- Charlie Creme, Women's College Basketball
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Everyone who had Connecticut and Notre Dame meeting in the Final Four, raise your hands. Keep them up if you predicted a Cal-Louisville matchup on the other side of the bracket.
A nation of arms falls.
This is the new-look Final Four thanks to the Bears and Cardinals, whose coach, Jeff Walz, said his team ruined the party.
Well, not really. As Kevin Duran, or anyone else who watched the Oklahoma City Regional can attest, this Louisville team -- which stunned top-seeded Baylor in the Sweet 16 and then No. 2 seed Tennessee in the regional final -- is a party -- a whopper of a surprise party. The Cardinals are just one of several storylines only the Final Four can give:
• With three Big East teams in the Final Four for the first time (Maryland, Duke and North Carolina all made it from the ACC in 2006), can Cal interrupt this Big East gathering in the very year the league as we know it breaks up? The Bears are a veteran club, but will the moment be too big for these big-stage newcomers and first-time Final Four participants?
• Will Sunday's second semifinal between the Huskies and Irish become the de facto championship game? UConn is in its sixth straight Final Four and Notre Dame is in its third consecutive, while Cal is making its Final Four debut and Louisville is appearing in its second.
• Will familiarity breed even more contempt? The Huskies and Irish will be playing each other for the 12th time in three seasons.
•: Louisville is just the second No. 5 seed to make the Final Four. The only other fifth seed to do it was Missouri State -- led by Jackie Stiles -- in 2001. Can the Cards keep the magic alive?
• Notre Dame senior Skylar Diggins is two wins away from the one thing she hasn't done -- win a national championship. Can she and the Irish beat UConn one more time to keep the dream alive?
• UConn is trying to tie Tennessee for the most national titles with eight. Would that begin an even greater debate of the best program of all-time?
All will be addressed once the world of women's basketball settles onto Bourbon Street and the ball goes up Sunday.
Why they'll win the national title
Louisville (28-8): The Cardinals have had an interesting and somewhat turbulent season, especially early on. Injuries forced some lineup shuffling. That prompted some inconsistency (although Louisville never lost to any bad teams). Shoni Schimmel -- who had 46 points in Louisville's past two games -- was benched at one point because of erratic effort and performance. This is why almost no one thought the Cardinals would still be playing April basketball (even Walz only packed one dress shirt for the trip to Oklahoma City).
Louisville's defensive game plan against Baylor deserves most of the credit for that stunning upset. It was brilliantly devised and executed. But the Cardinals aren't here without an offense that has exceeded anything it did during the regular season. Prior to the NCAA tournament, the Cardinals averaged a solid 71.4 points per game. That has jumped by eight points since this run began two weeks ago. Before Louisville got to Oklahoma City, it was knocking down 5.4 3-pointers per contest. The Cardinals made 16 against the Lady Bears and eight more against Tennessee. Their 86 points against the Lady Vols is the seventh-best total of the entire tournament.
The last time three Big East teams made the Final Four (in the men's tourney in 1985), the lowest seed of the bunch -- that now legendary Villanova team -- won the championship. That's where Jeff Walz's bunch slots in 2013. If this club has two more wins and a national championship in it like those Wildcats, it's because the Cardinals kept shooting and kept scoring.
California (32-3): With just three losses all season (to Duke, Stanford, and UCLA, which were all No. 3 seeds or better), Cal is very good. However, through four games in the NCAA tournament, the Bears have been "just good enough." They have not played their best basketball in March and have been the least impressive of the Final Four teams. A first-round struggle with Fresno State, just one good half against LSU, and two overtime wins later (including one against 10th-seeded South Florida, which was the No. 8 seed in the Big East tournament last month), Cal is in its first Final Four.
The Bears need to play better than they have the past two weeks, and the improvement needs to come on the offensive end, particularly perimeter shooting. This isn't to say Cal can't score. The issues have really been isolated to a 26-point first half against LSU and a 1-of-19 shooting start against Georgia.
The Bears really just need to get some consistency back. This was the top scoring team in the Pac-12. Lindsay Gottlieb wants her team to push the pace and her veteran team usually obliges.
What really makes the difference for Cal is its work on the glass. The Bears were tied with Connecticut for third in the country in rebound margin and they grab more than 18 offensive boards per game. The 22 rips on the offensive end is what saved Cal on Monday night in Spokane. Senior Talia Caldwell did most of that damage against Georgia; Caldwell (she ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in rebounding) and Gennifer Brandon (15th in the country) form an excellent ball-snatching duo.
