UConn Sweet 16 Preview

Sunday is the big day. Stanford faces their biggest challenge of the season when they match up against the three-time defending national champion Connecticut Huskies in Kansas City in a Sweet 16 game that should be a Final Four battle. UConn may be "down" this year, with a mere #3 seed in the NCAAs, but they are getting hot at the right time and have plenty of talent.

Overview

By Connecticut's standards, a 25-7 record marks a down year. Critics in Storrs, who have been able to watch every Connecticut game this season on television, have myriad reasons to explain the relatively poor performance. Perhaps the Huskies are still searching for a floor leader after Diana Taurasi left the program with three consecutive national titles. Perhaps blame should fall on a senior class averaging only 19.9 points per game, far less than the juniors (31.3) and comparable to the freshmen's contribution (19.1). Whatever the reasons for Connecticut's fall, another victory will put the Huskies one step away from silencing those critics, one step from the Final Four.

As could be expected of the defending three-time national champions, Connecticut carries plenty of postseason momentum heading into Sunday's 7:00 PT Kansas City regional semifinal. The Huskies have made 12 straight regional finals and five straight Final Fours. Connecticut has also won 20 straight NCAA tournament games, just one win shy of tying Tennessee's record from 1996-1999. Stanford, however, has strong reason to believe they will continue the Pac 10's knock off the Huskies and continue one of their greatest seasons in recent memory.

Against common opponents this season, Stanford has outperformed Connecticut considerably. The Huskies lost 68-67 at Tennessee on January 8, comparable to Stanford's heartbreaking 70-67 loss just a few weeks earlier. However, while Connecticut split a pair with Boston College, winning 80-55 February 9 and dropping a 51-48 decision February 26, Stanford defeated the Eagles 76-66 in the teams' only meeting.

Similarly, Arizona State handed the Huskies an 11-point defeat, 61-50, on December 21 in Tempe. Stanford, however, has defeated the Sun Devils by double-digit margins three times on the season – 68-57 in Tempe, 67-53 at Maples, and 56-42 in the Pac-10 Tournament in San Jose.

This is only the sixth meeting between the teams and Stanford leads the series 3-2. Connecticut has won the last two meetings however, thrashing the Card 94-78 on December 21, 1997 in Maples and, in the teams' only previous postseason clash, beating up on the Cardinal 87-60 to advance to the national finals.

Team Matchups

Whether Stanford will defeat Connecticut, however, will ultimately come down to not how these teams matched up against other teams or how these teams matched up seven seasons ago, but how these teams match up Sunday in Kansas City. Stanford is the stronger shooting team statistically, displaying more accuracy than the Huskies overall from the field (48.2% vs. 46.4%), from the free throw line (74.8% vs. 67.2%), and from beyond the arc (38.1% vs. 33.4%). While both teams average victories with similarly lopsided margins, Connecticut's games (71-50.6) tend to be about five points lower scoring than do the Card's (78.2-55.3). Both teams rebound well, averaging about 40 boards per game, though Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer has expressed continual fear that Connecticut's biggest advantage over the Cardinal may lay on the glass.

Connecticut is hoping a dominant performance on the boards can help hold the Cardinal under 60 points, as the 60-point mark has been a barometer of both teams' success thus far this season. Offensively, Connecticut is 23-3 when they score over 60 points, but only 2-4 when they do not crack the 60-point plateau. Stanford's gaudy 31-2 record prevents these statistics from reflecting too much disparity, but the Cardinal is 22-0 when holding opponents under 60 points and only 9-2 when opponents crack 60. On the other end of the court, the contrast is even more clear. Stanford is 29-1 when cracking 60 and have split the only two games (vs. Texas Tech, at Oregon) where they netted fewer than 60 points. That Stanford has cracked 60 in nearly 94% of its games is a bad sign for the Huskies, who are only 1-6 when opponents score at least 60, but 24-1 otherwise. Connecticut has averaged a 63-59 final score against ranked opponents, so these marks could be incredibly close.

One factor that should give Cardinal faithful optimism is that Connecticut has played horribly in its seven losses. In these games, Connecticut shot the ball poorly, netting only 59% of free throw attempts and having only one player, junior forward Willnett Crockett (10-of-17, 59%), shoot over 43% from the field, even though the team normally averages 46.4% overall shooting. In these seven losses, only one player, junior guard Ann Strother (22-of-54 three-pointers, 46.7%) has made more than four three-pointers. Perhaps, then, it's not a surprise that the Huskies are shooting only 29.7% long-range in their losses. Connecticut has also committed over 20 turnovers per loss. Interestingly, despite all their other struggles, the Huskies have still rebounded well in defeat, pulling down exactly as many rebounds as their opponents (35 per game) in these seven contests.

