After losing to Xavier University in the Sweet 16 last season, three ESPN analysts and, more importantly, Swish Appeal's James Bowman have tabbed the Gonzaga Bulldogs as one of the top Cinderella candidates in the 2011 NCAA women's tournament.
Part of that is certainly due to them playing at home in Spokane, but part of that is also the fact that they're better than the 11 seed they got from the selection committee. So it's hard to say that a deep run - even as far as the Elite Eight - would be an "upset".
However, the one thing that could potentially stand in the way of Gonzaga advancing is rebounding.
The Blue Scholars aren't from Spokane, but this is a great Northwest anthem.
Upset watch: #11 Gonzaga vs. #6 Iowa and #3UCLA
In addition to Gonzaga's home court advantage, Iowa doesn't appear to match up well with them - the Hawkeyes don't rebound quite as well as the Bulldogs and turn the ball over more often than their opponents. Meanwhile, Gonzaga rebounds the ball very well relative to opponents and forces the second-highest turnover differential in this bracket, which is saying something in a field with strong defenses in Kentucky (the leader), Stanford, and UCLA (during Pac-10 play).
UCLA will be a much tougher matchup as these two teams' statistical profiles are similar in that both teams establish a significant turnover differential and get offensive rebounds at nearly the same rate. The difference, and the reason why Gonzaga might send UCLA back to Cali early, is that Gonzaga shoots the ball exceptionally well, second only to Stanford. UCLA thrives off creating turnovers of their own, but as we saw last year against Texas A&M in the second round in Seattle, Gonzaga point guard Courtney Vandersloot can navigate pressure quite well. If she's able to guide Gonzaga through UCLA's pressure defense, Gonzaga's very strong defense is capable of stifling a UCLA offense that can stall at times when they can't get up and down the floor.
Cinderella: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Points per possession: 1.19
Opponents points per possession: .85
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (+11% effective field goal percentage relative to opponents)
So with a home court advantage and the second-strongest offense in this field behind Stanford, there's no question that Gonzaga could beat Xavier and head to the Elite Eight. But even if the numbers suggest that being a strong possibility - Gonzaga has been a better rebounding team and defensive team in terms of turnover differential - Xavier might cause them problems with their size. Gonzaga has not only been outrebounded on the offensive end in all four of their losses, but there appears to be a pattern of rebounding well in the first half and then having a let-down in the second half in their Notre Dame, Ole Miss, and USC losses. And that's similar to what happened against Xavier in the Sweet 16 last season - Gonzaga hung rebounding at a rate of only 1% below Xavier in the first half and that ballooned to a 39% differential in the second half.
Despite losing post players Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson to graduation, Gonzaga has actually become a better offensive rebounding team while Xavier has fallen a little bit. And both Kelly Bowen and Kayla Standish have increased their defensive rebounding percentages, which helps widen that differential for Gonzaga.
Finding a way to keep Xavier off the boards for 40 minutes might prove difficult, but it's not unthinkable that Gonzaga takes this one and heads to the Elite Eight.
Competitive first round game: #5 North Carolina vs. #12 Fresno State
These two teams have strikingly similar statistical profiles with Fresno State being a bit more efficient shooting team and forcing turnovers slightly more often while UNC holds opponents to lower shooting and offensive rebounding percentages making them much better at limiting opponents' points per possession - their 0.81 points per possession is second only to Stanford in this bracket.
UNC's guard play will probably be able to control the ball well while their defense will probably be able to stop Fresno State, but Fresno State might not go quietly and if they can disrupt UNC's guard play they have a chance.
Most entertaining potential matchup: #4 Kentucky vs. #5 North Carolina
Both of these teams like to play high-paced basketball and Kentucky is well-known for their defensive intensity, forcing a larger turnover differential than anyone in this bracket. The difference is that UNC is a much more efficient scoring team and does very well on the offensive boards. Kentucky can win this one with a poor game by UNC's outstanding guards, but ultimately the more well-rounded team will probably take this one.
Favorite: Stanford Cardinal
Statistical strength: shooting efficiency (+17% effective field goal percentage differential relative to opponents)
Stanford is versatile, much stronger defensively, has gotten better point guard play from Jeannette Pohlen this season and is actually improving with freshmen Toni Kokenis and Chiney Ogwumike getting better at Division I basketball with more college games under their belt. Stanford is not invincible by any means - teams like Washington hung with them for stretches by playing them physical. But you can just ask Xavier about what happens when this team is at their best.
#1 Stanford def. #16 UC Davis
#9 St. John's def. #8 Texas Tech
#5 North Carolina def. #12 Fresno State
#4 Kentucky def. #13 Hampton
#11 Gonzaga def. #6 Iowa
#3 UCLA def. #14 Montana
#7 Louisville def. #10 Vanderbilt
#2 Xavier def. #15 South Dakota State
Stanford def. St. John's
North Carolina def. Kentucky
Gonzaga def. UCLA
Xavier def. Louisvile
Stanford def. North Carolina
Xavier def. Gonzaga
Stanford def. Xavier