A potential second-round match-up between two of the nation's top point guards, Baylor's Odyssey Sims (left) and Cal's Brittany Boyd (right) could be one of the highlights of the early rounds of the 2014 NCAA Tournament in the Notre Dame Regional. (Odyssey Sims photo courtesy Baylor University;  Brittany Boyd photo by Michael Pimentel / isiphotos.com)
A potential second-round match-up between two of the nation's top point guards, Baylor's Odyssey Sims (left) and Cal's Brittany Boyd (right) could be one of the highlights of the early rounds of the 2014 NCAA Tournament in the Notre Dame Regional. (Odyssey Sims photo courtesy Baylor University; Brittany Boyd photo by Michael Pimentel / isiphotos.com)

2014 NCAA Tournament - Notre Dame Regional Preview: Plenty of tough teams lined up to fight the Irish

Contributor
March 22, 2014 - 12:26am

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The road to Nashville begins Saturday with first and second-round games at four different sites (Toledo, West Lafayette, Lexington and Waco) in the Notre Dame Region. While coach Muffet McGraw’s undefeated Notre Dame squad holds the top seed for the region they're hosting, and appears to be the favorite on paper to advance to its fourth straight Final Four, there are more than a few teams along the way that could give the Fighting Irish some problems.

Here is a breakdown of the match-ups:

TOLEDO, OHIO POD - SAVAGE ARENA, UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO

Round One: Saturday, March 22

Game One: (8) Vanderbilt (18-12) v. (9) Arizona State (22-9) -- 11 a.m. EDT
RPI: Vanderbilt –- 44; Arizona State -- 34
SOS: Vanderbilt  --16; Arizona State –- 66
Records: Vanderbilt  18-12 (7-9 SEC); Arizona State 22-9 (11-7 PAC-12 Conference)
How they got in: Vanderbilt – At-Large-bid; Arizona State – At-Large bid.
Key Players:  Vanderbilt  – Christina Foggie (19.1 ppg); Jasmine Lister (13.9 ppg);   Rebekah Dalman (11.4 ppg).

                      Arizona State –  Deja Mann (11.0 ppg); Adrianne Thompson (8.3 ppg.); Katie Hempen (8.2 ppg.).
Analysis:  This game has the potential to be one of the best first-round games of the tournament. Coach Charli Turner Thorne’s Sun Devils own home wins over three Top-25 teams (No. 11 North Carolina, No. 20 Syracuse and No. 15 California). Coach Melanie Balcomb’s young Commodores (Vandy has just two seniors in the program) navigated through the tough SEC and are definitely tournament ready. Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee at home earlier this season and lost by only two at Kentucky.
 

Prediction: Vanderbilt.

Game Two: (1)   Notre Dame (32-0) v. (16) Robert Morris (21-11) - 1:30 p.m. EDT

RPI: Notre Dame –1; Robert Morris -- 168
SOS: Notre Dame 4; Robert Morris –299
Records:  Notre Dame 32-0 (15-0 Atlantic Coast Conference); Robert Morris 21-11 (14-4 Northeast Conference)
How they got in:  Notre Dame – Automatic - Won ACC Tournament; Robert Morris – Automatic - Won Northeast Conference Tournament.
Key Players:  Notre Dame – Jewell Loyd (18.5 ppg); Kayla McBride (17.5  ppg.); Natalie Achonwa (14.1 ppg). 

                     Robert Morris – Artemis Spanou (19.8 ppg); Anna Stamolamprou (12.5 ppg).
 
Analysis:  Notre Dame has resoundingly answered the questions of what the program would be like post-Skylar Diggins, and that answer has been pretty impressive. As great a season as Robert Morris has had, coach Sal Buscaglia’s Colonials are stepping up to a whole different level than what they have seen all season. Few teams in the country can match the depth and athleticism the Fighting Irish will bring into the tournament. Asking Robert Morris to beat a team that rolled undefeated through the ACC in its first season is a very tall order indeed. While the Colonials made a solid run through the NEC, their preconference schedule was littered with losses to teams in the lower range of the Top-100.