Two similarities stand out between the two schools heading into Sunday's tilt. First, both teams have reason for concern in a close ballgame. In all of 2005, Stanford has played only one game (73-69 on March 6 vs. USC in the Pac-10 tournament) where the final margin was fewer than 10 points. While the Cardinal have repeatedly played with poise this season, whether they could continue to do so in the stretch run of such an important game, while not having played a close game in nearly three months, remains to be seen. While one can only speculate about Stanford's woes in close games, Connecticut's difficulties down the stretch have displayed themselves throughout the season, as the Huskies are only 1-4 in games decided by fewer than 10 points.

Additionally, the injury bug has tormented both squads this season. Injuries have forced Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma to cycle through 12 different starting lineups this season. Thus, the Huskies have not had the luxury of an entire year to build chemistry on the court.

For Stanford, senior forward T'Nae Thiel is expected to return to action against the Huskies after being sidelined with a fractured bone in her left foot nearly a month ago. VanDerveer has not let Thiel practice for fear of further aggravating her injury, so, even assuming she plays, major questions exist with regards to the 6'1" Texan: Is she fully healed? Can she play with 100% efficacy? Has she fallen out of game shape? Will she display any rust after not touching a basketball for a month? How will her teammates respond to her sudden reinsertion into the lineup? Thiel's size and inside presence will be sorely needed against Connecticut, so VanDerveer is willing to risk assume all these risks to get her senior leader onto the court Sunday.

Introducing the Huskies

#43 Junior guard 6'2" Ann Strother
(13.2 points per game, 31.3 minutes per game)

The one player Stanford must focus on at all times. Strother will likely play the whole game, as she averages 37 minutes in games versus ranked opponents. Partially due to those extra minutes, her 13.2 scoring average increases to 14.7 versus ranked opponents. A great shooting threat, shooting approximately 40% from the field and beyond the arc, Strother also leads the team with 103 assists. One would expect Kelley Suminski to most frequently be paired against Strother.

#24 Junior guard/forward 6'1" Charde Houston
(11.0 points per game, 19.5 minutes per game)

Houston's average increases to 12 points per game versus ranked opponents. She shoots 50% inside the arc and also pulls down five boards per game.

#33 Junior forward 6'0" Barbara Turner
(10.8 points, 22.0 minutes per game)

Like Moore, Turner is primarily an inside scorer, shooting about 52% inside. She too averages nearly five rebounds per game. She will probably matchup against redshirt sophomore forward Brooke Smith much of the game.

#31 Senior center 6'3" Jessica Moore
(8.4 points per game, 23.3 minutes per game)

Moore compliments Turner's inside play. Thiel and sophomore Kristen Newlin look to be paired against the Alaskan, who shoots 52.5% from the field and pulls down 6.3 boards per game.

#22 Senior guard/forward 6'0" Ashley Battle
(7.8 points, 20.2 minutes per game)

Battle is far and away the team's best free throw shooter at 78.9%. She will likely play opposite Candice Wiggins, the only Cardinal that can match Battle in terms of versatility. Battle pulls down 4.6 rebounds per game and shoots 42.1% from the field, making her a multidimensional threat for the Huskies.

#25 Freshman guard 5'9" Mel Thomas
(5.6 points per game, 18.0 minutes per game)
Easily the smallest Husky who looks to see significant minutes, Thomas is riding a hot hand into the Stanford game. She averages only 31% beyond the arc overall, but is shooting 47% in the postseason. Thomas is primarily a deep threat offensively.

#23 Junior forward 6'2" Willnett Crockett \
(4.9 points, 16.5 minutes per game)

Crockett too rides a hot streak into the Stanford game. She has shot 79% (15-of-19) in the postseason, compared to 60% throughout the season. She will likely matchup against Kimyacioglu and Perryman on Sunday.

#21 Sophomore guard 6'0" Nicole Wolff
(4.1 points, 20.5 minutes per game)
With 66 assists and only 30 turnovers, Wolff is one of the team's best ball handlers. The Huskies only have five players on the roster with more assists than turnovers, and, alongside Strother, Wolff looks to see the most playing time of the five.

Notes:
The team displays great depth with only one player averaging over 23 minutes. Lengthier TV timeouts will partially negate that advantage.

Senior guard 5'9" Ashley Valley also starts, but averages only 14.8 minutes and 2.8 points per game.

The team is a much larger team, so senior forwards Sebnem Kimyacioglu and Azella Perryman may be asked to play a larger role than normal.

Ball handling is a concern in the frontcourt, as Moore, Turner and Houston all commit more turnovers than assists on the season.

The same lineup of Moore, Turner, Strother, Wolff and Valley has started the past six games.

Daniel Novinson is a freshman at Stanford University. He's broadcasting women's basketball on KZSU - listen along at kzsu.org or 90.1 FM.  Daniel welcomes any feedback at dannovi@stanford.edu.


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