Coming off consecutive wins against the mighty Baylor Lady Bears and the Tennessee Lady Vols, all things seem tilted in favor of the Louisville Cardinals for tomorrow's game against the California Golden Bears.
As pointed out at California Golden Blogs, it seems that all the national experts have picked the Louisville Cardinals to beat the California Golden Bears in tomorrow's Final Four meeting.
But what's interesting is that if you look at most of the pre-tournament projections, this matchup isn't supposed to be happening. Sure, Cal could've beaten Stanford or Penn State to get to this point out of the Spokane region, but they weren't a heavy favorite to do so by any statistical measure.
As for Louisville, well, I'm still waiting for someone to step forward to say they picked consecutive upsets for them. And now it seems that people may be overcompensating a bit with the overwhelming Final Four predictions in their favor.
What Louisville has to do to win: Keep living by the three
It might be unfair to go as far as saying Louisville has "reinvented" themselves to get to this point, but it's not at all a stretch to say that coach Jeff Walz has convinced his team that they're capable of going as far as they want and gotten them to execute a game plan that favors them in almost any matchup.
That begins with their 3-point shooting: over the last three games, Louisville has shot a white-hot 47.69% (31-for-65) from beyond the arc. When you shoot that well from long-range while pushing the tempo to get up as many shots as possible, you put a ton of pressure on the opponent to score in bunches just to keep pace. That's hard to do on its own but gets tougher when an opponent is facing a double-digit deficit and forced to shoot threes just to get back into the game.
It's an approach that would make Paul Westhead proud.
However, without taking away from what they did to get to this point, what people seem to be ignoring is that Louisville has been shooting way better than their season average from beyond the arc: they entered the tournament shooting a far more modest 30.98% from the 3-point line during their prior 32 games. They're shooting threes more often than usual, making more than usual, and that's allowed them to be an unusually great team in the context of their season.
It wouldn't be unheard of for a team to remain that over the course of 4 or 5 games, but the point is that it's not necessarily something you could confidently count on continuing either. Yet if they can continue at that sort of pace, they'll make things really hard on Cal.
What Cal has to do to win: Avoid dry spells
Cal is a dominant rebounding team and should have no problem establishing an advantage on the offensive boards against Louisville as both Baylor and Tennessee were able to.
The problem for Cal, as it has been for them throughout this season, is that they can have major scoring droughts at times. If they have an off day while Louisville is racing up and down the court knocking down threes, they could be in trouble.
Louisville would love nothing more to make this a free-flowing game where they can catch Cal off guard defensively, and they'll look to run off missed shots as often as they will turnovers. If Cal gets caught up in shooting a lot of long jumpers that produce long rebounds, that will play right into Louisville's hands in terms creating opportunities to get shots in rhythm early in the offense or after a few rotations.
But Cal guard Layshia Clarendon made a great point during their media time today: the Cardinals got a lot of open shots in their last two games, almost as though their opponents were caught off guard. It would be shocking if Cal got caught off guard with the amount of time they've had to review film, a coaching staff adept at figuring out how to take away opponents' strengths, and players who know their roles and play them out as well as anyone in the nation.
And one player's role might loom a bit larger than others.
Key player: Eliza Pierre on ... whoever
Chances are that when Cal guard Eliza Pierre enters the game, there will be mention of the routine defensive strategy of standing five feet off of her to dare her to shoot as well as her being a defensive stopper.
But consider Pierre's role in light of Clarendon's comment about open shooters: Pierre might end up being Louisville's worst enemy tomorrow. She's not only a defensive stopper; she's a one-woman tornado of defensive chaos.
There was a game during non-conference play - perhaps against Kansas or George Washington - where Pierre literally made three defensive rotations following the path of the ball on one defensive possession (I swear this happened - Shannon witnessed this as well. Ask her.). Her motor simply doesn't stop.
For a team like Louisville that has thrived thus far in the tournament on imposing chaos on opposing teams, Pierre might be part of the antidote. Not that she will singlehandedly stop the Cardinals off the bench, but with a perimeter rotation of Clarendon, Pierre, Brittany Boyd and Afure Jemerigbe, it would be shocking if the Cardinals are taking so many uncontested shots whether in transition or half court sets.
Key statistical battleground: Turnovers
Nick already covered this in his CGB preview, but it's worth highlighting again.
Cal will very likely win the offensive rebounding battle, but Louisville can withstand losing that if they're hitting shots. There's a good chance that Louisville will shoot more efficiently, but Cal's ability to get second chance points can negate that.
Turnovers thus become huge because turning the ball over plays directly into how Louisville likes to play offensively: they're especially dangerous in a chaotic/fun scramble where they can find shots/threes in transition before the opposing defense gets set. Cal, in contrast, is extremely patient on offense - whether face man or zone defense - and doesn't turn the ball over much.
Something has to give on this front: either Cal will control the ball as well as usual and limit Louisville's opportunities to run thus slowing down their offense or Louisville will continue to force turnovers, take Cal completely out of their defensive rhythm and turn this into a sloppy affair that Cal struggles to stay in.
Or somewhere in between.
Cal's balance being underestimated
However, what seems to be getting underestimated here is Cal's balance: yes, Clarendon is their scoring star who will get a lot of attention, but their biggest strength as a unit is actually their interior rotation that dominates the boards, and teams still have to contend with Boyd in transition.
And that's the reason Cal has gotten so far: they have a more reliable formula for winning games that has played out to perfection thus far in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Louisville, in contrast, has come up with big wins playing well outside their norm.
If Louisville can keep up their shooting pace from the last three games, then yes, they probably should be the favorites: they'd establish a major scoring efficiency advantage over Cal and that has carried them to wins in the last two games.
However, Cal's consistency has been remarkable, if at times ugly, this season. The chances of them having an "off rebounding day" (and I'm not sure what that is anyway) are low, they know how to survive off shooting days because it's the story of their season, and they're so versatile that one or even two players having off days isn't going to tank them.
Ultimately, it seems that Cal will have the easier time establishing their style of play in this game. That's not to take anything away from Louisville or say Cal will just come in and blow them out - that's not even Cal's way of doing things. It should be a close game. But to consider Louisville the favorite here is to implicitly maintain near 50% 3-point shooting. Possible, but not likely.
For more on the Final Four, visit our Final Four storystream.