Still, this game should provide fans a rare opportunity to preview some of the young talent that will soon be appearing on the world stage. The Colonials' roster is heavily populated with international players, with the team's two stars -- 6-2 forward Artemis Spanou, a senior, and 5-9 guard Anna Niki Stamolamprou, a freshman -- both hailing from Greece and joined by teammates from Italy, Spain, France and the Congo intermixed with a sprinkling of Americans.

Prediction: Notre Dame.
 

Round Two: Monday, March 24

Winner Vanderbilt/Arizona State v. Winner Notre Dame/Robert Morris - 6:30 p.m. EDT

Prediction: Notre Dame should have little difficulty handling either victor who might emerge from the first-round undercard.

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. POD -- MACKEY ARENA, PURDUE UNIVERSITY

Round One: Saturday, March 22

Game One: (5) Oklahoma State (23-8) v. (12) Florida Gulf Coast University (26-7) -- 11 a.m. EDT

RPI: Oklahoma State -- 30; FGSU -- 52
SOS: Oklahoma State -- 48; FGSU -– 118
Records: Oklahoma State 23-8 (11-7 Big 12 Conference);  FGSU 26-7  (17-1 Atlantic Sun Conference)
How they got in: Oklahoma State –- At-large-bid; FGSU – Automatic - Won Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament
Key Players:  Oklahoma State  – Tiffany Bias (14.2 ppg.); Brittney Martin (11.8); Liz Donohoe (11.2 ppg.).

                      FGSU  –  Sarah Hansen (13.8 ppg.); Whitney Knight (12.3 ppg.); Stephanie Haas (11.5 ppg.)

Analysis:  An interesting matchup in West Lafayette. Coach Karl Smesko’s Eagles' only setback since 2014 began was a 73-63 loss on Feb. 1 at Northern Kentucky. FGCU rolled through the rest of its schedule. Conference rival Stetson certainly tested the Eagles' toughness, as FGCU took both the regular-season and conference tournament Atlantic Sun titles via two overtime wins over the Hatters by a combined total of three points -– one to end the regular season and one in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament final.

The Eagles also tested themselves in preconference play with victories over Top-100 teams such as South Dakota State (84-59) and USF (60-55), but losses to Saint Joseph's (64-76)to Stanford (59-83) on a neutral court, and at LSU (46-69).

That toughness will once again be put to the test against Oklahoma State. Jim Littell has had the Oklahoma State program on a steady upward trajectory in his three years at the helm, and the Cowgirls are a threat to come out of this portion of the bracket. Though nationally ranked, OSU did not do much during its preconference slate, with its best wins coming in holiday tournament victories over Michigan State and Georgia Tech. The Cowgirls emerged from the Big 12 regular season with its record in the black, which isn't easy today, splitting their series against Iowa State and Oklahoma, dropping two to West Virginia, and pusing Baylor to overtime before falling, 66-69, in Stillwater in late January. The Lady Bears avenged themselves in Waco, beating the Cowgirls 81-64, but the Big 12 Tournament saw a third meeting between OSU and the top team in the Big 12, with the Cowgirls once again giving Baylor all it could handle before falling, 61-65.

Prediction: Oklahoma State.

Game Two: (4) Purdue (21-8) v. (13) Akron (23-9) --1:30 p.m. EDT
RPI:  Purdue –- 9 ; Akron -- 74
SOS: Purdue --  6 ; Akron  – 148
Records: Purdue 21-8 (11-5 Big Ten Conference); Akron 23-9 (14-4 Mid-American Conference)
How they got in: Purdue  – At Large-bid; Akron – Automatic - Won Mid-American American Conference Tournament
Key Players:  Purdue  – Courtney Moses (15. 7 ppg.); KK Houser (15.2 ppg.); Whitney Bays (11.5 ppg); April Wilson (10.1 ppg.) 

                     Akron – Hanna Luburgh (22.7 ppg.); Rachel Tecca (22.2 ppg.)

Analysis:  As Hanna Luburgh and Rachel Tecca go, so go the Zips. Coach Jodi Kest’s squad rolled through the Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland, knocking off Ball State in the final, thanks to a 30-point effort from Tecca.

