UConn vs. Notre Dame preview: Four things to watch in the 2014 NCAA Women's National Championship

UConn's Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart anchor the best frontcourt in the nation. - David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Undefeated Notre Dame is certainly best equipped to beat UConn with all of their offensive weapons, but even they can't afford a lapse in execution on either end if they want emerge as the champs.

There will always be those who want to continue complaining about the tournament, from seeding to geographical placements to poor officiating.

Nevertheless, we've gotten the national championship that every women's basketball fan wanted this season: no matter who wins, we'll have an undefeated champion for the fourth time in six years.

The intrigue of this game goes deeper than the "Pursuit of Perfection" narrative or the fact that your friendly neighborhood media members ranked these teams first and second to conclude this season. On the court, it's a game that features the top two offenses, including the top two shooting efficiencies in the nation, in addition to featuring three players who will be selected in the WNBA draft with a pair of future superstars only a couple of years behind.

Team

RPI rank

ORtg

DRtg

eFG%

Notre Dame

1

1.14 (2nd)

0.80 (12th)

54.9 (2nd)

UConn

2

1.16 (1st)

0.67 (1st)

56.4 (1st)

Offensive and defensive statistics for Notre Dame and UConn (via WBB State).

With the experience on both sides of the court, we likely won't be robbed of a classic because one team isn't able to handle the magnitude of the moment. With the balance in their shortened tournament rotations - even with Fighting Irish senior Natalie Achonwa out - even a random off night from one player won't kill either team's chances. Focusing on stopping one player would inevitably leave someone else open to beat an opponent, whether it be due to the sheer force of UConn's individual talents or Notre Dame's precision execution.

Predicting the outcome really does have to come down to the fact that UConn has the nation's best offense and defense whereas Notre Dame is missing a key cog in their defense and ranks "just" 12th in defensive efficiency this season - you can try to make up arguments about Connecticut's strength of schedule influencing those efficiency ratings, but consider that the gap between Connecticut and the next best defense in the nation (we see you, Hampton Pirates!) is equivalent to the gap between second and 47th.

Even if there was no easy perfection narrative to latch onto, this is just a matchup of two of basketball units led by two outstanding coaches that any fan of the game - whether men's or women's, college or pro - should be able to appreciate because the participants offer the best of what the game has to offer. That's setting lofty expectations for a game in a tournament with its share of blowouts, but not unrealistic either.

With that, what might the outcome of this game hinge upon? Or better yet, what might determine whether this is the competitive and entertaining game we're all hoping for?

How much does Natalie Achonwa's absence matter against UConn?

I'll say this again, and this time a bit more bluntly: the notion that Notre Dame was in trouble against Maryland because of Achonwa's absence was exaggerated at best and willful ignorance in service of an easy talking point at its worst moments.

The reality was that a) Notre Dame had already beaten Maryland in a game in which Achonwa was essentially a non-factor and b) they had two strikingly similar reserves whose production has been repressed all season because they were playing behind Achonwa - Markisha Wright stepping up for 12 points and 9 rebounds was not exactly the equivalent of the panic-inducing terror that Michigan fans felt when Marcus Lee came out of nowhere to score 10 and 8 in the Kentucky men's basketball team's win in the Elite Eight.

Nevertheless, the Irish's rebounding performance in their game against Maryland was stunning not so much because of Achonwa's absence but because the Terrapins are normally just a much, much better rebounding team than they showed - as they admitted afterwards, and the only reasonable explanation, they just didn't meet the magnitude of the moment. However, Achonwa's absence might take on greater significance for Notre Dame against UConn, in part because everything does against the Huskies: with three of the nation's top shot blockers roaming the paint, including WBCA Defensive Player of the Year Stefanie Dolson, Achonwa's savvy in the post might matter a bit more.

UConn didn't become the best 2-point percentage defense this season because they're lucky enough to face opponents who constantly have off nights - they're an outstanding team defensive unit with on-ball and weakside shot blockers that just make it difficult to get anything going inside. Defensively, defending UConn with less experienced posts than Achonwa could make foul trouble an issue for Notre Dame.

