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Although the Stanford Cardinal are the top seed in the Spokane bracket, the California Golden Bears appear to be the trendy pick to head to the Final Four as the two seed. And then there's Penn State, the second most proficient 3-point shooting team in the nation. Who will survive this one and advance?
What's difficult about picking a favorite in the Spokane bracket is that they clearly have the most vulnerable one seed in the tournament and the two seed, Cal, is one of the two teams that has beaten them this season. So what do we do with that?
Naturally, start with neither.
Wild card: Penn State Lady Lions
Penn State might have gotten the toughest path to the Elite Eight of any three seed.
If everything were to go by seeding, PSU would have to face LSU in Baton Rouge in the second round, Cal - arguably the best of the two seeds - in the Sweet 16 just to get to the regional final. That's part of what makes projecting their chances to advance to the Final Four so difficult. The other part is their 3-point shooting.
PSU is second in the nation in 3-point percentage at 39.5%, which gives them a chance to beat nearly any opponent on any day. The problem, as described prior to the Selection Monday, is that a) Maggie Lucas is their only consistent 3-point threat, albeit a very good one, and b) they have a tendency to settle for threes and not attack the basket. And as the Big Ten season wore on, that tendency wasn't lost on opponents: some teams would put someone out on the floor to just face guard Lucas and not help off of her, daring someone else to score.
That's what makes them a potential boom or bust team: they have a player who can catch fire and just rain threes on an opponent. But if that one player is shut down, they could really struggle.
LSU would probably love to get into an up and down transition game in which they're attacking the basket while Penn State is hoisting up threes - while the Lady Lions like to run and are good at it, LSU can do so too and doesn't mind a sloppy game as long as their opponents are unable to establish their rhythm.
And if PSU makes it past LSU, Cal is no less of a problem.
Game to watch: Cal vs. PSU
In some ways, Cal and PSU are polar opposites.
While PSU's dominant strength is clearly on the perimeter - hitting threes and hounding opponents into turnovers - Cal's defining strength is probably on the interior, with a group of post players that make them by far the most dominant offensive rebounding team in this bracket.
But more interesting than the contrast between these two teams is their similarity: they have two of the best backcourt duos in the nation. What's more, each pair complements each other well.
In both cases, the point guard is a playmaker on both ends of the floor, which helps to overcome suspect shooting (PSU's Alex Bentley and Cal's Brittany Boyd) and the off guard is a dynamic scorer who navigates space extremely well to catch and shoot from around the court while also being crafty ball handlers who can find gaps in the defense to create their own shot (PSU's Maggie Lucas and Cal's Layshia Clarendon). And just as Penn State has shown a tendency to go cold, Cal has the same problem.
Cal does have the athletes to shadow and shut down Lucas, with Layshia Clarendon, Afure Jemerigbe, and Eliza Pierre all capable of pulling their own weight on the defensive end. But when Cal goes cold - and they had done a few times before UCLA really made the m pay for it in the Pac-12 tournament - things can get really ugly.
If both teams have an off day, the advantage probably goes to Cal because of their ability to control the boards and get high percentage scoring opportunities in the post. But, as much as Cal likes playing transition ball, if it turns into an up and down game with Lucas hitting threes in transition, Bentley attacking the basket, and PSU getting back to set their defense Cal could be in trouble.
This has an opportunity to be as much a coaching chess match as it is about talent winning out, which is why I've been excited about the possibility of it happening for most of the season (I would love to see a round robin with Cal, Kentucky, Maryland, and PSU). But both teams have to get there, and while Cal probably has the easier path they'll end up with a tough second round opponent no matter who advances.
Upset watch: #10 South Florida vs. #7 Texas Tech
Of all the potential upsets that could happen, this one - on paper at least - seems like one of the most possible ones, even though the game will be played in Lubbock, TX.
These two teams share the same dominant strength - forcing turnovers - neither is particularly efficient at shooting the ball, and they shoot almost exactly the same 3-point percentage (33%, if you round up). The major difference, that could be the Red Raiders' undoing, is offensive rebounding. USF, in short, is just a better rebounding team and really a better defensive team overall. In fact, they're almost similar to Cal in terms of their combination of strengths and weaknesses, though not nearly as dominant on the boards.
Of course, home court advantage will probably figure into the outcome of the game, but USF has proven they can play with tournament caliber teams rated higher than them and even win on the road. It's not hard to imagine an upset here and if it was a neutral court it would probably be even more clear.
WNBA Draft spotlight: Alex Bentley, Penn State
I would normally take this time to note how underrated Cal's Layshia Clarendon is, but I want to put another player on the radar first (since we haven't exactly skimped on touting Clarendon or the other prospects in this region around here).