Coach Sharon Versyp’s Boilers rely on a more balanced attack. Purdue is unlikely to take any opponent for granted: The Boilermakers enter the tournament coming off a stinging defeat in by lower-seeded Iowa in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. The loss, which snapped a six-game Purdue winning streak, came after the Boilers had the Hawkeyes down by double digits in the second half but failed to close out. Iowa is a Top-25 team, however, and Akron, despite its success in the MAC, is not.

Prediction: Purdue. Home-court advantage along with Purdue's more balanced attack should be the difference in this game.

Round Two: Monday, March 24

Winner Oklahoma State/FGCU v. Winner Purdue/Akron -- 6:30 p.m. EDT

Prediction: Too close to call. If Oklahoma State advances as expected, this should be an entertaining contest between two evenly matched teams in the middle to lower tiers of the nation's Top 25 programs. (The Coaches' Poll has Oklahoma State at No. 18 and Purdue at 19; the AP has the order reversed and the two teams somewhat further apart with Purdue weighing in at No. 17 and OSU at No. 21. Both teams have a mixed bag of wins and losses when paired with the nation's elite. Of the two, OSU is the better field-goal shooting team by a slender margin, while Purdue is considerably better from beyond the arc. The Cowgirls are the better rebounding team. Both give up as many or more turnovers as they deal out assists, with the Boilermakers the better ballhandlers by a very small degree.  Expect a very close contest -- if forced to choose, we'd give the nod to the Boilers based on home-court advantage.

LEXINGTON, KY POD -- MEMORIAL COLISEUM, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY

Round One: Saturday, March 22

Game One: (14) Wright State (25-8) @ (3) Kentucky (24-8) -- 11 a.m. EDT

RPI: Kentucky  -– 10; Wright State -- 90
SOS: Kentucky --  7; Wright State – 203
Records: Kentucky -- 24-8 (10-6 Southeastern  Conference);  Wright State -- 25-8  (12-4 Horizon League)
How they got in: Kentucky  – At-Large bid; Wright State – Automatic: Won Horizon League Tournament
Key Players:  Kentucky  – Jennifer O’Neill (12.7 ppg); DeNesha Stallworth (12.3 ppg)

                     Wright State  –  Kim Demmings (22.7 ppg); Ivory James (17.2 ppg); Tay’ler Mingo (15.1 ppg)

Analysis:  In his seven years at the helm, Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell has turned the Wildcats from also-rans into SEC championship contender. This is a team one underestimates at one's peril. But this is also a team still hungry for that definitive win that will show they have finally arrived among the nation's women's basketball elite. Four times in the last five years, Mitchell has taken the Wildcats to the SEC Tournament title game, only to come up short. This time, a 71-70 loss to No. 6 Tennessee in a hotly contested and brutally physical game kept No. 12 Kentucky from winning its first conference tournament title since 1982.

The Wildcats are a very different team than they were last year when anchored by feisty guard A'dia Mathies, now playing in the WNBA. This year's edition relies more on the post presence of 6-3 forward Stallworth and 6-1 UConn transfer Samarie Walker, and while this is a team that can definitely bring on the defensive pressure, one sees less of the famous "40 Minutes of Dread" for which Mitchell has become renowned. But if its style is different, the talent is still there. Kentucky has demonstrated that it can run with the big dogs, with regular-season wins over two of the NCAA Tournament's top seeds, Tennessee and South Carolina, to its credit. And one can't forget that 133-130 quadruple overtime win over Baylor, an instant classic that speaks volumes to this team's resilience and sheer will to win.

Coach Mike Bradbury’s Raiders won the Horizon League title and possess the scoring punch to hang with the Wildcats for a little while. But too much Kentucky athleticism and playing in front of the Kentucky faithful should be enough to see the Wildcats to advance.

Prediction:  Kentucky.

Game Two: (6) Syracuse (22-9) v. (11) Chattanooga (29-3) -- 1:30 p.m. EDT

RPI: Syracuse -– 26; Chattanooga -- 46
SOS: Syracuse -- 32; Chattanooga – 240
Records: Syracuse  22-9 (10-6 Atlantic Coast Conference);  Chattanooga 29-3  (18-0 Southern Conference)
How they got in: Syracuse  – At Large-bid; Chattanooga – Automatic - Won Southern Conference Tournament
Key Players:  Syracuse  – Brittney  Sykes (16.7 ppg.); Brianna Butler (14.6 ppg.).

