Last week while looking over various women's college basketball ratings, a cluster of teams stood out as particularly difficult to sort out: Cal, Kentucky, Maryland, Penn State, Tennessee. Of course, one might look at the results last week and say that fate set out to help me: Kentucky, Penn State, and Tennessee all took tough losses leaving Cal as the team in that group that clearly has the strongest tournament resume.
Prior to a few untimely losses by Kentucky, Penn State and Tennessee these teams could almost be considered equal with Cal the clear leader of the pack behind the national elites. However, when taking matchups into account, there's still some room for debate about which team is best.
Click here to see the data on how these teams compare and the pieces that inspired this discussion.
For some insight on each of those teams, I convened a roundtable of SB Nation bloggers to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of these teams from a fan perspective before moving forward on my "outsider" perspective for the remainder of the season as the tournament nears.
Our participants are as follows (with links to their site's women's basketball section):
California Golden Bears: norcalnick, California Golden Blogs
Kentucky Wildcats: Greg Alan Edwards, A Sea of Blue
Maryland Terrapins: Zack Ward, Swish Appeal
Penn State Lady Lions: Bill DiFilippo, Black Shoe Diaries
Tennessee Lady Vols: David Hooper, Rocky Top Talk
1. What tends to be the most underappreciated aspect of your team, whether by media, opposing fans, or even opposing coaches?
norcalnick: That's hard to say in part because Cal, being relatively new to the top 10, doesn't receive much in terms of underappreciation. But I'd say that there might be a slight perception that Cal's offense isn't very good because of their struggles hitting jump shots, a perception only exacerbated by Cal's ugly free throw shooting. The reality is that Cal's offense is better than the defense because for every two missed shots there tends to be an offensive rebound. Combine that with improved ball security and lots of drawn fouls, the Bears are one of just 20 teams in the country to average a point per possession or higher.
Greg Alan Edwards: With Kentucky that one is probably playing in Memorial. And our own fans are as guilty of it as the opponents. Memorial is an historic arena for both the Men's and Women's programs.
Zack Ward: Everyone points to Maryland's lack of depth, but underestimates the variety of ways they can still beat you. In addition to Alyssa Thomas and Tianna Hawkins, all their other main contributors are capable of scoring in double figures on any given night. A lot of teams come in thinking that if they shut down Thomas and Hawkins they will be set and are sorely mistaken. Katie Rutan, Chloe Pavlech and Tierney Pfirman - when healthy - give the Terps a perimeter presence to complement their dominant scoring ability in the paint.
Bill DiFilippo: That's a really tough question, because as a team, Penn State gets overlooked pretty frequently (as do most of these teams, since they aren't UConn, Baylor or ND). I think the most overlooked individual aspect is the team's depth. Penn State has ten ladies that have played in at least 17 of the team's games, and they have six ladies averaging over seven ppg. They go four deep in the frontcourt and backcourt, and at any time one of six ladies (Maggie Lucas, Alex Bentley, Dara Taylor, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Ariel Edwards) are capable of putting the team on their back. Of course, the engine that makes this team's offense go is Lucas, but we'll get to her a bit later.
David Hooper: For such a young team, they play together very well - much better, in fact, than the group of seniors that left last year. There's still a lot of room for development, but the team concept is definitely there. Stats like assist/turnover ratios have been solid this year as a result.
[Ed. note: To Greg's point, Kentucky's home winning streak of 33 games was just snapped on Sunday. So yes, playing in Memorial is something that is worthy of attention for opposing teams.]
2. What's a key question or x-factor that might need to be resolved in order for your team to reach its full potential?
norcalnick: While the offense's ability to hit shots has gotten most of the focus, arguably Cal's biggest weakness is preventing the opponent from hitting shots at a high percentage. UConn, Baylor and Stanford are all in the top 10 in eFG% defense. UConn, Baylor and Notre Dame are all in the top 10 in points allowed per possession. Cal's offense is relatively close to those types of teams, but the defense isn't quite there yet. The team defense is good, but lacks that special something to take them to the next level. That might be an elite shot blocker like Brittany Griner or impeccable discipline like UConn or Stanford.
Greg Alan Edwards: Point guard play. Until our point guards learn how to manage and take over close games, we will be forever challenged by teams that play you tight.
