2014 NCAA Tournament - Louisville Regional Preview: Louisville could be the tournament's wild-card regional

March 28, 2014 - 7:34pm
Will any team in the Louisville Regional be able to contain the high-octane offense of the Cardinals' Shoni Schimmel, playing in her final games at home in the KFC Yum! Center? (Photo courtesy Louisville Athletics Media Relations)

Will any team in the Louisville Regional be able to contain the high-octane offense of the Cardinals' Shoni Schimmel, playing in her final games at home in the KFC Yum! Center? (Photo courtesy Louisville Athletics Media Relations)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Until this season, participating teams were not supposed to be hosting regionals, and the NCAA has already said it intends to return to neutral courts for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight next year. This year's Louisville Regional could demonstrate why.

Though the Cardinals, who ranked among the top five teams in both major national polls all year, received only a third seed, they will certainly give any of the teams still standing in this region -- top-seeded Tennessee, fourth-seeded Maryland and seventh-seeded underdog LSU -- a real challenge, even were they not playing at home. But here, in Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, they have to be a prohibitive favorite to advance at least as far as the Elite Eight, if not to repeat last year's success with a return to the final four

Game One: (4) Maryland (26-6) v. (1) Tennessee (29-5)

Where: KFC YUM! Center, Louisville, Ky

When: Sunday, March 30, 12 p.m. (Noon) EDT.

Coaches: Holly Warlick (Tennessee); Brenda Frese (Maryland)

Broadcast: ESPN

How they got thereTennessee: Defeated 15th-seed Northwestern State, 70-46, in the opening round in Knoxville, Tenn.; defeated eighth-seed St. John's, 67-51, in Round of 32 in Knoxville, Tenn. 

                                   Maryland – Defeated 13th-seed Army, 90-52, in Round One in Knoxville, Tenn.; defeated fifth-seed Texas, 69-64, in Round Two in College Park, Md.

All-time series: Tennessee 10, Maryland 4.

Last meeting: Tennessee defeated Maryland, 80-75, on Nov. 26, 2005, in a holiday tournament in St. Thomas. The two have met once previously in the NCAA Tournament, with Tennessee the victor, 94-80, on March 31, 1989, in the Final Four in Tacoma, Wash.

Points per game: Tennessee: 78.3 oppg, 62.6 dppg.  Maryland 82.9 oppg., 61.6 dppg.

Probable starting lineups:

    Tennessee – Cierra Burdick, forward (8.9 ppg, 7.4 rbg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg)

                         Bashaara Graves, forward/center (9.4 ppg, 6.6 rbg, 1.3 apg)

                         Isabelle Harrison, center  (13.8 ppg, 9.3 rbg, 1.0 bpg, 1.0 spg)

                         Meighan Simmons, guard (16.1 ppg, 2.7 rbg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg)

                          Andraya Carter, guard (7.1 ppg, 2.8 rbg, 2.3 apg, 1.6 spg)

    Maryland --  Alyssa Thomas, forward (18.6 ppg, 10.9 rbg, 4.3 apg)

                          Brionna Jones, forward (6.9 ppg, 4.8 rbg)

                           Alicia DeVaughn, center (7.7 ppg, 5.2 rbg)

                           Lexie Brown, guard (9.7 ppg, 4.3 apg)

                           Katie Rutan, guard (6.8 ppg, 1.9 apg)

Key Stat: 3-1. Tennessee has three players who average double figures -- though one of them, point guard Ariel Massengale, is unlikely to play due to injury. The Lady Vols also have two others who average roughly nine points per outing. Maryland has just one double-digit scorer, Alyssa Thomas, but two more who average in the high nines -- freshman point guard Lexie Brown and reliever Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, also a freshman. More scoring options give Tennessee the edge in this match-up.

Analysis: Here is a breakdown of how the teams match-up.

