- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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Everyone knows who the favorite will be this weekend in Bridgeport, because the top-seeded UConn Huskies are almost always the favorites -- especially when they're playing in their home state, which they are once again.
But if the Huskies are to win this regional and advance to their sixth consecutive Final Four, they'll have to overcome some serious star power among their opponents. Because here's an interesting factoid: UConn is the only team in Bridgeport without a reigning conference player of the year on its roster. The Huskies' first opponent, fourth-seeded Maryland, is led by point-forward Alyssa Thomas, the ACC Player of the Year (for the second year running).
The other matchup features No. 2 seed Kentucky and guard A'dia Mathies, the SEC co-Player of the Year, against sixth-seeded Delaware. The Blue Hens are riding on the shoulders of all-everything forward Elena Delle Donne, the obvious choice as the Colonial Athletic Association's best player (for the third time in four years).
So yeah, this is UConn's regional to win, but there are some big names trying to take down the Huskies in their home state.
Let's look at three X factors for each matchup.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 6 Delaware
ESPN, noon ET Saturday
The first two shifts: Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell sends in an entirely new lineup at the first media timeout (the 16-minute mark). He does this so that his team can't use fatigue as an excuse: The Wildcats aim to make the beginning of the game hellacious for their opponent. And it's a kind of in-your-face defense unlike anything Delaware has seen. Mitchell doesn't just have his players press full-court, he also urges them to try to rip the ball from people. His philosophy is to force the referees to call a foul if they must. How the Blue Hens handle this relentless pressure will determine whether they can make it a game. Because the Wildcats come at you, one wave after another, and Mitchell uses most of his bench to make it happen.
Elena Delle Donne, of course: The skills possessed by this 6-foot-5 senior are no secret. But what remains unknown is how she will respond to the physical play of the Wildcats. Obviously, if the Blue Hens are going to have a chance in this game, Delle Donne is going to need each point of her 25.8 scoring average -- and probably a little bit more. The thing to watch will be whether Delaware can get Delle Donne some space, either on the wing to face up her defender and go to work, or on the block. What the Blue Hens shouldn't do is bring an on-ball screen to their star player, because Kentucky will just use that as an opportunity to double-team and get the ball out of Delle Donne's hands.
Who will rise to the occasion? The main storylines of this game are straightforward: Kentucky's defense versus Delle Donne. But it's a distinct possibility that those two things will neutralize each other. The Wildcats might force a number of turnovers, scoring buckets in transition, and still Delle Donne can help keep Delaware in the game if she's efficient on the offensive possessions the Blue Hens do see all the way through. If that happens, the difference in this game will be Player X -- whoever steps up and produces at a much higher level than expected. Two players to keep an eye on are Kentucky point guard Jennifer O'Neill and Delaware senior guard Lauren Carra. Both players are averaging about the same points per game: O'Neill is at 10.6, Carra 10.7. And both players are capable of going off, if that's what is needed from them.
No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 4 Maryland
ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday
The battle down low: This game features something pretty awesome: a couple of inside players who have great touch in and around the basket. UConn's starting center is Stefanie Dolson, who is 6-foot-5 and averaging 14.2 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. Maryland forward Tianna Hawkins, who is 6-3, has season averages of 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Both players shoot at a ridiculously high percentage (Hawkins at a 54.9 percent clip; Dolson even better at 59.6 percent). The thing to watch is whether Hawkins can pad her stats by collecting offensive rebounds, something she has done all season. Either way, it will be interesting to see which player commands the most attention inside.
Katie Rutan from downtown: On the offensive end, Maryland is overdependent on forward Alyssa Thomas. In the second half of some games, the Terrapins end up running Thomas at the point and clearing everyone out so she can drive to the hoop. With all of the injuries they have sustained this season, the Terrapins have little choice but to run their offense through their star forward. But there is one player in particular who has the ability to spread the floor for Thomas: guard Katie Rutan. When she is hitting from beyond the arc -- she has made 63 3-pointers this season -- she gives the Terrapins an extra dimension. If she's hot, that's good for a host of reasons, most notably because the Huskies won't be able to focus solely on stopping Thomas.
The UConn backcourt: OK, we're not talking about Kelly Faris, who provides a stable presence at guard. We're talking about that second guard position, sometimes filled by Bria Hartley, other times by Caroline Doty, occasionally by Moriah Jefferson. There has been some inconsistency in the backcourt this season for the Huskies. And it will be worth watching to see who steps up to complement Faris. The odds-on favorite to be on the court at game's end (if the game is close, of course) is Hartley, but don't be surprised to see lighting-quick freshman Jefferson come up big at this regional.
UConn is the favorite to win in Bridgeport, but to reach their sixth consecutive Final Four, the Huskies need to overcome some serious star power among their opponents.