Zack Ward: The x-factor for the Terps will be how they deal with fatigue, particularly at the guard spot - that's an area where the Terps have lost two key contributors to cut their rotation down from five to three. Thomas has proven that she can play nearly a full 40 minutes and still be effective. That's just sort of what she does - she puts this team on her back. Chloe Pavlech and Katie Rutan finding a way to get enough rest will be crucial down the stretch. That's where Sequoia Austin's 10.3 minutes per game come into play. Austin has done a great job of holding it down at point guard for the stretches that she's in. She is a capable 3-point shooter, but seems to have accepted a role where she's not out there to take a lot of shots. Right now she's just playing smart basketball and not making a whole lot of mistakes. That kind of contribution is what the Terps need to get through games with enough energy to be successful.
Bill DiFilippo: Penn State is like most teams that look to play as fast as they possible can: the team's biggest question is how do they handle teams that are able to slow them down? Coach Coquese Washington wants her ladies to get out and run (19th in the country at 73 ppg), but this team struggles against teams that can slow them down (see: UConn, Wisconsin, hell, South Dakota State gave them issues). Penn State has three losses this season, they have failed to score over 65 points in each of those games. BONUS ISSUE: If Maggie Lucas can't get going, they struggle. Mightily.
David Hooper: How good is UT's interior without Isabelle Harrison? Her meniscus surgery was on Friday and nobody knows when she'll return (I'm betting it's not this year at all). Meanwhile, the only other true center (Nia Moore) is terribly underexperienced and is very raw on the court.
[Ed. note: For more background on the Maryland players that Zack mentioned, check out his mid-season review of the team's personnel. David sent these responses in prior to Sunday's game that included yet another injury - as Chris Pendley of Rocky Top Talk wrote after their loss to Missouri, they're just looking for warm bodies at this point.]
3. What do you think holds your team back from being on par with the teams currently ranked in the top 4 or 5 by the AP/coaches rankings? Or if you do think they should be in that conversation what are those crazy voters missing?
norcalnick: Well, Cal is the only team in the country outside of the top 5 to have a win over a team in the top 5. That's Cal's best argument for inclusion. But there's clearly a talent gap between the Baylors and UConns of the world and everybody else. I love every player on the Bears, and I wouldn't trade our roster for anybody's. But the Bears are not a collection of top 10 recruits like most teams in the top 5 are. Cal is elite in some areas, average in others; the top 5 teams are for the most part elite in every area.
Greg Alan Edwards: Kentucky needs more wins against top teams. We have lost to two of the ranked teams we have played.
Zack Ward: Outside of injuries to a lot of their talented players, turnovers have to be the biggest thing holding Maryland back. The Terps are tied for 187th in the nation with 17.7 turnovers per game and are 10th in the ACC in turnover margin. They've had games where they double the amount of turnovers made by their opponent and still win, but obviously that would be concerning if they were competing against the top 4 or 5 teams in the country. Thomas turns the ball over the most out of anyone on the team at 4.2 times a game, which is an unfortunate a by-product of her aggressive offensive style.
Bill DiFilippo: Easy: Penn State isn't a very consistent team. Take, for instance, what they did against Wisconsin in their two matchups: at PSU, Penn State won 84-40. Two weeks later in Madison, Penn State lost 63-61. How can a team with Final Four aspirations nuke a team by 44, only to lost by two the next time they play? If Penn State could show up every night and play their asses off for 40 minutes, I think they'd have a solid case for the 4th or 5th best team in the country. They have the depth, leadership, experience and talent; they just need to put it all together.
David Hooper: Experience. Tennessee has two seniors (one of which has been a perennial backup) and one junior. They lost five starters in the offseason. This team needed the losses to teams like Stanford to see how much growth they had left.
4. Based on what you know - using statistics or what you've seen this season - what might give your team an edge in head-to-head matchups with the other teams ranked 6-10?
norcalnick: Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. With the notable exception of Maryland, the Bears are perhaps the best rebounding team in the country, and it's been a decisive factor in most of Cal's wins over top competition. Even when shots aren't falling, Cal's ability to grab offensive rebounds keeps the offense humming. The aforementioned Terps might be a tough matchup for the Bears, but other than that rebounding might give Cal the advantage against any other team in the 2-3 seed range.
Greg Alan Edwards: That press. "Forty Minutes Of Dread" is exactly what it is. It can make you commit turnover after turnover. Even if you are a good ball handling team.
