Pregame notes and stories are interesting to write because you are playing with a bunch of what ifs. If the first 1/3 of the 2011-2012 season has shown us anything is that teams on paper of what they could do and should do are good for one thing. Kindling. So first some facts, then we play, what ifs.
As the #2 Connecticut Huskies and #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (14-1) prepare to square off today (4 PM, CBS), both teams have shown that they can be on any end of the playing spectrum on any given day
Notre Dame in the early going have done their damage on the offensive end. They are 3rd in the country in scoring. The Fighting Irish have scored at least 90 points seven times this year and topped the 80-point mark 10 times. In comparison UConn, has only scored 90 points, four times and 80 points, five times.
UND is shooting better from the floor and the free throw line than UConn, while the Huskies have the advantage from 3.
In Notre Dame's closest games this year it is from 3 where the Irish have struggled. Notre Dame is ranked 227th in the country in 3 pointers made per season, while shooting a 34% clip.
The Irish have four players averaging double figures, led by junior guard Skylar Diggins at 16.2 points, 5.8 assists and 2.6 steals per game. While Diggins gets all the lime-light and attention, Notre Dame's best player might be Natalie Novosel. Novosel averages 15.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and an immeasurable amount of toughness.
"She's shooting the ball really well," said Notre Dame's head coach, Muffet McGraw. "She's scoring in so many different ways and really is a difficult player to guard. And I think that she's somebody you look at.
"I'm not sure if she's getting the respect because Skylar Diggins probably gets the lion's share of the scouting report. But I think that Natalie is definitely our leading scorer and somebody that we like to give the ball to in pressure situations. She's somebody that we want the ball in her hands a lot.''
The toughness is something that this team needs with the departure of Becca Bruszewski.
While Bruszewski is gone, Notre Dame still has Devereaux Peters on the block. Peters is a formidable opponent in the post, UND must keep her on the floor. Peters is averaging 2.4 fouls per game but has had 7 games with 3 or more fouls.
"She is definitely somebody that changes the game for us," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "When she's in the game, we are a much different team. A much better team."
Connecticut has risen to the occasion for every big name opponent it has played. From Stanford to Texas A&M to Baylor, the Huskies have shown up when the brightest lights have been on. It is when it is an off-Broadway performance that they have struggled to find the consistency that their coaches crave.
Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is still leading this team in scoring off the bench at 15 points per game. In recent games, Mosqueda-Lewis has been more of a ‘shooter' than a ‘maker'. She needed 12 shots to get 12 points most recently against West Virginia. Over the last 5 games, Kaleena is shooting 39% from the field and 32% from 3. Down from her season averages of 46.3% and 41% from 3.
With the addition of Mosqueda-Lewis and the absence of former Player of The Year Maya Moore, it gives the Huskies a different look than the Irish have seen in the past.
Coach McGraw feels this team might be on the verge of being a little but better than last year's team. "It's kind of an equal opportunity offense and you've really got to worry about everybody on the team," McGraw said. "You can't just worry about one person."
A person that UConn is worrying about themselves is center Stefanie Dolson. Dolson has been marred with inconsistency this year without the presence of Moore and the expectations of growth after her phenomenal freshman campaign.
Without Moore, it is easier to help in the lane despite the presence of some deadly 3 point shooters. Dolson is also playing the high post a bit more to free up the lane for some driving. This has been met with mixed results. The other issue plaguing the 6'5" center is that UConn's guards have struggled to find her at times. This group struggles with entry passes to the post.
"The last two or three days in practice she was great,'' Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I don't know what it is, other than people trying to be really physical with her, which I think affects her a little bit."
"And we miss her sometimes, when she's in the lane when we should give it to her. Plus, they're able to double her, which is why some of our guys get wide open shots.
"But we've just got to do a better job I think of getting her involved. The kids she was playing against [vs. West Virginia] were big and strong and were running at her. But she could have had as many 15-foot jump shots as she wanted. She's got to make some.''
Notre Dame's biggest strength might be UConn's biggest weakness. The mid-range game. If UConn's post game isn't working and their 3's aren't falling, their offense has become stagnant at times this season. While Notre Dame guards can penetrate and draw fouls and produce points in a multitude of ways. UConn's approach has been to "jack up shots" if that fails "jack up some more."
Both Bria Hartley and Tiffany Hayes have shown that they are capable of getting to the basket. This ability must be on full display for UConn.
The most telling stat is the fact that Notre Dame has attempted almost TWICE the amount of free throws that the Huskies have attempted this season (402 - 222). It's hard to get to the line if the majority of your shots are jump shots.
Connecticut must work on getting the ball into the post and making Notre Dame foul them, while avoiding getting into foul trouble with Notre Dame's dribble penetration.
If Connecticut is to win this game, it will be on the defensive end. It has been their calling card all season.
"We're playing a team that may score 60 points against us in the first half," Auriemma said after Wednesday's 79-60 win over West Virginia. "Our task isn't going to be scoring as much as it's going to be to keep Notre Dame from scoring."
Last year's game at Notre Dame between these two took some heroic efforts from Kelly Faris to steal a victory from the jaws of a defeat. Notre Dame took 2 more losses from the Huskies before winning on the biggest stage in last year's Final Four. So these teams know each other well.
"We might go up there and get our brains beat in, but at least we're going to know what we're getting ourselves into," Auriemma said. "But there won't be any surprises."
What Ifs From My Basketball Crystal Ball:
- If Notre Dame's Deveraux Peters is in foul trouble, UND will lose by double digits.
- If Connecticut puts Notre Dame on the foul line, the Huskies will lose by double digits.
- If the pace is frenetic, this might be one of the only times this year, it is to UConn's disadvantage. The Huskies can't score as many points as Notre Dame. They need to defend well and keep this game in the 70s.
- If the teams that played Baylor show up, UConn wins. UConn couldn't miss for most of the game and Notre Dame couldn't find the basket with a map.
- If the teams that played Seton Hall show up, it's a virtual tie.
- If all 130,000 followers that Skylar Diggins has on twitter show up, this game will have to be played in Notre Dame's football stadium.