Winning the title come Tuesday will mean Cal did plenty of rebounding, got the ball up the floor for easy buckets and got its usual balanced scoring, led by another senior, Layshia Clarendon.
Connecticut (33-4): None of UConn's previous five Final Four teams had the question marks or the public doubt that this year's version did entering the NCAA tournament. Then the Huskies went out and dominated their first four games unlike any team in this tournament, much like the best Connecticut teams of recent vintage.
UConn can win in so many ways. Its success begins with its defense, a quiet mainstay during this run of six straight Final Fours, but these Huskies also top the nation in scoring. Name a stat and Connecticut is likely in or at least near the top 10. Perhaps not as explosive as the teams led by Maya Moore and Tina Charles, the Huskies can still put devastating runs on nearly anyone. Kentucky was in the game on Monday until a defense- and Breanna Stewart-fueled 26-3 run to end the first half steam rolled the Wildcats into submission.
The Kentucky win was the perfect subtext to this UConn team. It showed again that the Huskies, just like they have been all season, are much better than everyone else, except two teams. It just so happens that one of the two sits right in from of them.
Four pre-NCAA tournament losses is an amazing season on most campuses, but borderline disaster in Storrs. But remember that three of the losses were by one point, two points and in triple overtime -- all to Notre Dame. A play here, a missed free throw there and UConn is the one-loss team and the hands-down favorite to get to its first championship game since winning it all in 2010. Instead, doubt exists that the Huskies can get the best of Notre Dame.
But one thing UConn might have now is a relaxed and comfortable Breanna Stewart. The freshman has exceeded her 12.7 scoring average in all three of her tournament games (Stewart missed the first rounder against Idaho with a minor calf injury) and looked like a dominant player for one of the few meaningful times all season against Kentucky. Fellow freshman Moriah Jefferson has also been big in the postseason. Her quickness with the ball adds another element to the attack and, more importantly, alleviates some of the pressure from Bria Hartley. Morgan Tuck has been effective inside and she becomes even more important if Stefanie Dolson continues to be hobbled by her leg and feet injuries. The Huskies need Dolson. So much of the offense runs through her, but if her health requires reducing her minutes, Tuck can give the Huskies something.
Geno Auriemma has said all along that when his players make shots, they are very good. They obviously struggle when they don't. And while it's hard to simplify this great rivalry into such a basic premise, that might be all UConn needs to do to win an eighth national championship.
Notre Dame (35-1): With the Irish, it starts with their offense. No team plays it more smoothly, with more balance, and more weapons than Notre Dame. And Diggins is the team's No. 1 weapon/facilitator/finisher.
The Irish were struggling against Duke in the Norfolk Regional final, down by as many as nine, before a foul-plagued Diggins rescued her team the way Brittney Griner could not for Baylor two days earlier.
What makes Notre Dame's offense so outstanding? Muffet McGraw's schematic creation -- and having someone like Diggins (17.3 ppg) execute that vision. But let's not overlook the killer-scorer mentality of junior Kayla McBride (15.9 ppg) or the big improvement of Natalie Achonwa (13.9 ppg) in the post. Freshman Jewell Loyd (12.5 ppg), whose ability to finish an alley-oop on a regular basis is one of the great sights of the tournament, has become the bridge between losing three starters from the last two national runners-up to this Diggins-led juggernaut. It's a foursome like no other in the country. Not even Baylor had that kind of offensive versatility and weaponry in four players.
It's Diggins, McBride, Achonwa and Loyd who have made Notre Dame rank second in the country in scoring, second in free throw percentage, third in assists per game, fifth in rebound margin, fourth in field goal percentage and sixth in assist/turnover ratio. And, most importantly, first in winning percentage.
Notre Dame has proven it can win any way -- the Irish have beaten UConn scoring in the 60s, 70s and 90s this season and in the 80s in last year's Final Four meeting -- and that it can get stops in big moments. But being the best offensive club in New Orleans is how the Irish will close in on Diggins' elusive national championship.
(5) Louisville vs. (2) California (ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday)
This one has the chance to be very entertaining. Both teams like to run. Both teams have dynamic 2-guards -- Clarendon for Cal and Schimmel for Louisville. Both teams have proven a flare for the dramatic.
