Among the X-factors in the 2014 Final Four (clockwise from upper left): 
How will freshman point Lexie Brown and the Maryland backcourt stand up to Notre Dame's superb guard play?
How big a hole will the absence of Natalie Achonwa leave in the Irish frontcourt?
Will Stanford's Michaela Ruef be able to find her shot from long range?
Can Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis's newfound ferocity make up for a shooting slump by UConn wunderkind Breanna Stewart?
Among the X-factors in the 2014 Final Four (clockwise from upper left): How will freshman point Lexie Brown and the Maryland backcourt stand up to Notre Dame's superb guard play? How big a hole will the absence of Natalie Achonwa leave in the Irish frontcourt? Will Stanford's Michaela Ruef be able to find her shot from long range? Can Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis's newfound ferocity make up for a shooting slump by UConn wunderkind Breanna Stewart?

Suddenly the 2014 National Championship is Up for Grabs: Stanford, Maryland peaking, Notre Dame hobbled, UConn shooting poorly

April 5, 2014 - 12:13am

The match-ups for the 2014 Final Four are now set and while there may be clear favorites, there are no true underdogs in this pack. UConn is entering its seventh consecutive Final Four, having won three of the last six. Stanford is in its sixth out of seven. Notre Dame is in its fourth in a row. Maryland hasn’t been here since its surprising National Championship in 2006. UConn has eight National Championships, Stanford two, Notre Dame and Maryland one each.

The Regionals taught us a lot. Even though the cast in the Final Four is pretty familiar, the scenarios have changed. The once-inevitable matchup between undefeated Notre Dame and undefeated Connecticut became far less likely with the loss of Natalie Achonwa for the Irish and a sudden difficulty finding the basket for the Huskies. At the same time, Stanford, at least in the Regional Final, featured a balanced offense that has been lacking for much of the year, and Maryland looked as good as they have all year.

Even before the Regionals played out, however, the "Big Story" -- i.e.,  two undefeated teams on a date with destiny -- had been overhyped. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, for one, never bought into the theory of inevitability.

“This is a team sport, and I'm glad that there's two teams that are undefeated,” he said the other day. “But I caution everybody, there's two other teams out there that are good enough to win a national championship, so let's not write that story just yet.”

UConn is still the odds-on favorite to go the distance, but Auriemma is right. He has said all year that if an opponent plays its “A” game and his team has a bad day, they could be defeated. Stanford has the talent to defeat Connecticut if Coach Tara Van derVeer gets “A” games from her core players and outstanding games from some role players, especially if the Huskies shoot as poorly as they did in the Regional. She didn't get those "A" games from anyone in the supporting cast other than Amber Orrange when the Cardinal met the Huskies on opening weekend in November, making it easier for UConn, if not to contain Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike, then at least to control the damage she could do. And if UConn's shooting was less than stellar in that game, the Huskies got enough help from their bench to bury Stanford. But it cannot be assume that history will repeat itself, with the Cardinal peaking at the right time and UConn star Breanna Stewart in a bit of a slump through the tournament to date.

Without Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame could easily lose to Maryland, a team that has also seen a variety of players step up to offer Alyssa Thomas some support in the last four tournament games. But Achonwa’s injury makes the right side of the bracket the weaker one. The National Champion will likely be the winner of the UConn-Stanford semifinal.

The  undefeated seasons registered by Connecticut and Notre Dame were built on very similar foundations: An unstoppable superstar, balanced scoring from the remainder of the team (both teams shot better than 50 percent) and great defense. UConn sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, just announced as Full Court's 2014 National Player of the Year, is un-guardable (19.4 ppg) when at her best, shoots a high percentage (49 percent from the field), has an inside and outside game, and is a good defender (62 steals) and outstanding shot-blocker (106). Notre Dame sophomore guard Jewell Loyd, just named to the Full Court All-American Team, is also un-guardable (18.4ppg), shoots a high percentage (52 percent), has an inside and outside game, and is an excellent defender (57 steals).

UConn has five All-American-quality starters (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis might have missed out on the hardware after having been sidelined for so much of the season by illness and injury, but she appears to be playing better than anyone else for the White and Blue at the moment). Each of them averages over 10 points per game. Four of them also have made between 33 and 78 threes on the year. Notre Dame had three starters (two All-Americans) averaging double figures and a reliable bench.

