Which top seed will stumble on Sunday

March 29, 2013 - 10:14pm
Notre Dame will face Kansas in the sweet 16 in Norfolk on Sunday. (File photo courtesy Notre Dame Athletics)

Notre Dame will face Kansas in the sweet 16 in Norfolk on Sunday. (File photo courtesy Notre Dame Athletics)

Sooner or later, one of the top seeds has to lose, right? Maybe two?

We’ve got another one for you here, but Baylor haters should stand down -- the Bears are on their way to New Orleans.

Norfolk Regional

Notre Dame vs. Kansas

The 12th seed is just happy -- no, ecstatic -- to be in the Sweet 16. The one seed is here to take care of business.

Kansas, though, isn’t your normal 12th seed, as the Jayhawks are from a power conference and expected much more from their season than a 20-13 record. Still, they’ve achieved all they need to achieve to consider the year a success, so it will be hard for them to play with the same sense of urgency as Notre Dame .

In addition, Kansas doesn’t have the talent of Notre Dame, and that’s even more important. Of course, the focus is on Skylar Diggins, the likely No. 3 overall pick in the WNBA draft this April, and she’s very good, no doubt -- but she may not be Notre Dame’s best player. After all, Diggins shoots just 41.9% from the field and averages 3.6 turnovers per game, which makes her much less efficient than Kayla McBride (46.7%, 1.9 turnovers a game).

Of course, the presence of Diggins gives McBride more freedom, and less defensive pressure, but still, they are a fearsome one-two punch in the backcourt. Natalie Achonwa is also a very efficient player -- as a 6-3 post, she has more turnovers than assists, and is a 79.2% free-throw shooter -- and as long as she’s on the court, the Irish should be able to deal with Kansas’ two 6-3 posts, Carolyn Davis and Chelsea Gardner.

There, however, lies the Jayhawks’ best chance of continuing their Cinderella run: If they can get Achonwa in foul trouble, they might be able to overcome their weakness on the boards and hang with Notre Dame. It also wouldn’t hurt if Monica Engelman could have another game of her life -- or at least come close to getting 20 points (her average is 9.9).

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely, as Diggins, McBride and freshman Jewel Loyd are solid defenders, and unless Angel Goodrich shoots it much better (36.7% for the season), the Notre Dame perimeter defense can focus on Engelman.

And speaking of Loyd, she’s another reason the Irish are heavy favorites in this one. At 12.3 ppg, on 45.0% shooting, Loyd is already a top-shelf player, and will present the Kansas defense with one too many talented guards to try and defend.

In short, it’s been fun for the Jayhawks -- but now it’s time to click their heels and go back to Kansas.

Duke vs. Nebraska

The loss of Chelsea Gray, Duke’s dynamic junior point guard, has led many to dismiss the Blue Devils’ chances of winning a national title. After all, Duke was averaging 12.8 steals a game with Gray in the lineup; since then, they get only 8.4. With Gray, Duke forced 22.4 turnovers a game; without her, they only create 16.2.

These are significant numbers, and even though Duke is 8-1 since Gray went down, coach Joanne P. McCallie has had to make some serious adjustments. Luckily, freshman Alexis Jones has smoothed the process, averaging 15.4 points, 6.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds and hitting 10 of 20 three-pointers since Gray’s injury. Oh, and she was also the ACC Tournament MVP (17.7 points, 6.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals, on 60.0% shooting).  

And then there’s 6-3 sophomore center Elizabeth Williams (15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and junior sharpshooter Tricia Liston (46.1% from beyond the arc), and plenty of quality depth, which should be enough against Nebraska.

The Huskers, though, have that most valuable of commodities: a really good senior point guard. Lindsey Moore has a 2.2 A/TO, shoots 47.7% from the field, 39.5% from three-point distance and 80.4% from the line, and since she’ll have the ball in her hands pretty much all the time, if she has a great game, she just might be able to lift Nebraska to the upset.