In the zone: Cal is probably the more talented team overall and is more experienced, but the Bears' vulnerability against a zone could spell trouble. Duke, Stanford and UCLA beat them primarily playing it, and Georgia's zone gave Cal all kinds of problems for nearly 35 minutes. If this tournament has proven anything, it's that Jeff Walz is more than eager to play whatever defense best suits the moment or the opponent. Expect plenty of zone from Louisville.
Boards game favors Bears: To this point, the Cardinals have done a good job defending the paint and securing enough rebounds, but this is a place the Bears will have an advantage. Brandon disappeared against Georgia, but has three other double-doubles in the tournament. Caldwell and Reshanda Gray were forces underneath the rim against the Lady Dogs. Louisville beat Baylor because it made ton of 3-pointers and held on. However, the Cards got beat up on the glass.
There's something about momentum: Intangibles can be underrated. It might come down to Louisville's ability to stay on the wave it caught in Oklahoma City versus Cal's survive-and-advance, just-find-a-way-when-it matters-most mode.
(1) Connecticut vs. (1) Notre Dame (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday)
There is no getting around it: Notre Dame has Connecticut's number. Nobody beats the Huskies four times in a row, right? The Irish have. It makes even less sense when two of the four have gone to overtime and the other two have been decided by a total of three points. Not only has Notre Dame won all the close ones (the overall tally is seven out of thepast eight), but the Irish also have won the big ones -- the Final Four in 2011 and 2012, plus this year's Big East regular-season finale to decide the championship and the conference tournament title game (this was the first time in 19 years that UConn didn't have a Big East regular-season or tournament championship).
Efficient offenses: Connecticut has won its four tournament games by an average of 39 points, but everyone involved with UConn knows it's different playing Notre Dame. None of the other dominance matters because the Huskies have become the dominated team in this series, at least in the win-loss column. But despite all of its high rankings in the aforementioned offensive categories, UConn actually ranks higher in all but two -- free throw percentage and win-loss. In other words, these two teams, despite Notre Dame's recent 7-1 record, are essentially an even match.
Players to watch: Dolson's health could be a big factor, as will Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' ability to get open looks for UConn. The turnover count for both teams will be something to watch. Notre Dame probably can't get away with the six-point, three-rebound performance that it got from Achonwa in the Big East tournament final.
Sure, Connecticut versus Notre Dame has a bit of Groundhog Day feel to it, but regardless of how each version has played out, none were boring. This 12th meeting in three seasons could play out in any number of ways, but Sunday's winner will certainly be a big favorite to win the championship.
Louisville: In a matter of one extended weekend in Oklahoma City, Shoni Schimmel changed the perception of the Cardinals' season and herself. The junior guard went from mad bomber to a giant-killing whiz kid, and the Cardinals went from slightly enigmatic to thrilling tournament darlings. Schimmel plays with no fear. Sometimes that has hurt her and her team. Not now. She has scored 20 points per game in four tournament games, more than six points better than her season's average. More importantly, the Cardinals have taken on her attitude, and it's working.
California: Layshia Clarendon is the Bears' top scorer and the team's "glue," according to teammates. Without her, Cal probably doesn't survive South Florida in the second round. Georgia would certainly be the Spokane representative in New Orleans had Clarendon not been the best player on the floor Monday night. She comes to the Final Four as the tournament's top remaining scorer at 22.3 ppg. With a knack at finding different places on the floor to score, Clarendon has been the catalyst in Cal's ability to just find a way to win in this tournament.
Connecticut: The calling card for these Huskies has been that there isn't a particular player of distinction, no one individual standout. This is just a collection of talented pieces that work well together. Largely, that is true. While the improvement of the freshmen has changed the perception of the Huskies a bit, and the severity of Dolson's injuries will be a huge factor, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is UConn's true game-changer. The sophomore wing is probably the best 3-point shooter in the country and UConn's best offensive player. If Auriemma's assessment about his team making shots is correct, Mosqueda-Lewis is the Huskies player that will lead the way.
Notre Dame: Skylar Diggins (17.3 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.6 rpg) is the best player left standing, and no one needs look any further than Notre Dame's last opponent or its next opponent to understand the kind of impact this All-American has on the game. She was a single catalyst for rallying Notre Dame past Duke. No one knows her talents like the Huskies. She is the single greatest opponent UConn has faced since Auriemma arrived in Storrs.
Diggins took down Duke largely with perimeter shooting and opportunistic defense. Much of her success against UConn has been attacking the basket. Diggins instincts are impeccable and her will to win seems to be unrivaled.
Louisville over Cal
UConn over Notre Dame
UConn over Louisville
18dBonnie D. Ford