Both offenses ran through their centers, Stephanie Dolson for Connecticut and Natalie Achonwa for Notre Dame, who could post-up, hit 15-footers, and most of all pass the ball like guards. Dolson had 99 assists on the year, Achonwa 91.

And at center is where it all went wrong for Notre Dame in its home Regional Final. Achonwa tore her ACL late in the game, and will not play again in college. Her loss is far greater than her statistics. She was the heart of a talented team, its floor leader, and the engine that made it work. Achonwa’s backup, 6-3 freshman Taya Reimer, is the only other Notre Dame post player with appreciable playing time. She is not ready to be an impact player. Reimer played 20 minutes against Baylor and netted four points and four boards. Achonwa played 27 minutes, with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Other players may be able to help with scoring, but no group of post substitutes can match her rebounding. Achonwa’s vocal leadership and experience is a much greater loss than her raw numbers. Those qualities cannot be replaced in five days of practice. With this key injury, Notre Dame becomes just a very good guard-oriented team, not a juggernaut.

So, with the inevitable now uncertain, the 2014 Final Four looks a lot more interesting.

NCAA Division One Women’s Basketball Final Four, Nashville, Tenn.

National Semifinal One: Sunday, April 6, 2014, 6:30 pm EDT (5:30 p.m. CDT)

(1) Notre Dame (36-0) v. (4) Maryland (28-6)

Maryland enters the Final Four almost as an afterthought. “Alyssa Thomas and who?” is a common attitude. This is Thomas’ team, and she is far and away its best player, a three-peat First-Team All-American with versatility that makes her hard to stop. The 6-2 forward leads her team in points (19.1 ppg), rebounds (11 rpg) and assists (4.1 apg). She also takes nearly a quarter of her team's shots, 200 more than the next most active shooter, freshman guard Lexie Brown (10.1 ppg, 4 apg). Thomas connects on 51 percent of those shots, so Coach Brenda Friese sensibly allows her to be the focus of the offense.

Maryland lost just six games this season, but the strategy for the winners was consistent: Give Thomas her points and shut down the rest of the team. The best defenses found this to work. When UConn beat the Terrapins in November, Thomas scored 20 points, but everyone else was largely stymied. Even playing without Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the Huskies won by 17. In a loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament, Thomas scored 24 points, more than a third of the team's output.

Maryland's most frequent contributors have been guard Lexie Brown (.373 3FG), who scored a combined 34 points in the two Louisville Regional games, and guard Katie Rutan, who has been less consistent, scoring 14 pts, including four treys, against Louisville, but posting zero against Tennessee. Lauren Mincy has also brought her game to the Tournament, contributing a total of 19 points off the bench in the Terps' two games in Louisville, though on less than impressive 22.7-percent field-goal shooting. Thomas, however, remains the focal point of the Maryland offense: In the Regional, she scored a cumulative 55 points, shooting nearly sixty percent from the field.

Notre Dame enters the game without one of its stalwarts, as detailed above. But the Irish have a deep bench, a team experienced in the Final Four, and a bevy of sharp-shooting guards. Expect Coach Muffet McGraw to feature four guards in hopes of hitting enough threes to help recoup some of Achonwa’s lost points. The outstanding backcourt of First-Team All-American Kayla McBride and the unstoppable Jewel Loyd will likely be joined by a rotation of Madison Cable, Michaela Mabrey and Linday Allen, the regular point-guard. McBride took just nine shots against Baylor, but will certainly be a more aggressive scorer in Nashville. Michaela Mabrey’s 70 made threes this season leads the team, but she averages just nine points a game, and will have to find more open shots. The freshman Allen also needs to have the game of the season for the Irish to win this one.

Maryland lost at home by just four to Notre Dame in late January. Maryland center Alicia DeVaughn scored 16 points on 7-10 shooting against Achonwa in that game. Expect the Terps to feed her and Thomas as often as they can, and for the Irish defense to focus on disrupting passing lanes.

This game would always have been a post-versus-backcourt battle, only now that much more so. It is likely to be a fast-paced contest with many substitutions as the coaches try to find the hot hand from the supporting cast. The stars will get their own. If the Notre Dame guards force turnovers and hit threes, the Irish should pull it out. If Maryland can get the ball into the post on the majority of possessions, they could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Notre Dame by less than 10

National Semifinal Two: Sunday, April 6, 2014, approx. 8:50 pm EDT (7:50 p.m. CDT)

(1) Connecticut (38-0) v. (2) Stanford (33-3)

Connecticut is the best defensive team in America. The Huskies held ranked teams to under 54 points and under 35-percent shooting. They had 95 blocks and 89 steals in those 13 contests. They won the games by an average of 24 points. The defense has been a constant, even when the team had an occasional bad shooting game.

