- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- The question from the back of the room was for DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky's junior center. What did she think of Navy's leading scorer, senior forward Jade Geif?
Stallworth looked puzzled. She leaned into her coach, Matthew Mitchell, who was sitting next to her, and whispered a question. Mitchell nodded and told Stallworth, "Yes, that's No. 21," then said to everyone else, "Sorry, we don't talk names much. Our scouting reports are numbers."
Turns out Stallworth knew all she needed to know about No. 21. "Running in transition is going to be a key," Stallworth said. "She has really good moves, so if she makes a basket, or two, or three, I can't worry. I just have to concentrate on running in transition. That will wear her down."
While Stallworth's assessment was meant to offer insight into one specific matchup -- big on big -- her words also perfectly highlighted the overall differences between No. 2 seed Kentucky (27-5) and No. 15 seed Navy (21-11). The two teams, which play completely opposite styles, meet Sunday (noon on ESPNU) in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Carnesecca Arena on the campus of St. John's University.
The second game of the day (2:30 p.m., ESPN2) features No. 7 seed Dayton (27-2) against No. 10 seed St. John's (18-12) in a matchup of squads that feature run-and-gun offenses. Many observers felt that Dayton, ranked No. 18 in the country, deserved a better seed from the NCAA selection committee, so it will be interesting to see how the Flyers respond, especially playing on the Red Storm's home court.
But Kentucky-Navy promises to be a study in contrasts.
Navy is the kind of squad that wants to squeeze every second out of the shot clock, slowing down the game and limiting the number of possessions for each team. Kentucky, on the other hand, prefers a frenetic pace, end line to end line, as the Wildcats try to create a high volume of possessions with their trademark 40 minutes of full-court pressure.
"Both teams will try to control the tempo, probably in opposite directions," Mitchell said. "I would suspect they would like to shorten the game and really value possessions."
That will be tough to do against a Kentucky team that loves to convert backcourt steals into quick points. Led by senior guard A'dia Mathies, the SEC Co-Player of the Year (15.9 ppg, 1.88 spg), the Wildcats average 11.9 takeaways per game. At the start of their practice Saturday morning, they ran a drill focused on swiping the ball before half court and then converting in a 2-on-1 break.
"We need this to be a very fast-paced game," Mitchell said. "We need to speed Navy up, because they can be impressive if you let them get into their offense."
The Midshipmen's offense is essentially a four-out, one-in, with the 6-foot Geif -- who averages a team-high 11.1 points per game -- bouncing around the interior, surrounded by four players capable of shooting the 3.
Navy is making its third consecutive NCAA tourney appearance. But Mathies contends that the outcome depends largely on Kentucky.
"I believe that if we defend the way we can defend, that's what we need to do to get the win," she said. "Nothing they do should be able to affect us."
17dBonnie D. Ford