BYU played two and a half of the best games of their season in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Unfortunately, putting together a full 40 minutes of outstanding basketball against UConn proved to be too lofty a challenge, reinforcing the reason why they're undefeated in the first place: putting together a game plan to compete with them in theory is not as challenging as executing it for a full game in practice.
However, the fact that BYU - a team that sat on the bubble for most of conference play due to a lack of quality wins and low strength of schedule - even gave UConn a run for 20 minutes does beg the question of whether anything from their game plan is replicable for forthcoming opponents; it's reasonable to believe that UConn isn't invincible, even if a victorious opponent would need to have quite a bit of luck on their side to pull off the big upset.
So what can we learn from BYU's performance? Jim Hu of SB Nation's Texas A&M site Good Bull Hunting has already listed a few things that might work in TAMU's favor even if he isn't confident about their ability to pull off the upset.
But let's focus on the first half alone and see what we can gain for BYU's more success 20 minutes.
Four Factors statistics for the first half of BYU's loss to UConn in the Sweet 16.
Three point shooting (5-for-10 in the first half)
BYU actually didn't shoot that well overall in the first half - they shot 50% from beyond the three point line and just 7-for-18 inside the arc (38.8%). However, what their three point shooting reflects is excellent spacing and decisive ball movement throughout the half. That style of play has been something of a calling card for BYU over the past few years, but I put the assisted field goal rate up there because that's a high rate of assisted shots even for them - their ability to remain patient, move the ball to force UConn's defense to rotate, and knock down threes helped them to beat a usually very disciplined UConn defense. The Huskies don't make a whole lot of mistakes, but when they do you have to make them pay and the Cougars did that.
Controlling the boards
Yet a big reason why the Cougars were able to mount a six point first half lead - the biggest lead anyone has held over the Huskies this season - was an outstanding rebounding performance from Morgan Bailey and 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson
The raw numbers don't look all that great, but given the number of missed shots UConn put up (20) holding them to just 7 offensive boards in the first half was an accomplishment - bear in mind that five of UConn's offensive boards came in the final five minutes of the first half when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis really started to find a rhythm inside the arc. To that point, the combination of UConn having a sub-par shooting night and BYU winning the battle on the boards by a significant margin made the difference.
Containing Breanna Stewart
That poor shooting night was certainly a matter of random chance, but BYU's defense does deserve some credit: they mixed up defenses on Stewart to keep UConn's offense off-balance. At some points they used used Hamson on Stewart to great effect with Bailey guarding Dolson; at other times, they had a quicker guard on her to deny her the ball.
With Stewart shooting just 1-for-8 in the first half, UConn's wings had to do more of the scoring and one thing that has been underestimated was how well BYU closed out on shooters. Most of Mosqueda-Lewis' shots were contested and she went 3-for-9 (team-high for attempts) in the first half. Hartley was nearly invisible. Putting the burden on those two and then closing out well was probably the best thing BYU did. It worked because they did well enough at bothering Stewart.
Although Sims was the focal point of Baylor's performance against UConn, a similar story emerged in that game as well: Stewart shot just 4-for-14 from the field and Baylor managed to rebound well. Stopping Stewart is not going to happen and even containing her requires the luck of an off night, but any attempt to beat UConn has to start there one way or another.
Three keys for Texas A&M
We know that TAMU neither has a player like Baylor's Odyssey Sims to demand the attention of three UConn defenders - which opens things up for other players - nor the three point shooting ability that BYU does to exploit mistakes. Those two things alone probably make TAMU a long shot to pull off the upset.
But there are still a few keys to look for nonetheless.
- Containing Breanna Stewart: BYU showed that containing Stewart can be as much about annoying her and trying to deny her the ball to force poor scoring opportunities as it is about contesting her shots, the latter of which is difficult given her high release. Junk defenses are a possibility, but the TAMU does at least have the athletes to try and deny the ball. Getting that done without fouling is another story entirely.
- Rebounding: TAMU absolutely has to commit to holding UConn to one shot on offense. That's one of those "easier said than done" things, but it might implications for how coach Gary Blair rotates players in: the Aggies doesn't have rebounders even as good as Hamson/Bailey; they do have a number of mediocre to average rebounders by percentage though, a few of them who are seldom-used. What they'll need is one or two players to step up and have an inspired rebounding performance in order to compete. Although it's not clear who that might be, it's not entirely uncommon for random players to come up with special performances in the NCAA Tournament either.
At this point, it’s less a question of whether Marcus Lee makes the NBA Hall of Fame and more how many years will it take him to get in— SB Nation CBB (@SBNationCBB) March 30, 2014
- Patience on offense: The big question is what TAMU does when UConn sags off and forces them into quick jumpers. The Aggies just have to be patient, work the ball and attack gaps after a few passes. But that's where visions of their January loss to Tennessee comes to mind - UConn could easily execute the same scheme defensively, do it better, and hold TAMU under the 34% they shot against the Lady Vols.
Again, designing a game plan and executing it for 40 minutes are two very different things against UConn - Huskies foul trouble, a hot shooting night from Courtney Walker and someone else, as well as some good luck would all be necessary for the Aggies to even be in a position to win at the end of the game.
But in the interest of watchability, let's hope that coach Gary Blair and Texas A&M have something up their sleeve to compete.
For more analysis of the game and the region as a whole, check out our Lincoln region storystream.