The first time I'd ever been in a restaurant with every television tuned to women's basketball and people actually talking about women's basketball and wearing player jerseys was in Spokane last year.
And not just talking about as in, "Wow, that point guard is good! What's her name?" but actually engaging in substantive basketball conversation about women's basketball, like analyzing "Courtney's" growth over the course of her career and breaking down good and bad matchups for "Kayla".
Men, women, kids, students - everyone. It seemed like everyone in Spokane was talking about their women's basketball team last season, they rallied around the team for a standard-setting tournament run for the program, and it created an outstanding atmosphere for the game.
Perhaps that might not be too surprising for people in similarly engaged women's basketball towns - I confess that most of my experience with women's college basketball has been on the west coast (and at American University - alas, Eagles women's basketball has not really been the hottest topic in Washington, D.C.). But if nothing else, it's the sign of a vibrant basketball community that is more than worthy of hosting the tournament again.
Spokane isn't just a women's basketball town though: the men's basketball team really put the school on the map and is arguably responsible for the school receiving the $23 million required to build the McCarthey Athletic Center. However, it has also become a thriving basketball town at all levels and women's basketball hasn't taken a back seat as it has in so many other cities.
That thriving women's basketball culture serves as the backdrop for the Spokane sub-regional this season, where Gonzaga is once again the 11th seed looking to pull off a few upsets to advance.
#11 Gonzaga vs. #6 Rutgers
Whereas homecourt advantage might help shield a number of teams from upsets, it could very well help propel the Gonzaga Bulldogs to an upset of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the first round. However, Gonzaga is not entering the tournament with anywhere near the momentum they entered with last season, when they entered the tournament having won 18 straight games, the 2011 WCC Tournament championship and every home game of the season led by star point guard Courtney Vandersloot. This year they enter the tournament coming off of a WCC Tournament loss to BYU - one of three losses to conference opponents this season - and two home losses. So it's hard to have that same type of confidence in Gonzaga as one might have had last season.
This might be among the starkest contrasts in styles that one might find in the tournament, with Rutgers obviously known for coach C. Vivian Stringer's aggressive defensive schemes and Gonzaga being far more of a highly efficient finesse team that can struggle with more physical opponents.
Nevertheless, what Gonzaga has going for them in this particular matchup is that they're a rather exceptional rebounding team, ranking 23rd in the nation in overall rebounding percentage and having a solid 41% offensive rebounding percentage. Rutgers is not a particularly strong rebounding team and that could help give Gonzaga an extra boost.
But the even more significant factor will be how well the Rutgers' defense can shut down Gonzaga's highly efficient offensive attack, which is ranked 12th in the nation by points per possession. The consistent theme in Gonzaga's losses this season has been that they've been outshot by their opponents: as a team, they haven't shot better than 41% from the field in losses and shot 22% from the field in their 30-point loss to BYU in Provo, Utah this season. Obviously, if any defense was going to shut down a finesse team that relies heavily on perimeter scoring efficiency to win, one would expect it to be Rutgers.
That makes the player guarding Gonzaga's senior post player Kayla Standish - most likely junior Monique Oliver - a key player in this game. Standish can present matchup problems for almost any post player with her ability to facilitate the offense from the high post and step outside to knock down shots from the perimeter. Her ability to combine that with scoring driving to the basket and off post ups will make the difference for Gonzaga's offense - in Gonzaga's 5 losses, Standish is averaging 13 points with an terribly inefficient true shooting percentage for a post player of just 38.3%.
Even though senior wing Katelan Redmon has been even less effective in losses with 4.4 points per game and a 34.8% true shooting percentage, the offense is still so heavily predicated on Standish that her having a good game is imperative if they expect to beat a quality opponent, especially one that will pressure the guards making Standish's ability to operate in the high post more important.
Being at home might just help them go all the way to the Sweet 16 - Miami's athletic guard Riquna Williams did not make the trip to Spokane due to conduct detrimental to the team*, which gives Gonzaga a much better chance at making another run to the Sweet 16 should they upset Rutgers in Round 1.
*Updated at 1:30 p.m. with Williams news - feel free to consider them my darkhorse candidate and Green Bay just the "upset watch" candidate... or both of them in both categories. But Williams would have created serious problems for Gonzaga defensively as their guards would struggle with her athleticism. Without Williams, Miami is still a very good team, but that's a big chunk of Miami's scoring lost on short notice especially given the short turnaround time of a tournament setting.
Intriguing first round matchup
A competitive first round game other than the 8/9 matchup
#5 Louisiana State vs. #12 San Diego State
LSU is playing this one in Baton Rouge, so it would certainly be reasonable to expect a win. But San Diego State should be able to give them a run for their money for two major reasons.
Even with LaSondra Barrett back, LSU is among the highest seeds in the tournament to turn the ball over at a higher rate than their opponents and their 28.10% turnover rate ranked 322nd in the nation. San Diego State is a solid defense that both forces turnovers at an above average rate (25%) and tends to take care of the ball pretty well themselves, which could help them against LSU's defense.