And it’s not as if she’s the only talent. Jordan Hooper is the leading scorer, and gets 8.8 rebounds a game, and  6-2 Emily Cady is a good rebounder and ballhandler. But the Cornhuskers really don’t shoot it that well, and they’ve lost two of their last four, so unless Moore just goes berserk, it’s hard to see Nebraska getting past Duke, even with Gray out of the picture.

But then again, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.

Elite eight

Duke-Notre Dame is a very interesting matchup, and of course the Irish are the favorites -- and not just because they are seeded higher and Duke is without Chelsea Gray. Muffet McGraw is one of the great postseason coaches in the game and McCallie, well, isn’t.

That said, an upset here would not surprise me, and in fact, I picked Duke on a bracket that has done so poorly the law of averages say I have to be right on something. That’s a thin thread, but the gap between these two teams is not as great as people think -- the Blue Devils pull it out late.

Oklahoma City Regional

Baylor vs. Louisville

Sara Hammond isn’t a bad player. In fact, she’s very good. She’s 6-2, shoots 47.1% from the field, scores 10.8 points a game,  gets 6.6 rebounds a game, blocks some shots, gets some steals. She’s the primary post presence for a 26-8 team that in’s the Sweet Sixteen.

The sophomore is living the dream of so many female basketball players, playing in the Big East for Louisville.

But unless she can magically raise her game Sunday, her Cardinals are pretty much done. If she’s just who she is -- a really good basketball player -- Brittney Griner and the Baylor Bears will simply overwhelm Louisville, as they have so many other teams this year (they outscore their opponents by 27.8 points a game, and have had only three games in which the margin has been less than 10 points).

Sure, Shoni Schimmel will make some big plays, most likely some spectacular plays, but she’s a 39.1% shooter with 113 turnovers against 122 assists. Odyssey Sims will likely make those numbers worse on Sunday. Antonita Slaughter is a tall guard, but so is Jordan Madden -- and Madden is a superior defender.

The only thing Baylor doesn’t do well is shoot free throws (66.6% on the season). Otherwise, they are clearly the best team in the country, and unless someone can make it close enough that free-throw percentage becomes crucial, that Achilles’ heel will not come into play.

Sara Hammond’s good. Shoni Schimmel’s good. Jeff Walz is a good coach. But Baylor is one of the best women’s collegiate basketball teams ever, and though they claim they play the games because there’s always a chance, the only way the Bears lose this one is if the bus gets lost and they have to forfeit.

Tennessee vs. Oklahoma

Sometimes the numbers tell the story. Tennessee, as a team, shoots 44.9% from the field, and and has +6.3 edge on the boards; Oklahoma, as a team, shoots 42.8% from the field and has a +0.5 edge on the boards.

There are similarities, though, as both team’s leading scorer is a high-volume shooting guard with more turnovers than assists. Aaryn Ellenberg, the Oklahoma version, is slightly more efficient than Meighan Simmons, and what the Sooners really need is for Ellenberg to shoot 50% from the field Sunday and Simmons to struggle.

It also wouldn’t hurt if 6-6 Nicole Griffin was a little more aggressive on the boards (5.0 rpg is less than half of 6-3 non-leaper Joanna McFarland’s average) and if Oklahoma has one of those nights from beyond the arc.

Otherwise, it looks like Tennessee should control this game, as an edge on the boards can make all the difference. So far in this postseason, almost every close game has been decided by which team gets crucial rebounds down the stretch, especially on the offensive end, and the Volunteers have almost 100 more of those than the Sooners.

Shooting comes and goes, but rebounding is basically forever, so even though the Sooners have a home court advantage, expect Tennessee to move on and get the dubious honor of facing Baylor.

Elite Eight

Baylor beat Tennesse by 23 earlier in the year. Of course it was in Waco, so there’s that home-court advantage to subtract. Most statisticians put it between three and five points, so the Bears should win by at least 18.

And they most likely will, but an inspired Tennessee performance could make the game turn on free throws -- and the Volunteers make 76.1% of theirs. Baylor doesn’t.

Of course, the game has to be close for that to matter, and with the national championship so close, the Bears aren’t going to stumble. Griner goes off, and Baylor goes to the Final Four.