The Connecticut statistics are overwhelming: No. 1 defense, field-goal percentage, field-goal defense, scoring defense, blocked shots, fouls (fewest), scoring margin, assists; No.2 assist-turnover ratio. The Huskies have the best center in country (Chiney Ogwumike is a forward) in Stephanie Dolson, who is the best passing center in years (perhaps since Stanford's Jayne Appel), and has averaged nearly a double-double on the season. Fellow senior Bria Hartley has returned to All-American form, with solid all-around scoring, and outstanding senior leadership. Sophomore point guard Moriah Jefferson has become one of the best all-around point guards in the country. She is the team’s best perimeter defender, scores over 10 points a game, has a 2.88 assist turnover ratio, has a .682 scoring percentage and and has hit two-thirds of her 3-point attempts in the post season (44% on the year).

The post-season has seen a change in two UConn players, however. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is playing with a ferocity not seen before in her outstanding career. Her 3-point shot has recovered to 45 percent in seven post-season games, and she has had 30 rebounds in the last three contests, 17 of them off the offensive glass, while averaging 19 points.

Breanna Stewart, last year’s Final Four MVP as a freshman, has had a bit more rocky postseason, a fact that gives a glimmer of hope to opposing teams. She has seems to have lost her 3-point range, hitting just 3-16 in the NCAA tournament. Her scoring and rebounding are both down slightly, but perhaps most importantly, her confidence appeared shaken in Lincoln. Stewart has been the not-so-secret weapon all year, the “we-have-Breanna-and-you-don’t” player. If she plays tentatively, one of the Huskies biggest advantages is diminished. This small fracture in the UConn edifice should not be over-stated. A slightly “off” Beianna Stewart is still among the best players in the country.

UConn can beat itself, if the team plays poorly, but this is a disciplined, driven, experienced team, and has improved over the course of the season in nearly every aspect of the game. They are still strong favorites to win it all.

But Stanford may have improved even more than UConn. Stanford’s freshmen have grown up. The entire team has gained in confidence. Geno Auriemma and Tara Van derVeer agree about that. Auriemma was naturally effusive in his praise of Chiney Ogwumike sayingm “She's so good at scoring the ball, rebounding the ball, playing defense, running the floor. She's a great emotional leader.” But I don't think,” he continued, “that's enough to win a national championship.”

He's right. Stanford's biggest problem all season has been the lack of big-time performances from the cast surrounding Ogwumike. The Cardinal's real improvement tis postseason has been in the supporting players. Auriemma pointed out the change he has seen. “[Michaela] Ruef has become, I think, a much, much better complement to Chiney. [Point guard] Amber [Orrange] has become much a more aggressive offensive player, much more consistent offensive player. . . [T]he kids on the perimeter, Bonnie Samuelson and Karlie [Samuelson], they look very confident, . . . like they know that they're good and that they know that they can provide the other things that you need to win a championship.” Teams can no longer say, “'Let's put three guys on Chiney,’” he concluded,  “‘and let's see if Stanford can win.’”

Stanford’s woes this year have come when Ogwumike, who is averaging 26.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game through the postseason, has had to carry the bulk of the scoring load. Until now, Stanford has lacked a second reliable double-digit scoring option. (Orrange's 10.1-point-per-game average includes her far more prolific scoring in the NCAA Tournament.)

Season averages bury the good news for Stanford about just how much this team has improved in the course of the Tournament (and we all know the proverb about the person who drowned in a river whose "average" depth was just six inches).

Orrange has been consistently improving all year; she is now a reliable scorer who rarely turns the ball over and runs the Stanford offense well. She posted 14 points, including two huge 3-pointers, on six-of-nine shooting against North Carolina, while passing out four assists. Against Penn State she put up 18 points on seven-of-11 from the floor. The Cardinal will need those kind of numbers out of Orrange to have any up of getting through to the championship game.

