NCAA women's Sweet 16: Wild cards Kansas and Nebraska look to keep the momentum alive

USA TODAY Sports

Both the Kansas Jayhawks and Nebraska Cornhuskers enter today's Sweet 16 games as heavy underdogs and yet both might have a chance to pull an upset because they've been playing better lately than they have all season.

After the Kansas Jayhawks men's basketball team suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines in the men's Sweet 16, the women's team is aiming to keep a surprising tournament run going in their Sweet 16 game.

And by "surprising", I not only mean getting to the Sweet 16 but also even having the opportunity to compete in the 2013 NCAA Tournament: as described at the S-Factor, not one tournament prognostication had Kansas making the tournament.

So if ever there was a "Cinderella" team in the tournament, Kansas is probably it: they're not even "supposed" to be here, according to anyone who follows women's basketball.

So can they keep the magic going?

The Numbers

Feel free to laugh at my insistence on providing you what the various rating systems from around the web say about these games: they haven't clearly picked many upsets yet.

But here they are for today's Sweet 16 meetings.

Team Massey Omni Ratings Sagarin predictor
#1 Notre Dame 96% 95% 102.60
#12 Kansas 5% 5% 84.81

Team
Massey
Omni Ratings
Sagarin predictor
#2 Duke
84% N/A 99
#6 Nebraska
16% N/A 90.09

Massey, Omni Ratings, and Sagarin projections for the Norfolk region Sweet 16 games.

Despite the bleak looking numbers, there's reason to believe the underdogs in both of these games can outperform those predictions: those projections are based, at least in part, on the entirety of the season and neither team has been consistent enough to say that they'll perform according to that today.

Kansas vs. Notre Dame

Kansas has actually gone from tournament bubble to a team with growing momentum having won four of their last five games, including two NCAA Tournament games, a pair of Big 12 Tournament games, and their final regular season game. Prior to that they had lost 6 of their last 8, which is why everyone was so pessimistic about their tournament chances. So what changed? Two things leap out when looking over their last five.

First, Kansas has been shooting much better from the 3-point line in their last four wins: they're shooting 40% (24-for-60) in those wins, which is well above their season rate of 32%. The most impressive contributor to that effort has been guard Monica Engleman who has shot 50% (7-for-14) in those wins, well above her 31% mark for the season.

The other thing they've really had going for them lately is the play of 2013 WNBA Draft prospect Angel Goodrich. The 5-foot-4 senior is also shooting nearly 50% over the last three wins (7-for-15), but has been putting up solid numbers for a WNBA point guard prospect as well: Goodrich has an astounding pure point rating of 9.47 over the last five games, which needless to say is above what she has done over the course of the season (2.55).

Kansas has three ingredients for success: a point guard running the show extremely efficiently as a distributor and scorer (particularly over the last four games), good 3-point shooting, and a post player who can score efficiently. Add to that some strong defensive efforts - they've held opponents under 40% shooting from the field in their last three wins - and you have a dynamic team.

What you might expect to come into play against Notre Dame is that their offense is much more difficult to hold down than the others. And if Kansas struggles to rebound - as they have throughout the season and in their first two tournament games - it will make it all the more difficult to stop Notre Dame. On top of that, opposing coaches with bigger point guards have sought to exploit Goodrich's 5-foot-4 stature at times in the season by getting her in isolation situations or posting her up. It would be surprising if Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw didn't try to do the same with Skylar Diggins.

Ultimately, it's hard to count out a team with Kansas' momentum coming into this game, but Notre Dame is just too balanced and efficient to be held down in the way Kansas held down both Colorado and South Carolina in the first two rounds. If Kansas continues to turn the ball over as they have throughout the season - among my biggest concerns about them as a tournament team - they're just going to end up giving up more points.

To beat Notre Dame, Kansas would need to play an almost flawless game on both ends and that doesn't seem very likely. Then again, neither did them even having the right to play for a spot in the Elite Eight before Selection Monday.

Nebraska vs Duke

There's nothing new to say about Nebraska than what was written prior to the tournament: if Jordan Hooper and Lindsey Moore are doing their thing, the threes are falling, yet they don't fall in love with the 3-point line they can compete with anyone in the nation. Their losses come when those things fall apart.

So just as I called Nebraska the wild card entering the tournament, I'm placing the onus on them again in this game: if they can play to their strengths and make this game about half court execution at their pace, they can win and it's not hard to imagine that happening. If it becomes and up and down transition game where they're baited into taking quick shots, they're not going to win.

Duke should be expected to win, but Nebraska is still one of the biggest wild cards in the tournament and could easily pull this out.

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