Zack Ward: Basically every that has to do with the inside game. Their guards are underrated, but it's undeniable that Maryland's true strength lies with the core group of Thomas, Hawkins and DeVaughn and what they're able to do in the paint. Maryland has a higher rebounding margin and field goal percentage than any of the other teams ranked 6-10. They don't have an active player over 6-4, but at just 6-2 Thomas leads the ACC with 10.3 boards per game. With Maryland it's all about heart and effort and they battle for every rebound. Coach Brenda Frese has been determined to make that a part of their identity. As for field goal percentage, they are led by DeVaughn (64.7 percent) and Hawkins (58 percent), a duo that is first and third in the conference. With that kind of efficient scoring and aggressive rebounding from their starting 3, 4 and 5 Maryland would present a challenge to any of the other teams ranked 6-10.
Bill DiFilippo: Penn State is blessed to have, quite possibly, the best backcourt in America (and if it’s not the best, it’s top five). Alex Bentley is a menace on defense, averaging 3.8 steals a night. Just look at what she did against UConn, holding Bria Hartley to 3 of 10 shooting. Complementing her is, in my (insanely biased) opinion, the best shooter in the country in Maggie Lucas. Some stats on Lucas: 19.9 ppg, 51% from deep, 44% from the field, 88.7% from the line, 61.4% true shooting, 55 eFG%. When Lucas gets going (see bonus issue #2), her offense mixed with Bentley’s defense (and quiet-but-solid offense) gives PSU’s backcourt a 1-2 punch that’s really tough to slow down. Any chance they have at beating these other teams and possibly pulling off a win over an elite team depends on those two playing out of their minds.
David Hooper: I don't know enough about the other 6-10 teams to speak credibly on that, but their biggest strength is their tenacity. Since that head-scratching loss to Chattanooga to open the season, Tennessee has been a doggedly intense team on the floor. It's not always been a focused intensity, but they play hard every game. If it comes down to a matter of stubbornness and endurance, it'd be hard to beat Tennessee.
5. This is obviously a bit of an abstract question at this point in the season, but how far do you realistically expect your team to go in the 2013 NCAA tournament?
norcalnick: Anything less than an Elite Eight appearance would be a disappointment, especially when you consider that this is the final year for three stalwart seniors who mean a great deal to the program both on and off the court. The team certainly believes they are a final four contender, but getting that far will very much depend on the draw. Cal is most likely to earn a 2 seed. If that 2 seed is across from Baylor or UConn, then the odds are stacked firmly against the Bears. But if that 1 seed is Stanford (or if Cal beats Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament and somehow grabs the last 1 seed) then a final four appearance becomes possible, if perhaps not probable.
Greg Alan Edwards: This team is capable of the Final Four. But they have to avoid getting a bad draw and shooting themselves in the foot.
Zack Ward: After losing to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight last year, it seemed the only direction this program could go was up with Thomas and three other starters returning, and you could've said they had a shot to be in the Final Four this year. But after they lost Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley to season-ending ACL tears, it may have seemed like just getting back to the Elite Eight was going to be an uphill battle. Based on the way they've been playing lately though, it seems like they're not phased by the injuries and are capable of going just as far as they did last year. A point of concern, as it was last year, is how are they going to beat teams like Baylor, UConn and Notre Dame that they haven't proven they can beat. At least this year they had a trial run against the Huskies and lost by 15. If they can beat Duke once or twice in addition to that experience they have against UConn, they may be battle tested enough to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2006.
Bill DiFilippo: Ideally, Penn State will win the Big Ten, back into a one seed, and avoid UConn, Baylor and Notre Dame until the Final Four. Penn State then rides Lucas, Bentley and their depth across the board to a title. Realistically, I think Penn State will win the Big Ten regular season and postseason titles (anything less in the conference would be a failure), get a two seed and be an Elite Eight team. Could they catch a few breaks and make it to the Final Four or even the title game? Certainly. But they could just as easily have a cold shooting night and get bounced in the second round or the Sweet 16. But for the most realistic scenario, the Elite Eight is probably where this team’s season will end.
David Hooper: The deepest realistic expectation is the Elite Eight. They're not a Final Four team this year - just too young and too many injuries. Could they upset a top four team and make the final weekend? Sure, but it'd probably be more a function of the other team disappointing than Tennessee excelling. The Sweet Sixteen is their floor and the Elite Eight is their ceiling. It's a tight window, but that's where they are until they get one more offseason together.