Guards: On paper, this looks like an area of vulnerablity for the Vols who were forced to turn to 5-9 freshman Andraya Carter after starting point guard Ariel Massengale suffered a midseason head injury. Massengale is said to have been rejoining the team for noncontact workouts since mid-February, but she did not play in the SEC Tournament and has yet to make an appearance in this year's NCAA Tournament. But Carter has acquitted herself well since taking over the duties of floor general. She is not the scorer that Massengale (12.5 ppg) was and nowhere near the ballhandler (Massengale dished out 110 assists this season with only 47 turnovers; Carter has served up 78 dimes whie coughing up the rock 49 times). But she is a more accurate shooter than Massengale was both from the field (47.2 percent to Massengale's 38.5 percent, and from beyond the arc (40.6 percent to Massengale's 38.3 percent). There might be other teams that could better exploit Carter's inexperience, but not so Maryland, who also feature a freshman point guard -- one of the better ones out there this season-- in Lexie Brown (9.7 points, 134 assists, 66 turnovers).

Maryland has no one who can match Tennessee's off-guard, Meighan Simmons, the team's leading scorer, when she is at her best. Simmons was named this season's SEC Player of the Year. She can take over a game -- both in a bad way and a good way. When Simmons is "on," she operates within the flow of the team and the game, distributing the ball well and taking advantage of her openings when they arise. But Simmons is also prone to forcing the issue, especially if the Vols fall behind and she takes it on herself to become their single-handed saviour. On such occasions, she can become a black hole for the basketball, jacking up miss after miss with no apparent awareness of her open teammates, many of whom may be having much more efficient shooting nights.

Advantage: Moderate, Tennessee, provided Simmons demonstrates a modicum of judgment in her shot selection.

Forwards and centers: Maryland's offense is built around All-American forward Alyssa Thomas, a candidate for National Player of the Year and the only player on the Terrapins' roster who averages more than 10 points per game. That makes defensive strategy relatively easy for Maryland's opponents -- double or triple on Thomas and challenge the rest of the Terps to beat you. Easy to draw up, that is; much tougher to execute. Thomas has been double and triple-teamed all season and still averages a double-double of 18.6 points and 10. rebounds per game. Among many factors that make Thomas such a key player is her ball-handling. Thomas has grown proficient at kicking out of multiple-coverage situations, leading her team in assists with 4.3 per game. She is also adept at getting herself to the line, where she has knocked down 79.5 percent of her 166 penalty shots this season.

Center Alicia DeVaughn, a 6-4 senior, provides size in the middle, takes some of the heat off Thomas, and contributes 7.7 points and 5.2 boards per game. Six-three freshman Brionna Jones is a recent addition to the starting rotation, having made just 11 starts in her career. She's there primarily for her defensive presence in the low post and to help keep Thomas out of foul trouble, especially against teams with size and physicality, such as Tennessee and Texas, against whom the youngster put up just two points and pulled down three boards, while helping to containing Texas big, 6-7 center Imani McGee-Stafford.

Six-three junior center Isabelle Harrison, named the Most Valuable Player of this year's SEC Tournament, has come into her own this season, getting better and better as the year went on. When the Lady Vols go big -- bringing in 6-6 freshman center Mercedes Russell alongside Harrison and Graves (whose long, lithe athleticism makes her appear considerably taller than her six-feet, two-inches --  they are a formidable force in the paint. Burdick, at 6-2, also provides some post help, especially on the boards, where she is the team's second-leading rebounder at 7.4 rebpounds per game.

This should be a great battle in the paint, in which an established collegiate star in Thomas, takes on three of the NCAA's post up-and-comers.

Advantage: Maryland. While Tennessee owns the more balanced offense, Thomas is likely to be the best player on the floor.

Bench: Tennessee -- Mercedes Russell - 6-6 sophomore center (6.5 ppg, 5.1 rbg, 1.1 bpg, 18.6 mpg); Jasmine Jones - 6-2 sophomore forward (4.6 ppg, 3.6 rbg, 1.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.0 T/0pg, 15.7 mpg); Jordan Reynolds - 5-11 freshman guard (3.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 16.1 mpg)

            Maryland -- Shatori Walker-Kimbrough -- 5-11 freshman guard (9.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.1 spg, 17.3 mpg); Brene Moseley - redshirt sophomore guard (6.1 ppg, 1.5 rbg, 2.7 apg, 14.5 apg); Lauren Mincy - 6-0 redshirt junior guard (5.9 ppg, 2.4 rbg, 1.7 apg, 16.2 mpg) ; Malina Howard - 6-3 sophomore center (4.5 ppg, 2.3 rbg, 14.0 mpg)

Advantage: Maryland. Russell provides size and heavy-duty rebounding off the bench for Tennessee, but things drop off rather sharply from there. Maryland's guard-heavy bench is deeper, with the freshman Walker-Kimbrough nearly a sixth member of the starting rotation, and two other relievers dependable for about six points apiece.

