Muffet McGraw, and on the court, where Baylor center Brittney Griner, the consensus national preseason player of the year, and Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins might be the two most recognizable names in the college game at the moment.

We can't know if it's a preview of any game in April, but it doesn't need to be. Pitting those individual stars against two defensive riddles is as compelling as November can get.

Notre Dame's start this season is perhaps best summed up by the fact that it's possible to write that the Fighting Irish forced a season-low 30 turnovers in Thursday's win against Hartford. That's sort of like saying a winter storm brought a season-low 12 inches of snow to South Bend. In three games, the Fighting Irish have forced 112 turnovers, nearly one per minute on the court. The quality of competition against Akron, Indiana State and Hartford aside, a defense that returns four of five starters from the national championship game, in addition to stopper Fraderica Miller and Kayla McBride from last season's bench, is going to make a lot of good teams look clumsy.

Diggins, Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters garner most of the attention for their offensive numbers, but Miller (14 steals in 55 minutes this season) and Brittany Mallory (who generally draws the toughest defensive assignment in cases where that assignment doesn't stand close to 7 feet tall) are at least their equals on defense.

"I think they do a very good job of playing team defense," Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti said after Thursday's 98-43 loss. "They can be really aggressive on the ball because if one player gets beat, they can scramble. Having four guards in their starting lineup allows them to switch a lot of screens, and that can be very disruptive if you are not used to playing against it. You can tell that they are a veteran team. It is not just about having great athletes. It is also about having players that can play together."

As much attention as Griner will receive, Notre Dame's pressure makes Sunday a big test for Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims, who had one assist and four turnovers in an early-season victory at home against Notre Dame as a freshman. She also had eight turnovers in a Sweet 16 win against Green Bay, a team whose style shares at least its philosophical underpinning with Notre Dame, albeit with generally smaller individual components in the case of the Phoenix. (Notre Dame and Green Bay were the only teams to force as many as 860 turnovers last season.)

After that NCAA tournament win in Dallas, Mulkey praised Sims' ability to adapt and learn on the fly as a freshman who had been asked to play major minutes all season. She turned over the ball that day against Celeste Hoewisch and a swarming group of guards, but she also made the steals and shots that helped her team put the game away after Green Bay closed the deficit to three points in the second half. Sims might always be a bit too bold to ever lead the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio (she has 11 assists and nine turnovers in her first three games this season), but Sunday is a golden opportunity for her to show she has added veteran poise to the sensational skills she showed off as a freshman.

Likewise, without the steady hand of Melissa Jones around to steer the offense, Sunday is a chance for players such as Jordan Madden (12 assists, three turnovers this season) and Terran Condrey (13 assists, four turnovers) to step into leading support roles. The more the Lady Bears take care of the ball, the more opportunities they have to get it inside to Griner. And each and every such touch spells trouble for a Notre Dame team that was small even before it lost Natalie Achonwa for the season's opening weeks with an injury, leaving Peters and 6-foot-2 freshman Markisha Wright as the primary checks on Griner.

The defensive challenge flows both ways, of course. Diggins and Novosel are as good as any two players in the country at getting into the lane and getting to the free throw line. That gets a little tricky with Griner waiting in the paint (although Novosel did make eight trips to the line in the game last season).

The upshot is Notre Dame needs to continue its early success from the 3-point line against a team allowing opponents to shoot just 15 percent from behind the arc this season. Two seasons ago, Diggins and Novosel combined for 42 3-pointers. Last season, that combined total climbed to 67 3-pointers. Even with the line pushed back this season and their minutes limited in routs, they have five this season, complementing a lineup suddenly flush with shooters in Mallory, Kayla McBride and Kaila Turner.

As Mulkey repeated after beating UCLA to reach Sunday's final, championships aren't won or lost in November and December. But how these teams respond against unique defensive challenges will tell us something about whether these really are the two teams most likely to win one in April.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.