To beat UConn, however, Stanford will have to get significant contributions from everyone else as well. The blossoming of 6-3 forward Michaela Ruef, who more often than not has been MIA for the Stanford offense in the regular season, accounting for just 7.1 points per game (though Ruef contributes mightily to Stanford's rebounding dominance, averaging 9.4 rebounds per game) has been another cause for celebration for Cardinal fans. Against North Carolina, Ruef put up 17 points on six-of-11 shooting, including three critical treys, while still hauling down nine rebounds and handing out three assists. She contributed a double-double of 11 points and 13 boards to ease the Cardinal past Penn State, and still found time to pass out five assists (unfortunately, to four turnovers) and snatch two steals. So radically improved was Ruef's performance that the media awarded her Stanford Regional Most Outstanding Player honors over Ogwumike.

Stanford also got a modest contribution from guard Lili Thompson, who combined for 21 points in the two regional games, though Stanford remains sorely in need of better 3-point shooting from her. For that matter, from pretty much everyone but Ogwumike, who should probably wait a bit if she's planning to add some range to her game for the pros. The lack of a reliable 3-point shooter, preferably more than one of them, has spelt trouble for the Cardinal all season, as defenses quickly find they can sag off the perimeter and pack the paint. Stanford averaged 36.6 percent from distance this season, which sounds good until you take a look at the games they lost or narrowly escaped. Against, North Carolina, the Cardinal 3-point shooting surged to 45 percent, thanks to contributions from Ruef and Orrange, as well as Bonnie Samuelson, who went three-for-seven from downtown to finish with 13 points. Against, Penn State, however, Samuelson knocked down two-of-five from beyond the arc, to finish with just six points, and no one else stepped in to fill the 3-point shooting void. Stanford finished that game just 26.3 percent (five-of-19) from 3-point range, and were fortunate to have so thoroughly dominated the paint that they didn't need much of an outside game to advance.

That kind of inconsistency will not lead to success against the Huskies, who are nothing if not the very definition of consistency. UConn has averaged 37.2 percent from beyond the arc this season, and are great perimeter defenders, holding opponents to just 26.3 percent from long distance. Ogwumike and Stanford may hold their own in the paint against Connecticut, but not if they give the Husky guards the night off by failing to keep them honest from outside.

Much has been written about Connecticut's lack of bench depth. Although the Cardinal bench is crowded, however, only eight Stanford players have averaged more than 10 minutes per game in action, and in clutch situations, the rotation gets even shorter. VanDerveer played just five players (starter Sara James went to the bench after just three minutes, and stayed there, in favor of Bonnie Samuelson) to defeat North Carolina by nine points to reach the Final Four. Neither team is typically prone to foul trouble, making their benches less of a factor in any event.

The Cardinal lost to Connecticut by 19 in November, but nobody cares today. These were very different teams. Four of UConn’s starters combined for just 20 points. Mosqueda-Lewis was injured and missed half the game. Jefferson had not yet come into her own. For Stanford, Orrange and Ogwumike had 38 of the team’s 57 points. Nearly four months later, the game should be more interesting, and probably a lot closer.

Prediction: UConn is still the likely victor.

NCAA Division One Women’s Basketball Championship, Nashville, Tenn.

Title Game: Tuesday, April 8 -- 8:30 p.m. EDT (7:30 p.m. CDT)

Winner Stanford/UConn v. Winner Maryland/Notre Dame

If Connecticut beats out Stanford as predicted, it doesn't really matter who advances out of the opposite side of the bracket. If Notre Dame, guard play alone is unlikely to prevail against a team with guards of equivalent quality and a post that, in the absence of Achonwa, is likely to have an unfettered field day. If Maryland comes out, the game gets more interesting, but Connecticut remains likely to repeat as national champs -- but for the opposite reason. Dolson and Stewart should have their hands full with Maryland's Thomas and DeVaugn, but UConn's guards are simply better than the Terrapin backcourt (though Lexie Brown will likely get to that level with time).

If Stanford is able to get the stars to align, Notre Dame will face much the same problem. Its guards, collectively, are better than Stanfords, but not so much so as to offset what will be an overwhelming Cardinal advantage in the post.

A Stanford v. Maryland final: Now that would be a game, featuring two of women's college basketball's best posts in Ogwumike and Thomas, and backcourts that are more or less on a par. Ruef, if she plays as she has been recently, would give Stanford the edge in that match-up -- but then, again, it's one we're highly unlikely to see.

Photo Credits: Lexie Brown image by Teri Priebe/; Natalie Achonwa image by Matt Cashore/Courtesy Notre Dame Athletic Communications; Michaela Ruef image by Lee Michaelson/; Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis image by Stephen Slade/Courtesy UConn Athletics Media Relations.