But again, it's worth noting that on paper, productive performances from Taya Reimer or Markisha Wright would be more confirmations of their efficiency in limited minutes moreso than a surprise, which lessens the blow of Achonwa's absence statistically-speaking.

How much does Notre Dame's three point shooting matter against UConn's defense?

With UConn's interior defense being so strong, perimeter shooting takes on immense significance and that's part of why Notre Dame is such an intriguing opponent for them.

If there is a weakness - or rather, weakest aspect relatively speaking - to UConn's defense it's that you can spread them out and beat them from the perimeter because they're not a team with five elite perimeter defenders on the floor. It helped the BYU Cougars give the Huskies a run and could help Notre Dame. On the other side of things, Notre Dame was the best three point shooting team in the nation this season.

Notre Dame has five rotation players shooting over 35%, which aside from being ridiculous also includes a team-high 47% from junior Madison Cable and 42.4% from sophomore Michaela Mabrey. That puts most defenses in a bind: play zone against Notre Dame, and you risk getting torched by their long-range bombers; play man-to-man and two defenders have to contend with Loyd and McBride somehow. UConn is a disciplined enough defense to not be subject to the problems of your average defense, but defending Notre Dame is extremely difficult of both the way they play and the personnel they can put out there.

Additionally, despite the analytics movement vilifying the mid-range shot, the fact that both Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride can hit shots from anywhere on the court only strengthens Notre Dame's offense: mid-range shots are the least efficient, which make them the logical shots to concede but both Loyd and McBride can make opponents pay from there.

In fact, one could quite easily argue that Loyd and McBride hitting mid-range shots with Cable and Mabrey hitting threes is far more important to Notre Dame's chances of winning than Achonwa's presence would've been - you're not going to beat the Huskies by pounding them inside regardless of who you have on the court.

How does Notre Dame defend Breanna Stewart?

Some of UConn's previous tournament opponents had obvious answers for guarding Stewart, in theory at least: BYU used 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson to help hold her to just 6-for-19 shooting; Texas A&M benefited from some early foul trouble in holding Stewart to just 13 points; Stanford was able to use 6-foot-4 Chiney Ogwumike's length to bother Stewart into just 4-for-10 shooting.

What Notre Dame might not have is the "obvious" player to assign to Stewart, whether that be in isolation scenarios or within a larger team concept - that might've been especially evident when Stewart dropped a then-career-high 29 points on them last year in the Final Four. Yes, that was almost a year ago, but Stewart has arguably gotten better this season. Surely, Notre Dame is familiar enough with their former Big East foe to have some sense of how to defend Stewart as a unit - giving up another career-high seems unlikely - but saying that and doing it are two very different things.

How on Earth do you defend UConn for 40 minutes?

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair made a point after his Elite Eight loss to UConn that many other teams can probably empathize with:

"We competed, and I thought we really had a chance when we cut it to three," A&M coach Gary Blair said. "A great team just looks you in the face and says, `Is that all you got?' They came down and got two easy baskets before I could call timeout."

Unlike Notre Dame, UConn really hasn't been challenged en route to their undefeated record: Baylor and Texas A&M have both given them a run, but couldn't pull of an upset.

The biggest challenge of facing UConn is that you can come up with all kinds of creative schemes to contain UConn for 20 - or maybe even 30 - minutes, but at some point the flood gates open and can't be closed; either their offensive weapons will overwhelm you or their defense will smother you into submission.

Part of what makes them difficult to defend is their ability to stop opponents from making shots and scoring in transition off defensive rebounds - guard Bria Hartley is far more dangerous in transition than in the halfcourt and Moriah Jefferson is reaching one-woman fastbreak status, if she hasn't already been there. But even if you can make shots against them and can play them from a set defense, at some point one of their All-Americans is going to take it upon themselves to get something going and will do so effective.

Notre Dame is certainly best equipped to beat UConn with all of their offensive weapons, but even they can't afford a lapse in execution on either end if they want emerge as the victors.

For more on the matchup, check out our 2014 Final Four storystream.

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