Today's game between Notre Dame and undefeated UConn will be the most heavily promoted regular season game in women's college basketball history thanks to the ESPN Game Day crew paying a visit to Storrs.
Unlike so many other analysts, at the very least Dick Vitale will maintain his energy and enthusiasm even if UConn once again wins by a large margin. And it will also be a reminder of the days when Jay Bilas worked women's NCAA tournament games. His description of UConn going back door time and time again in the 2000 National Championship game especially sticks out as it ends up in all the highlight videos of that team.
Notre Dame comes into this game with the expectation that they are one of the few teams that could beat UConn. Before the season began the Big East subtly indicated the expectation level for Notre Dame by scheduling two regular season games between UConn and Notre Dame. The reasons for those expectations were pretty clear.
Notre Dame returned all the key players that came within ten points of UConn last season. They also added two key players that were injured for that game in guard Brittany Mallory and post Devereaux Peters. And most of all, they added a needed dynamic scorer in freshman guard in Skyler Diggins. For their part Notre Dame has lived up to those expectations by coming into this game undefeated and clearly better than a season ago.
However, UConn also became a better team than they were a season ago. The road map for UConn to improve was nowhere as clear as was it for Notre Dame.
UConn was losing an All-American point guard and team leader in Renee Montgomery. Certainly UConn being just as good or even better this season was a realistic possibility if all the key players were healthy. Caroline Doty's strong return from her ACL injury helped minimize the negative impact of Montgomery's graduation on UConn's offense, as predicted before the season.
And UConn's defensive improvement was expected, but the magnitude of that improvement has been a surprise. The defense improved to the point that UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has said several times that he can not explain it when asked why the team has been so good on defense this season.
At this point halfway through the season, a valid comparision of this season's and last season's UConn team can be done because the trends have been very consistent. The statistics have told the same story all season long. The comparison sheds some light on where the team has felt the loss of Renee Montgomery on the scoreboard and why this season's UConn team is playing better than last season's team. The two seasons are easy to compare without using advanced statistics because this season's team plays at the same pace as last season's team. Statistics that are related have also been color coded to make them easier to identify.
All the statistics highlighted in yellow are basically unchanged from last season. How well UConn shoots inside the three point line, how often UConn gets to the free throw line, and how often UConn gets the ball blocked or stolen by opponents are all basically unchanged on offense.
Defensively the free throw attempts and three point attempts UConn allows are the same and so are UConn's blocked shots. The fouls committed by both teams are also basically the same. Many of these stats are reflective of UConn's style of play and don't change very much season to season.
In green are the areas where the loss of Renee Montgomery to graduation is evident. UConn has been consistently committing one more turnover per game than they did a year ago. A possession that resulted in a made three point shot for last season's team. Those three points that last season's team would have scored are missing without Montgomery. This season's team makes up for one of those three points through much improved free throw shooting thanks largely to Tina Charles maintaining her improved free throw shooting from the end of last season.
So UConn is two points behind where they were offensively a season ago, but they are also nine points better defensively than they were a season ago. A nine point differential over sixteen games is fairly significant, and how it is being achieved is evident in the statistics.
Three of those nine points simply come from defending the three point line better this season (Orange). Most of the remaining six points come from taking shots away from the opposition. This season UConn is forcing three and a half more turnovers per game and all of them are steals (Red). UConn is also allowing their opponents three fewer offensive rebounds (Blue). Defensive rebounding is the one area where the team is clearly better because of the absence of Montgomery, rather than in spite of the absence of Montgomery. All of UConn's guards are significantly better defensive rebounders than Montgomery. Even Stanford with their three All-American candidates on their front line managed only six offensive rebounds against UConn. The result of those extra steals and improved defensive rebounding is five fewer shot attempts for the opposition this season.
After this point these two teams will likely become more different. Caroline Doty's ACL injury at this point in last season changed UConn's team dramatically. UConn covered up for her loss very well, but the team was changed even if it never showed up in the loss column. If this UConn team can stay healthy they will go through the second half of the season as a much deeper team than a season ago.
How can Notre Dame win?
Notre Dame faces a much bigger challenge today than what was expected on paper before the season began. UConn goes into the game with about an 18 point margin for error with the home court advantage factored in. That margin for error is evenly split between offense and defense. Notre Dame averages 82 points per game compared to UConn's 85 points per game, but Notre Dame has played at a 10% faster pace than UConn so far this season. UConn's offense is around nine points better than Notre Dame's when pace is accounted for.
Overcoming an 18 point margin of error begins by taking away UConn's transition offense. It begins with controlling tempo. Notre Dame normally plays a full court fast paced style, but Notre Dame will choose to slow the game to down to keep UConn out of the open court. Notre Dame comes into the game averaging 78 possessions per game, but their goal will be for the game to be played in the mid-sixties like last season. The chances of an underdog outplaying a better team are much greater if there are only 60 trips up and down the floor, rather than 80 tips down the floor. When playing a better opponent choose to play PIG and not HORSE. Notre Dame has the veteran guard play necessary to control tempo and limit the turnovers that lead to layups for UConn.
Both Stanford and Florida State found out that staying close with UConn means keeping UConn off of the offensive glass. That other source of easy points for UConn has to be limited. Last season Notre Dame was able to play UConn even on the boards, but achieving that against this season's team will be tougher task.
Defensively Notre Dame is primarily a zone team, which will help them against UConn. The zone will hopefully test the patience of the UConn guards and encourage them to settle for the jump shots that Notre Dame needs them to take and miss. UConn needs to take a ton of threes and miss a ton of threes, and Notre Dame needs to make their threes on offense to erase the biggest chunks of that 18 point margin for error.
Notre Dame, like UConn, has thrived off forcing turnovers through pressing this season and it will be interesting to see if they do press aggressively and try to force turnovers by UConn's young backcourt or simply press to slow UConn down and take time off the shot clock. And of course the officials helping out by getting Maya Moore and/or Tina Charles off the floor with fouls would greatly help the Notre Dame defense.
Overcoming that margin of error is the challenge for any team facing UConn. Last year teams could make up about half of that margin for error, but that was about it. Notre Dame at least gets a second try in South Bend and potentially a third game in the Big East Tournament. Duke will get a shot at it in Cameron on Monday. Other Big East teams will have a shot at pulling out a slow paced and ugly game against UConn, but the size of that challenge is significant.