Offense: Tennessee had the SEC's second-best scoring offense this season at 78.3 points per game. They are dominant from mid-to-short range where they connect on 46 percent of their shots; they knock down threes at a 36 percent clip.

The Terrapins were second in the ACC only to Notre Dame this season in scoring offense, putting up 82.9 points per game, while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. Rutan is the team's sharpshooter averaging 43 percent from long range. Brown also has a 3-point shot to be respected (38.8 percent).

This year's Vols have proven to be an extraordinarily resilient team, having come back from three double-digit deficits in as many games in the SEC Tournament to take the conference crown. You can get them down, but knocking them out is quite a different matter.

Advantage: Slight, to Tennessee, the better balanced of the two sides.

Defense: Both teams pride themselves on their defense. Maryland owned the second-best (behind Notre Dame) scoring defense in the ACC this year, holding opponents to just 61.6 points per game, and allowing them to shoot 38.2 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from the arc.

Tennessee ranked fifth in the SECin  scoring defense, giving up 62.6 points per game, and alllowing opponents to shoot 36.5 percent from the field and 31 percent from long range.

Advantage: Even.

Coaching: Frese is in her 12th season at the helm of the Terrapins,  whom she has led to six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, a Final Four and the 2006 NCAA title.

Warlick is in just her second full year as head coach of the Lady Vols, and this season's SEC Tournament championship and last season's Elite Eight appearance are the biggest feathers in her cap in that capacity. But Warlick stood at the the right hand of Hall-of-fame coach Pat Summit for more than three decades, helping to lead the Vols to their eight national championsihps and 16 Final Fours. Already inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame as a player, Warlick has been to the highest levels of the sport as both a player and a coach. There may be quite a difference between the responsibilities that weigh on a head coach and an assistant, but despite having been in her current position for just two years, no one can rightly describe Warlick as a novice.

Advantage: Even.

Intangibles: Tennessee will be playing close to home and has a huge fanbase that travels extremely well. They'll be anxious to get to Nashville, which is the next best thing to a home game. College Park, Md. is a nine-hour drive away, which means Terrapin fans are unlikely to be there in as large a number.

Warlick is said to still be proving herself to Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart, who has a well-earned reputation as an "executioner," of those who don't win. And be winning, Hart doesn't mean a season in the black; Tennessee expects nothing less than the whole tamale. A trip to the Final Four would go a long way to providing Warlick with some breathing room when it comes to job security, but whether that added pressure will help the new head coach and her charges remains to be seen.

Advantage: Tennessee.

Prediction: Tennessee, in a tight game that goes down to the wire. The Vols simply have too many weapons; the Terps could use a few more beyond Thomas.


Game Two: (7) Louisiana State (25-8) @ (3) Louisville

Where: KFC YUM! CENTER, Louisville, Ky.

When: Sunday, March 30, 2:30 p.m. EDT.

Coaches: Jeff Walz (Louisville); Nikki Caldwell (LSU)

Broadcast: ESPN

How they got there: Louisville – Defeated 14th-seed Idaho, 88-42, in the opener; defeated sixth-seeded Iowa, 83-53, in the second round at Iowa City.

                                LSU – Defeated 10th-seed Georgia Tech, 98-78, in the opening round in Baton Rouge, La.; defeated second-seeded West Virginia, 76-67, in the second round Baton Rouge, La.

