2014 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament preview: Lincoln Region

Aaryn Ellenberg will probably have to play a major role in order for Oklahoma to advance.

It would be a shock if anyone other than UConn won emerged from the Lincoln region, but both James Madison and Oklahoma have a chance to make the bracket interesting before the seemingly inevitable happens.

There were legitimate questions about whether Oklahoma would even earn a spot in the tournament at all. But now that they're here, they might be in position to make a little noise.

Upset watch: #10 Oklahoma vs. #7 DePaul

As these are two at-large seeds, this wouldn't be a monumental upset and it might be one of the most predictable in the first round of the tournament: using Sagarin's predictor, DePaul might struggle to even beat Oklahoma at home.

Where Oklahoma might really be able to establish an advantage over DePaul is with their shooting efficiency: according to WBB State, DePaul was last in the Big East in opponents' shooting efficiency (44.5% eFG%) and 138th in the nation in opponent 3-point percentage. Oklahoma's major strength is their shooting efficiency and, while they aren't exactly a great three point shooting team, senior guard Aaryn Ellenberg is obviously able to heat up from beyond the arc and an be a really tough guard.

If Ellenberg gets hot, point guard Morgan Hook limits the turnovers offensively, and 6-foot-6 center Nicole Griffin can control the paint on both ends, Oklahoma could advance.

Sleeper pick: #10 Oklahoma

Getting past Duke in the second round will be a lot more challenging - the game would be played in Durham - but really the same thing applies: Duke is a turnover-prone team and that feeds right into a strength for Oklahoma, a team that can thrive when getting out in transition though they don't typically force a lot of turnovers.

Again, pulling off an upset of this magnitude would depend a lot on how well Aaryn Ellenberg plays: although Oklahoma stopping Duke's weapons would certainly be difficult, Duke has to stay in front of Ellenberg and deal with the energy of junior guard Sharane Campbell as well as freshman guards Gioya Carter, who has had an up and down season.

It's probably a long-shot to imagine them beating Duke in Durham - where their only losses this season are to Connecticut, North Carolina, and Notre Dame - but on paper Oklahoma probably shouldn't be counted out entirely. If Oklahoma can pressure Duke's guards to create turnovers and score in transition while shutting down Elizabeth Williams inside, they could find themselves in the Sweet 16.

Simple, right?

Darkhorse: #11 James Madison

Another place to look for a possible series of upsets is in the College Station regional where James Madison has a chance to make some noise.

James Madison matches up quite well with Gonzaga, which is coincidentally reflected in identical descriptions for both teams in WBB State's preview: Uses offensive possessions very efficiently. Good defense on the perimeter." And if the Dukes are to pull off that first round upset, it will almost certainly come down to strong performance on the defensive end.

The Dukes finished the season ranked third in the nation in defensive efficiency with a rating of 0.749 points per possession. Most importantly, they're one of the top rebounding teams in the nation averaging 40.7 per game and dominating opponents on the offensive boards with a 13.5% margin (42.84% to opponents' 29.34%).

Gonzaga is nearly identical on both fronts and although they're a bit better at controlling the ball offensively, JMU has a number of other significant advantages that they could establish against the Zags.

Of course, all of that is said before mentioning strength of schedule: JMU did all of that against a schedule ranked 170th in the nation while Gonzaga's SOS was 83rd. But if the Dukes can contain 6-foot-4 Bulldogs post Sunny Greinacher and control the boards, they'll go a long way to getting out of the first round.

After that, Texas A&M would be a much more difficult challenge for whichever team advances but the Sagarin predictor gives them a better chance than one might imagine (or at least a better shot than Oklahoma has of beating Duke).

Team

Sagarin predictor

SOS

#3 Texas A&M

91.31 (+ 3.09 home advantage)

16

#6 Gonzaga

91.64

83

#11 James Madison

88.51

170

A closer look at each team's statistical profile goes a little further in seeing how JMU could pull this off: Texas A&M is a turnover-prone team that doesn't shoot well from the perimeter and isn't an outstanding rebounding team. As a SEC team, we can expect that the Aggies will have an athleticism advantage over JMU, but it's also not difficult to see how a team like Texas A&M could go cold against a zone defense while JMU gets hot from deep.

Player to watch: Kirby Burkholder, JMU

We already discussed Burkholder in our look at WNBA prospects in this region, but she's probably the key to any of this working out for JMU and will need to have big and efficient scoring games for her team to advance. She's a confident, if not deadly (36.7%), three point shooter who recently hit eight from beyond the arc in a win at Northeastern. She's a very good offensive rebounder for a 6-foot guard, which could help her create some scoring opportunities for others.

All it takes is a player like that getting hot and the opponents having an off day for an upset to happen and JMU has the ingredients to engineer that.

Marquee matchup: #4 Nebraska vs. #5 N.C. State

If these two teams meet in the second round, it could make for an exciting matchup in L.A. Interestingly, WBB State also has nearly identical profiles for them: "Two main scorers...Highly efficient attack."

The big contrast that could make this an interesting chess match between two outstanding coaches is that Nebraska's big guns are Jordan Hooper and Rachel Theriot whereas N.C. State's major players are Kody Burke and Markiesha Gatling; it's a contrast of a team that relies heavily on perimeter play vs. one that relies heavily on post play.

If Gatling gets into foul trouble, N.C. State could run into some trouble as they'll lose one of their most significant weapons but they still have athleticism on the perimeter and Burke's versatile scoring ability that could really give Nebraska some trouble. On the other hand, someone has to figure out how to stop Theriot and bringing buckets of ice water might be a start: over her last four games, Theriot is averaging 20 points on 59.3% shooting and 8 assists per game. She's emerging as one of the top point guards in the nation and makes Nebraska that much more dangerous, especially if Hooper is able to get hot as well.

Home court advantage for Nebraska should make for a great atmosphere in what should really be a great game.

Favorite: #1 Connecticut Huskies

Ultimately though, all of these other games just feel like a formality so that Connecticut can tune-up for the Final Four. Sure, the Huskies could get into some foul trouble or struggle with Nebraska in Lincoln. Or maybe they could get lost on the way to the arena and not show up, which is probably the best hope for their peers. But the bottom line is that predicting where they might get tripped up - other than by homestanding Nebraska - is next to impossible; the Huskies have just been entirely too good on every front to predict them falling short of the Final Four.

For more on every team in this region, check out our Lincoln region storystream.

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