Skylar Diggins led Notre Dame past UConn in the Big East Championship, but now, the two teams will meet for a fourth and epic battle in the Final Four. (Photo by Steve Slade)
Skylar Diggins led Notre Dame past UConn in the Big East Championship, but now, the two teams will meet for a fourth and epic battle in the Final Four. (Photo by Steve Slade)

UConn-Notre Dame: Just this once, tactics may trump talent

April 5, 2013 - 10:54pm

Muffet McGraw has a well-deserved reputation as a postseason giant-killer – the only problem this year is that she’s the giant.

Geno Auriemma has a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest coaches ever in the women’s game, if not the men’s – the only problem is that lately, he can’t beat Muffet McGraw.

Usually, I don’t get too excited about the Dick Vitale-style emphasis on coaches. “Billy Donovan really has those Gators shooting threes tonight” – really, Dick? Did Billy kick off his $400 loafers, lace up some Air Jordans and start draining 25-footers? Or did Jim Boeheim surprise someone with the same 2-3 zone he’s played since Naismith invented the game?

But in this national semifinal, I think coaching strategies could have a huge impact, and therefore I will discard my time-honored, if not time-worn, breakdown by categories, and just explore some potentialities.

First, both coaches have known all along that this Final Four matchup was a real possibility – and that it was the only matchup that really mattered. I’m not claiming that Auriemma didn’t care if he won the first three games, because he’s far too much of a competitor for that, but he’s definitely not a dummy, and whoever won the 2013 Big East tournament is going to be remembered about as long as the winner of the 2009 Big Ten tournament. But whoever wins in New Orleans, especially given what happened on the other side of the bracket, is going to be remembered a lot longer.

Second, both coaches have teams that are smart enough and deep enough to deploy multiple strategies. Most women’s teams simply don’t have enough talent to do more than play one way – or the basketball IQ to suddenly spring a tactical trap.

So here’s the question: Will Muffet and Geno just come out and play the same game they did the first three times, or has each been saving up a few tricks for the game they knew they really needed to win?

First, let’s review. Notre Dame is a matchup problem for UConn, because if Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is on the perimeter, she cannot guard Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride or Jewell Loyd.

The Huskies, on the other hand, have a definite depth edge inside, and if they can get either Natalie Achonwa or Ariel Braker in foul trouble, they can take over the paint.

First, Mosqueda-Lewis. Yes, she can’t guard Loyd, say, on the perimeter, but who’s going to guard her on the block? She can post up any of the three Notre Dame guards, but doing so is more difficult than it appears.

To begin with, Mosqueda-Lewis has played outside all season, and Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart have pounded away in the paint. To get Mosqueda-Lewis there first means Dolson or Stewart have to leave, which removes a Connecticut advantage, and then once she’s there, the Huskies have to get her the ball, which is something that takes practice and skill.

Given this relatively long break, UConn may have spent an entire week working on ways to exploit Mosqueda-Lewis’s edge on the block – but then again, Notre Dame might have spent an entire week countering just such a move. (And then we run into what’s known as an infinite regress: If Auriemma thinks McGraw will take away Mosqueda-Lewis down low, he’ll do something else; but if McGraw anticipates that he’ll anticipate her counter, she won’t spend time figuring out how to stop that plan. And neither coach can prepare for every eventuality.)

And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that one of these two teams has spent the entire season devoting one hour a week to a defense or offense that has not yet been used in a game, in anticipation of just this moment. Maybe a triangle-and-two from UConn, daring the freshman Loyd to make shots? Or how about a trapping 3-2 from Notre Dame, utilizing the quickness of Diggins, McBride and Loyd?

Of course, the more likely coach to make a move is Auriemma, since he’s lost three times. Clearly, whatever he’s been doing hasn’t been working (though a couple of made shots down the stretch would have changed a lot), so his team will be ready to buy into something new. McGraw and Notre Dame would be more willing to order up some vanilla, since they haven’t needed any extra chocolate sauce so far.

And maybe Auriemma decides that he’ll bring Mosqueda-Lewis off the bench as an undersized four, since Braker doesn’t score much, and start superquick Moriah Jefferson to neutralize Loyd, someone Jefferson has played against for years in AAU tournaments. After all, why has Jefferson suddenly gotten more minutes? Has Geno been saving her for a particular moment?

And if this isn’t that particular moment, then what is?

So just this once, I’m willing to go along with Vitale, and concede that coaching, not raw talent, could be the deciding factor. But let’s remember that even though a McGraw-Auriemma one-on-one matchup at halftime would be pretty entertaining, in the end, it’s the players who will decide who wins – and who knows which ones will shine on Sunday?



Glenn MacGrady's picture
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22 February 2012
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1 year 46 weeks

I think the talent of the two teams has been pretty equal the past two years, so I'm inclined to believe that coaching has been the difference in all the close games.

One theory is that Geno, for all his technical abilities as a teacher of sophisticated team offense and defense, is simply an inexperienced game manager in close games. Think about it: How many close games has he had in the past 20 years? Not nearly as many as the average (i.e., .500) coach in basketball. This theory goes on to point out how he has misused or failed to use available fouls and timeouts going back to close game losses against Duke during the Alana Beard days.

I think it's doubtful that either coach will deviate much from their bread and butter offense and defense. They know each other too well. There are no secret plays or surprise players at this stage of the season.

That said, what I think both coaches would like to do somewhat differently--especially UConn--is to hold the other team to fewer points. UConn can hold other top teams under 60 points, but has a lot of trouble stopping Notre Dame's penetrating offense. UConn needs to prevent the Irish from getting easy transition scores and force them to play halfcourt basketball. This means cutting turnovers to a minimum, getting back on transition defense, and somehow preventing Diggins and McBride from penetrating the perimeter defense in the halfcourt, where both players become deadly. 

This might mean Geno should play more zone and take the 3pt risk. Diggins and McBride both seem to be very streaky from the arc. In turn, keep in mind that McGraw was almost exclusively a zone coach until a few years ago, so I wouldn't be surprised to see her go to that against UConn's bigs.

Geno is not going to bring Lewis off the bench. She is the most reliable scorer regardless of her defensive chinks. I'm also not sure she can post up that well against athletic and tall guards such as McBride and Loyd. UConn needs to win with a balance of inside scoring by Dolson (who is multiply injured) and Stewart, plus 3pt hits by the guards and wings.

If the game is close in the last two minutes, history if not Vitale suggests betting on Muffet.