However, the more important battle might be on the boards. Both of these teams are solid rebounding teams, with San Diego state ranking 15th in the nation in overall rebounding percentage and LSU ranking in the top 50. It's probably not too surprising then that SDSU is a bit better on the offensive boards, which could play a huge part in this matchup. Both of these teams tend to play a (sometimes painfully) slow game and can struggle to make shots from the perimeter. That only makes every possession more valuable and the team that can get themselves second chance scoring opportunities will probably win. Statistically, the better rebounding team coming in is SDSU, albeit against a strength of schedule ranked 306.
Ultimately, in a slow defensive battle, LSU has a height advantage that could help them control that rebounding battle and win the game, especially with versatile 6-foot-2 wing LaSondra Barrett reportedly ready to go. That height could further stymie SDSU on offense where they're not a particularly strong 3-point shooting team, allowing LSU to pack it in a bit and clog up the driving lanes. But turnovers have been a consistent feature of LSU's home losses this year and if San Diego State can take advantage of that tendency they might be able to win an outstanding defensive battle between two teams with rather significant offensive weaknesses.
A team seeded 7th or lower that could make it to the Sweet 16 or further.
#7 Wisconsin - Green Bay
Green Bay is an extremely good team, every bit as good statistically as their #10 ranking in the AP poll suggests. So really, you could easily argue they were just under-seeded (as Gonzaga was last season) moreso than a darkhorse candidate. But there they are at #7, so they could score a seeding upset of second-seeded Kentucky in the second round.
But before even getting to that matchup, I figure this is a good time to mention Julie Wojta, who I've been meaning to mention for weeks: Wojta is a WNBA draft statistical superstar prospect. The 6-foot wing is averaging a double-double with 19.8 points per game, a 59.2% true shooting percentage, 42.4% 3-point percentage, and a 6.1 steal percentage (6th in the nation). The shooting proficiency alone makes her an obvious contributor to a WNBA rotation as a shooter, at the very least. At her size, the steals and rebounding suggest the type of athleticism that could make her an instant impact player.
There's a lot more to say about her WNBA potential and a lot more of it will be on display during the tournament. But it's difficult not to start there when talking about Green Bay. Led by Wojta's steal percentage on the perimeter, they force opponents into turnovers on 33% of their possessions, second in the nation. Even playing 10th-seeded Iowa State at home in the first round, Green Bay's defense should make them the favorite to advance: Iowa State is one of those teams that turns the ball over more often that their opponents as it is and Green Bay should cause more problems for them.
Of course, the team that forces opponents into turnovers at the highest rate in the nation is the Kentucky Wildcats, who Green Bay would likely face in the second round. Obviously then, the team that takes better care of the ball and can limit the opponent's transition points off turnovers will gain a serious advantage in this one. But that battle in transition will be especially important for Kentucky, which is not a particularly strong shooting team and could find themselves in trouble if their primary source of scoring is cut off. Green Bay, on the other hand, has the fifth-highest shooting efficiency in the nation (51.4% effective field goal percentage) and surprisingly another wing - 5-foot-11 Adrian Ritchie - who has a 60% true shooting percentage, generally considered the threshold for somewhat outstanding.
It's not an easy path for Green Bay by any stretch of the imagination, but their numbers are not simply inflated by the level of competition - even if you adjust for that, this is a very, very good team that could make some noise.
Nothing surprising here.
UConn didn't necessarily get an easy draw in terms of the quality of the teams - all of the teams mentioned above are very good. But they might matchup favorably with most of their opponents in this bracket and that begins with the strength of their defense, ranked first in the nation in points per possession allowed (0.64) and opponents' field goal percentage (29.9%). Both of those numbers are better than that which they put up last season.
And in this field, it's hard to see which team would overcome that.
The Huskies don't necessarily force a whole lot of turnovers, but a team like LSU would clearly be bothered into turnovers by the discipline UConn defends with. Penn State could give them trouble with their three point shooting ability (36.4%, 12th in the nation) but UConn is more than capable of making those rotations out to shooters and if an opponent doesn't establish an inside-out game it's going to be hard to break that defense - UConn holds opponents to 24.8% 3-point shooting.
Green Bay, Kentucky, or Miami would all challenge UConn's defense in different ways, but would also have to figure out an answer to 6-foot-5 sophomore center Stefanie Dolson, who is inconsistent statistically but can be a strong defensive presence. Yet the key for UConn to advance might be their own guard play against any one of those three defenses: senior guard Tiffany Hayes has turned the ball over 4.3 times per game in UConn's three losses since the early-season loss to Baylor. Bria Hartley turned it over 7 times in their first loss to Notre Dame, albeit better since.
UConn doesn't necessarily have a cakewalk to the Final Four, but the question is which of the teams in this field can withstand UConn's defense while also keeping UConn's guards uncomfortable. It's no small task even though UConn has looked increasingly less invincible since their 90-game win streak ended last season.
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