We haven't talked enough about Alex Bentley who is someone whose statistics don't make a clear case for her as a WNBA prospect.
On the positive side, she's a scoring point guard with a high usage rate (24.61%) and strong points per empty possession (1.81), which puts her squarely in the mix as a solid WNBA point guard prospect - though she doesn't score or distribute the ball extremely efficiently, high usage college point guards in the past have become more efficient in the WNBA where they're not expected to do as much. Add to that an elite 6.29% steal percentage and you have a point guard who can impact the game on both ends with their athleticism.
But the negatives stand out as well: the reason for her pure point rating is not that she creates assists often but that she doesn't turn the ball over often (9.3% turnover ratio). Although that's definitely impressive as a high usage point guard, her assist ratio of 17.6% is below the threshold of a WNBA point guard prospect. Add to that a very low offensive rebounding rate (1.41%) as well as a mediocre free throw rate (18.5%) and you have signs of a 5-foot-7, 26.5% 3-point shooter who doesn't get many points by getting herself to the line. The rebounding and scoring isn't nearly as big a red flag as the assist ratio, but the combination does make her WNBA future unclear.
Darkhorse: Gonzaga Bulldogs
After their performances over the past few years, it's hard not to see them playing at home again and not expect more magic. And this year they might have gotten a favorable matchup.
Iowa State has the size to compete with Gonzaga in ways that WCC opponents didn't and Cyclones forward Chelsea Poppens deserves a look in the WNBA Draft on her rebounding ability alone. Yet what Gonzaga might lack in brute force around the basket, they plenty make up for in depth and ball control - that's where they could topple ISU.
As with what happened in the WCC championship game, Gonzaga has a tendency to just wear opponents down with their depth even when they're playing well. While they can maintain the tempo by forcing turnovers and getting out into transition, they don't give opponents anywhere near as many chances to run as they control the ball extremely well. Add to that a 36.07% team 3-point shooting percentage and you have a nightmare combination for any opponent coming to play on their home turf: a barrage of threes and fast break points.
The issue for ISU is that they're a turnover prone team, which is actually one of Poppens' biggest weaknesses as a WNBA Draft prospect. The other problem is that they're not deep: as described previously, they've relied heavily on six players for most of the season. Traveling to Spokane to face Gonzaga in the first round was just a very tough draw for them.
Should Georgia advance and be Gonzaga's second round opponent, they figure to be a tougher opponent: they have quick guards who will attack the basket and they're much more efficient with the ball in their hands overall. But again, Gonzaga has pulled off some special things playing at home in the tournament over the past few years. So if you're looking for a low seed to advance to the Sweet 16, it's not a bad pick.
Favorite: Stanford Cardinal
Cal was my prediction to make it out of this region and Penn State probably has a better chance than people give them credit for. But Stanford has to be considered the favorite for a simple reason: there's less chance that they'll lose before the Elite Eight, which is the privilege of being the top seed in a region.
Whether they get Michigan or Villanova in the second round, they'll be playing them at home; Stanford, as it happens, only seems to lose at home - or at all - to top five teams. If Gonzaga does manage to get out of their sub-regional in Spokane, Stanford already beat them 69-41 in Spokane earlier this year. Then they'd likely have Cal or Penn State and it's not entirely clear, which will get through to the Elite Eight. And there's no way you could say that Cal would beat them an overwhelming majority of the time if they met on a neutral court.
The dilemma for anyone in this bracket is defending Chiney Ogwumike. And quite simply, nobody really has an answer for her other than to deny the ball to her by pressuring the guards, something that only a few elite defenses have done well.
X-Factor: Amber Orrange, Stanford Cardinal
So Amber Orrange might be the key player to watch in this bracket. It was her heroics that lifted Stanford to the Pac-12 championship in a surprisingly difficult matchup with UCLA and they would need her to perform whether they face Cal or Penn State in the Elite Eight. And the main thing to keep in mind that "playing well" for Orrange doesn't mean distributing efficiently quite as much as it means scoring efficiently: Stanford has been extremely one dimensional all season and Orrange has been the one to step up as an alternate scorer as needed. They'll need that again in the tournament if they are to advance.
Fun statistic: Green Bay projected to win over LSU
Ed Bemiss' National Sports Rankings projections, which don't take into account home court advantage, have Green Bay with a 61% chance to beat LSU in the first round and a 22.44% chance to advance to the Sweet 16. Omni Rankings, which does take home court into account, has "Green Bay by 0". But LSU has also defied losing projections against Georgia, Kentucky, and at Texas A&M to win seven of their last eight games.
So, take your pick there, but Nikki Caldwell is exactly the type of coach who would ruin someone's projections.
For more on the tournament, visit our 2013 NCAA Tournament section.