All-Time Series:  3-1, Louisville

Last Meeting: Louisville trounced the Tigers, 88-67, on Nov. 14, 2013 in the semifinals of this year's preseason WNIT

Probable starting lineups:      

        Louisville – Sara Hammond, forward (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg)

                            Asia Taylor, forward (10.8 ppg, 7.1 rbg, 2.0 apg)

                            Antonita Slaughter, guard (8.4 ppg, 4.0 rbg, 1.0 apg, ATO: 0.8:1)

                            Bria Smith, guard (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.6 spg, ATO: 1.2:1)

                            Shoni Shimmel, guard (17.0 ppg, 4.5 rbg, 3.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.6:1 ATO)

                  LSU – Theresa Plaisance, forward (15.5 ppg, 7.8 rbg, 1.5 bpg)

                             Shanece  McKinnney, center (7.7 ppg, 4.5 rbg, 1.7 bpg)

                             Da'Shawn Harden, guard  (7.2 pbg, 2.3 rbg, 1.6 spg, ATO:0.86:1)

                             Danielle Ballard, guard  (10.2 pbg, 6.8 rbg, 3.0 apg, ATO: 1:1)       

                             Jasmine Rhodes, guard (2.7 pbg, 1.9 rbg, 0.15 apg, ATO:0.2:1)

Key Stat: 11-8. Those are the numbers of players Louisville and LSU will suit up for this game. With 6-4 sophomore center Derreyal Youngblood suspended, senior guard and team leader Jeanne Kenney concussed yet again, and freshman standout Raigyne Moncrief done with a season-ending knee injury, LSU head coach Nikki Caldwell will already be well into what wasn't a particularly deep bench in the first place by the opening tip.


Here is a breakdown of how the teams match-up.

Guards: LSU lost Jeanne Kenney to an apparent concussion sustained during the Tigers' second-round victory over West Virginia. The head injury finished the season for Kenney, one of LSU's mainstays on both sides of the ball and the source of 11.3 points per game and 115 assists over the course of the season. Sadly, the injury might also have finished the playing career of Kinney, who has suffered several such blows to the head in the past. LSU was already down one starting guard due to the loss of freshman standout Raigyne Moncrief to a knee injury, costing the Tigers another 10.1 points per game.

That leaves the LSU backcourt reliant on 5-9 sophomore Danielle Ballard, who started in 25 of the 29 games in which she's appeared this season. Ballard puts up 10.2 points per game, primarily on dribble-penetration. She has no 3-point game to speak of, having taken just eight attempts this year, connecting on none of them. She is, however, quick-handed on the defensive side of the ball, having broken the LSU single-season steals record last year in LSU's first-round NCAA game against Green Bay.

To supplement Ballard, head coach Nikki Caldwell will turn to her bench, likely tapping junior college transfer DaShawn Harden and freshman Jasmine Rhodes. Neither has seen much playing time this season, with corresponding stats.

In contrast, Louisville's game is all about its guards, and in particular, the fiery Shoni Shimmel, who averages 17 points per game. Despite her high scoring numbers, Schimmel is also a capable distributor, having handed out a team-high 4.5 assists per game. She is complemented in the backcourt by Bria Smith and Tia Gibbs, as well as by her sister Jude Schimmel, who nominally comes off the bench, but sees nearly as many minutes (22.5 per game) as most of the starters. Jude Schimmel does not pose as much of a scoring threat  as her big sister Shoni, but she is in many respects your classic pass-first point guard having handed out 108 assists with just 65 turnovers this season. She provides a stabilizing presence when needed.

Advantage: Louisville.

Forwards and centers: Louisville has no true center, staffing its front court with two forwards, 6-1 redshirt senior Asia Taylor and 6-2 forward Sara Hammond. Together they combine for 21.6 points and 12 rebounds per game.

LSU, on the other hand, really has two centers, though it tags one of them, 6-5 Theresa Plaisance, a senior, as a forward. Plaisance, the team's leading scorer at 15.5 points plus 7.9 rebounds per game, will be carrying the lion's share of the scoring load for the Tigers, especially in the absence of Kinney. Six-four forward center Shanece McKinney, also a senior, produces relatively little in the way of scoring or rebounding, but is the team's shot-blocking leader with a bit under two swats per game. The big question in this game, and the reason for rating the front courts of these two teams as even, is whether LSU's depleted cadre of guards will be able to get the ball into Plaisance.

