At first glance, the Sweet 16 matchups in the Tempe region look very similar. Two athletically gifted squads will face two teams that rely on position defense and set plays to compensate for the lack of athleticism. Both athletic teams appear to be heavy favorites -- but how often do NCAA Tournament games follow the script?
Point guard: Ivory Latta (UNC) vs. Kylan Loney (ASU). Latta is the Tar Heel's juggernaut, diminutive in stature only. Her game is premised on Mike Singletary-like intensity coupled with athletic prowess. Her fearless nature causes her to play out of control at times, but she has reined in her wild tendencies for most of this year. She is also the team's only (consistent) perimeter scoring threat. Loney is a very solid, if unspectacular player. She does not have the ability to create her own shot in the same way as Latta, but she is hard-nosed and does not mind putting the ball on the floor and driving to the hoop. She is a solid outside shooter, but will have issues on the defensive end. Look for ASU to mix up zone defenses to try and mask the mismatch in athleticism.
Post play: Erlana Larkins/Camille Little (UNC) vs. Aubree Johnson/Kristen Kovesdy (ASU). Latta may be the juggernaut, but freshman Erlana Larkins is UNC's most valuable player. She has brought a tremendous defensive presence in the post, plus a tenacious nose for rebounding. Averaging nearly 15 points and seven rebounds per game (on 61 percent shooting), Larkins is the reason why the Heels are a top seed and in the Sweet 16 (a tremendous improvement over the graduated Candace Sutton). Little, last year's ACC Rookie of the Year, has developed range on her shot and is now a threat to score anywhere on the floor. Wiry and athletic, she can put the ball on the floor, plus score on an array of spin moves and jumpers. For ASU, Aubree Johnson and Kristen Kovesdy are very fundamentally sound players who like to bang in the post (Kovesdy in particular). I liken Kovesdy to Duke's Mistie Williams -- not the best leaper, but someone who uses good positioning to seal off defenders and can score in high-low sets. On paper, this should be no contest. Yet ASU has tremendous depth in the post and will also throw Amy Denson and Jenny Thigpin into the fray in the hopes of rattling UNC with different looks.
UNC's offense vs. ASU's defense. Something has to give. The Tar Heels score 80 points per game, while the Sun Devils allow 54 points per game. UNC uses fullcourt traps, early doubleteams off the first pass into the post, and sheer athleticism to force teams into turning the ball over 24 times per game, leading to easy Tar Heel baskets in transition. The defense triggers the offense, and UNC can put teams away with early runs. Arizona State's defense relies more on position and depth rather than athleticism, and it can be suffocating (especially at home). It isn't any one particular thing such as blocks or steals -- it is the sheer number of bodies the Sun Devils put on the floor, coupled with the ability to contest nearly every shot, while forcing teams to play a halfcourt game and use most of the shot clock.
Keys for Arizona State:
- Limit Ivory Latta's dribble penetration. If Latta gets in the lane, forget about it. She will either make the pass or pull up and score. If she misses, Larkins will have the offensive board and stickback basket.
- Avoid getting rattled by the early pressure. Charli Turner-Thorne will have to use several ballhandlers to compensate for her team's lack of athleticism. Look for backup point guard Reagen Pariseau to play 18-20 minutes.
- Make other players take perimeter shots. Latta is the team's only consistent three-point threat.
- Run set plays early for Emily Westerberg. When the team's small forward and leading scorer starts out hot, her teammates usually follow.
Keys for North Carolina:
- Stick with the game plan. Arizona State's depth and Turner-Thorne's hockey-like, fire-sale substitution patterns rattle many opponents (e.g., UConn). If North Carolina continues to play the transition game and execute its traps, this game could be over at halftime.
- Getting to the foul line. Latta and Larkins are stellar from the free throw line, and they combine for eight points per game from there.
Prediction: UNC 76, Arizona State 59
Post: Sophia Young/Steffanie Blackmon (Baylor) vs. Janel McCarville/Jamie Broback (Minnesota). Young and Blackmon form what is arguably the best post tandem in the country -- they combine for over 33 points and 17 rebounds per game. McCarville is the Golden Gophers' lifeblood, leading the team in every notable statistical category, but the problem is McCarville cannot defend both players simultaneously. She will need to draw one of them out offensively, while Broback can establish position inside. Young is the most athletic of the floor and is quite effective putting the ball on the floor. The key is Broback -- the more she neutralizes one of Baylor's post on the defensive end and the more she can score early on the offensive end, the better off Minnesota will be. If Broback is neutralized, McCarville will be a one-woman show ... a show whose run will end on Saturday.
Bench production: Baylor is a slightly deeper team, and has more offensive firepower from the non-starters. Emily Niemann, the rich man's Lauren Rice, is the team's best three-point shooter (48 percent per game) and provides nearly 10 points in 23 minutes per game. Three of Baylor's best three-point shooters (Niemann, Angela Tisdale and LaToya Wyatt) are bench players. For Minnesota, Kelly Roysland and Liz Podominick combine for 13 points off the bench, but that is about it for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers need the starters to not only be effective, but also to stay out of foul trouble, or Minnesota will not be able to replicate last year's amazing run to the Final Four.
Three-point shooting: Baylor shoots 42 percent from beyond the arc, while Minnesota is at 37.5 percent. The difference is over 21 percent of Minnesota's made baskets are from three, compared to 16.8 percent for Baylor. Will Minnesota's guards be able to create their own shots against Baylor's more athletic perimeter defenders? Will Baylor's starters be able to knock down perimeter shots, as only Chameka Scott is a long-range threat among the Lady Bears' first five?
Keys for Minnesota to win: The Gophers are not a great ballhandling or passing team. McCarville and Calhoun are the team's best passers, but both commit a high number of turnovers. Crisp passing will be required, but Minnesota has faced teams with athletic guards (and dominating post players) before (e.g., Ohio State) and still managed to win.
Scoring 69 points. Minnesota is 18-0 when reaching 69 points this season.
Stop Young or Blackmon. The Gophers will likely not be able to completely limit both players. Focusing on shutting down one entirely could throw off Baylor's balance and efficiency.
Keys for Baylor to win: Baylor averages 13.5 offensive boards per game. For a team that relies heavily on scoring in the paint and around the basket, this number is important.
Keep Minnesota off the foul line. The Gophers shoot 75 percent as a team and average nearly 15 points per game from the line (over 22 percent of their offense).
Niemann and Scott. If they get open looks from three, the inside game will be complemented very well from the perimeter, and Baylor moves on.
Prediction: Baylor 73, Minnesota 62.