Despite a handful of decent upsets in the earlier rounds (11-seeded Buffalo and Central Michigan in the Sweet 16, sixth-seed Oregon State beating Baylor to get to the Elite Eight), we’ve got an all one-seed women’s Final Four in Columbus this weekend—Louisville vs. Mississippi State on one side, and Notre Dame vs. UConn on the other.
For the kind of person who doesn’t watch these games but likes to pop in with unasked-for commentary every spring, this might appear to be a bland or predictable finale. But for the rest of us, this is the most compelling Final Four we can get. The stiff competition sets up tremendous tension in the all-important question on everyone’s minds: Is UConn going to eat shit again?
Let’s flash back to one of the greatest college basketball games of all time, which took place in Dallas a year ago this Saturday:
UConn’s Saniya Chong lost the ball out of bounds on a drive with the game tied and the shot clock turned off. Then, after a timeout, Mississippi State’s Morgan William got the ball nearly at half court with 3.3 seconds to go. She drove to the right against Kia Nurse, pulled up from mid-range and hit the shot of her life over Gabby Williams. Bang. Instant winner, and the end of UConn’s unprecedented 111-game winning streak.
Because of that shot, and the way it ensured that the Huskies would not be able to five-peat the NCAA championship, this year’s UConn team’s 36-0 record up to this point means nothing. It also makes a potential rematch between the Huskies and the Bulldogs perhaps the most anticipated women’s basketball game in history, and everyone outside of Louisville and South Bend should be rooting for exactly that.
Now, UConn losing to Notre Dame on Friday would be almost as big of an upset as UConn losing to MSU last year, so barring a massive shock, the Huskies will be playing on Sunday. Mississippi State, on the other hand, faces a real challenge in Louisville, who are ranked by Her Hoops Stats as the fourth-best team in the country to the Bulldogs’ third. Even more frustrating for anyone trying to call this matchup, MSU has the No. 3 offense in the country and the No. 4 defense, while Louisville has the reverse. It’s probably going to be close.
But does it even matter? Can either of these teams beat the Huskies in a final? Maybe. UConn is synonymous with “unbeatable force of nature,” but this specific roster is not. The trio that shouldered the bulk of that record-setting streak—Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck—all departed at the end of the 2016 season, following their fourth national title. Together, those three created a dynasty that likely stands as the best in school history, surpassing both the Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi eras, at least in championships. Anyone following in their wake would inevitably struggle to measure up, and that’s what we saw last year.
Still, the drop off from “best ever” to “best currently” is not all that steep, and the 2018 Huskies group remains undeniably the most talented team in the country. This version of UConn, in keeping with the general trend of basketball, scores more efficiently than any other before it. A typical offensive set looks something like this:
And as you can tell, it puts any team with a traditional center type at a tremendous disadvantage, because it either sticks her in no-woman’s-land or forces her to guard a quicker, most agile shooter on the outside. Crystal Dangerfield, Kia Nurse, and Katie Lou Samuelson all shoot at or above 44 percent from deep, so they’re the main weapons, with their gravity also allowing room for drives from Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier. The six-foot-six Azura Stevens can come off the bench to post up when needed, but it’s a testament to how much the game as evolved that someone with her physical advantages only plays a secondary role. To limit UConn’s scoring seems almost impossible at times, as covering all the danger spots requires hustle, intelligence, length, and a lot of luck.
However—and this sounds so ridiculous to say about a team that only allows 52.3 points per game—the Huskies could stand to do a little bit better on defense. They’re not bad—or even anything other than great—but if you’re putting this team under a pro-grade microscope, you’ll see a group that would rather get into a shooting contest that it knows it’ll win than engage in a physical defensive battle. UConn’s defense is a hyperactive style that forces 18.2 turnovers per game, mainly by doing all it can to deny passes into the low post. But if you can avoid their aggressive hands, it’s possible to score.
Where this most obviously comes into play is if Mississippi State beats the Cardinals on Friday. MSU returns only 56 percent of its minutes from last year’s UConn game, but their most game-changing presence is a center who was only a role player last season: the 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan. Unlike anyone on the Huskies, McCowan physically overpowers all defenders who get in her way, grabbing rebounds with ease on any close-range shots she fails to make. If you’re looking for an NBA comp, she’s Andre Drummond with a slightly better free throw percentage.
UConn has just recently seen something similar, though. A rough parallel to the challenge of McCowan would be the Huskies’ Elite Eight game against South Carolina, in which they went up against 6-foot-5 senior A’ja Wilson, last year’s Tournament MOP. UConn based its defense around keeping the ball out of Wilson’s hands, but still, she was USC’s entire offense The Huskies couldn’t stop her from racking up a game-high 27 points.
However, UConn won that game by, uh, 29 points. Wilson could do all she wanted in the paint, but it didn’t change the fact that South Carolina’s single made three-pointer couldn’t compare to the Huskies’ 12-for-20 from beyond the arc. So if it’s the Bulldogs who advance, they’ll also need their guards to be draining outside shots all game, because Samuelson’s threes top McCowan’s twos all day.
But whether it’s Louisville or MSU playing in the final, UConn’s opponent will need to play a perfect game to beat the Huskies. Their own shooters will need to be exceptionally on-target, while Samuelson, Nurse, and Dangerfield would all have to shoot below their normal stellar averages. UConn is no more vulnerable this year than they’ve been throughout this entire incredible decade—but, of course, that went for last year’s team too. If you’re taking notes, the strategy for beating UConn is: Make threes, make twos, and keep their best shooters cold. It’s as simple as that.