Advantage: Even.

Bench: Louisville - Jude Schimmel - 5-6 junior guard (5.6 ppg, 3.4 apg, 22.5 mpg); Emmonnie Henderson - 6-1 freshman forward (5.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 10.3 mpg); Shanta' Dyer - 6-1 redshirt junior forward  (5.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 12.4 mpg).

            LSU - Rina Hill - 3-7 freshman guard (3.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg, 1.0 apg, 14.8 mpg); Anne Pedersen - 6-1 sophomore guard  (2.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, ATO: 0.5:1, 14.0 mpg); Sheila Boykin - 6-2 junior forward (1.7 ppg, 2.3 rbg, ATO: 0.5:1, 14.4 mpg)

Louisville has a deep bench, but after Jude Schimmel, productivity drops off sharply. The main contribution of most of the relievers comes on defense, where they provide fresh legs to allow Walz to keep up the pressure that feeds the Cardinals' transition game.

But, as noted above, LSU is in worse shape when it comes to bench depth, with most of its even marginally productive subs likely to be taking the court as part of the starting five. Those players will be seeing minutes, and facing pressure, they haven't had to grapple with all year.

Advantage: Significant, Louisville.

Offense: These are, when at full complement, two of the highest scoring teams in the tournament. Louisville relies heavily on the long ball, putting up 670 of them over the course of the season. They knock them down at a respectable, if not overwhelming, clip of 35.4 percent, as compared to their 46.0-percent shooting from the floor. Walz believes firmly in a high-possession, high-shot-attempt style of play: His team took 2,273 shots from the field this year, netting 1,045 of them. The belief is that if you put the ball up often enough, you will score enough points to win, and last season, that theory carried the underdog Cardinals all the way to the title game.

The Tigers also like to move the ball quickly, but are more disciplined in their shot selection. They took 392 three-point attempts this season, netting 135 of them (34.4 percent), but with Kinney gone, are left mainly to rely on Harden, a 34.2-percent 3-point shooter, for their long game. (Plaisance can also step out and knock down a trey, with 36.4-percent accuracy, but doesn't do so often.

Advantage: Louisville

Defense: LSU allowed opponents 64.8 points per game this season, on 38.8-percent field-goal shooting, and did a good job of defending the three-point arc, allowing adversaries to shoot only 30.4 percent from long range.

Louisville was even more stingy, allowing only 59.2 points per game, while holding opponents to 37 percent from the field and a mere 27.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Advantage: Louisville.

Coaching: Jeff Walz is in his seventh season at the helm of Louisville, a team he has elevated to national stature. IN his first six seasons in Louisville, he has guided his team to two Final Four and national runner-up finishes, as well as four Sweet 16 appearances.

Nikki Caldwell is another of the rising young coaches in the women's game. After a brief stint as head coach at UCLA, she has held the reins at LSU for two years, taking her team to the NCAA Tournament second round last season and to the Sweet 16 this year.

Advantage: Slight, Louisville.

Intangibles: Start with home-court advantage for the Cardinals, and add to that the perceived slight of a three-seed to a team that has ranked among the top five for much of the season, and you know that Walz will have his Cardinals ready to make a statement.

For LSU, there good be a "win one for the Gipper" boost from young players who haven't had much opportunity to shine all year.

Advantage: Louisville.

Prediction: Louisville. The Cardinals handled LSU quite easily before the injury bug cut the Tigers' offensive arsenal in half. LSU will play with pride and heart, but in the end, just won't have the personnel and experience to contain Louisville's high-octane game.

Elite Eight prediction: Whether it's Tennessee or Maryland who advances, the Regional final should be a great game. If it's Tennessee, they'll be looking to avenge last season's Elite Eight defeat, and they should match up better with the Cardinals in the backcourt. If it's Maryland, Thomas could put a serious crimp in the Cardinals' high-flying game if the Terps are able to rule the glass.

Winner: Louisville.