                     Chattanooga – Taylor Hall (14.9 ppg.); Ashlen Dewart  (10.1 ppg.).

Analysis:  Despite the disparity in seeds, this might be the best matchup of the Notre Dame Regional's opening rounds.

On one hand, you have coach Quentin Hillman’s program looking to build progress for his young squad and become one of the top programs in Syracuse's new home in the ACC. The Orange’s roster consists of five freshmen and four sophomores.

Then there is Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Foster and his Chattanooga Mocs. In only his first season with the Mocs, Foster has his squad playing at a very high level, dominating the Southern Conference en route to the league title.

Known for its perennially soft preconference slates, Syracuse took a somewhat different tack this year, bringing itself to national attention in late November with Paradise Jam holiday tournament wins over Texas, Memphis, and then-No.12/11-ranked Texas A&M. The Orange then right turned around and dropped a 91-97 loss to No. 25 Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. And so has gone the season for 'Cuse, with alternating moments of success sandwiched between at times puzzling losses.

Chattanooga's best out-of-conference win came over Auburn, 80-52, in late November. The Mocs were blown out early in the season by Tennessee and lost close non-conference games to both Minnesota and Hawaii in December. But since that time, Chattanooga has improved steadily: They enter the tournament riding a 25-game winning streak, having not dropped a game since Nov. 30.

Chattanooga remains the decided underdog by virtue of their lower seed, lower RPI and perfectly abysmal strength-of-scheduling ranking. But the Mocs also have the perfect recipe to pull off the upset – they're a team riding momentum and playing with confidence under the direction of an experienced (read: Hall-of-Fame) coach.

Prediction: Chattanooga. We’ve yet to pick an upset in this region.  Look for Foster and the Mocs to advance.
 

Round Two - Monday, March 24

Winner Wright State/Kentucky v. Winner Syracuse/Chattanooga -- 6:30 p.m. EDT
 

Prediction:  Kentucky. Regardless which team emerges from the Syracuse/Chattanooga matchup, the Wildcats own the talent, athleticism and sheer will to win to make them the favorites even were they not playing at home. Syracuse's height and stronger post game would make the Orange the more challenging second-round pairing, but that's where Kentucky's experience and veteran leadership would come into play. Besides, the Wildcats have a statement to make, and they're not likely to drop the ball in Memorial Coliseum.

WACO, TEX. POD -- FERRELL CENTER, BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Round One: Saturday, March 22

Game One: (7) California (21-9) v. (10) Fordham (25-7) -- 4 p.m. EDT (3 p.m. CDT)

RPI: California  -– 27; Fordham -- 42
SOS: California --  24; Fordham –- 114
Records: California 21-9 (11-4 PAC-12 Conference); Fordham 25-7  (11-5 Atlantic 10 Conference)
How they got in: California  – At-Large bid; Fordham –- Automatic - Won Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament
Key Players:  California – Reshanda Gray (17.6 ppg.); Brittany Boyd (14.5 ppg.); Afure Jemerigbe (11.9 ppg.)

                      Fordham  –  Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg.); Abigail Corning (12.6 ppg.)

Analysis:  Winners of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, coach Stephanie Gaitley’s Rams enter the NCAA Tournament with a lot of momentum after winning last week’s conference tournament in Richmond.

After making it all the way to the Final Four last year, Coach Lindsey Gottlieb’s Golden Bears were ranked in the Top 25 for most of the season and represent a level of basketball the Rams haven’t seen much of this season. Still, Cal possesses some vulnerabilities.The Golden Bears suffered an early exit at the PAC-12 Tournament; expect California to have heeded that wake-up call and arrive in Waco prepared to take care of business in this one.

One of the most pronounced of Cal's weaknesses this year has been the loss of the long-range scoring threat provided last season by Layshia Clarendon, now playing in the WNBA. That shortcoming can prove fatal against opponents capable of clogging up the post; Fordham, however, is not likely to be such a team.

That said, this pairing features a matchup between two of the best point guards in the nation in Cal's Brittany Boyd and Fordham's Erin Rooney, a redshirt senior from Christchurch, New Zealand. Boyd is a finalist for this year's Nancy Lieberman award; Rooney hasn't quite reached national prominence at that level, but is the first A-10 first-team selection in program history. Neither is your classic pass-first point guard; both provide their respective teams with scoring punch, in addition to effective floor leadership; both are also responsible for a surprisingly high proportion of their teams' rebounding given their position .

However, the reason that matchup may be inspiring so much interest is that Fordham really has nobody who matches up well with Cal's leading scorer and inside presence, 6-3 forward Reshanda Gray. Most of Fordham's scoring comes from its guards and rebounding. Expect the Golden Bears to dominate the boards, feeding off of second-chance points, and using rebounds to fuel a fast-paced transition game.
 

Prediction:  California.

Game Two: (15) Western Kentucky (24-8) @ (2) Baylor (29-4) -- 6:30 p.m. EDT (5:30 p.m. CDT)

RPI: Baylor -– 7; Western Kentucky -- 109
SOS: Baylor --  29; Western Kentucky -– 258
Records: Baylor 29-4 (16-2 Big 12 Conference);  Western Kentucky 24-8  (11-5 Sun Belt Conference)
How they got in:  Baylor -- Automatic - Won Big 12 Conference Tournament; Western Kentucky  – Automatic - Won Sun Belt Conference Tournament
Key Players:  Baylor -– Odyssey Sims (28.4 ppg.);  Nina Davis (14.6 ppg.)

                     Western Kentucky  –  Chastity Gooch (18.3 ppg.); Alexis Govan (16.5 ppg.); Kendall Noble (10.3 ppg.); Micha Jones (10.3 ppg.); Bianca McKee (10.3 ppg.).

Analysis: A year ago, Baylor looked unstoppable. After going undefeated in 2012 and winning the national title, the Bears appeared primed to hang another banner in the Ferrell Center. Those dreams came to an abrupt end, however, in stunning 82-81 loss in Oklahoma City to Louisville in the regional semifinals.

Coach Kim Mulkey’s Bears once again are on the prawl for another national title. They'll have to start that quest without Mulkey, however: She'll be sitting out a one-game suspension imposed by the NCAA for unsportsmanlike comments on the officiating in last season's loss to Louisville.

With Naismith Trophy finalist Odyssey Sims leading the way, and Big 12 Rookie of the Year Nina Davis providing plenty of help, Baylor will try to impose its will with its up-tempo style and pressure defense.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s Hilltoppers dominated the Sun Belt Conference. The Toppers also challenged themselves in their preconference scheduling. But this is a big step up in class for Western Kentucky, who lost all of its games against nationally ranked opponents, including Louisville and Vanderbilt, by double-digit margins. Beating Baylor on its home floor will be too much for the Hilltoppers.
 

Prediction: Baylor.

Round Two: Monday, March 24

Winner California/Fordham v. Winner Baylor.Western Kentucky -- 9 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. CDT)
 

Prediction: Baylor. This could prove to be an interesting matchup, especially if Cal progresses out of the opening round as predicted. Such a game would feature two of the nation's top point guards in Boyd and Sims, both of whom are Lieberman Award finalists, though Boyd has not been as prolific a scorer as Sims. Though Brittney Griner is now just a lingering memory in Waco, Baylor also still has the height and athleticism in 6-4 junior Sune Agbuke and freshman forward Nina Davis to match up well against Cal in the paint, though give Gray the edge in experience and savvy. Here's where Cal's woes from beyond the arc may come into play, however. If Baylor can lock down the paint, or at least fight that battle to a draw, forcing the rest of Cal's shooters to try to beat them, Baylor will almost certainly come out on top. The Lady Bears are far from the nation's best three-point shooting team, but they knocked down 179 of their 535 long-ball attempts from beyond the arc for a three-point shooting percentage of .335. Cal, on the other hand, made just 125 of its 449 attempts from downtown for a meager .278.


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