The Brigham Young Cougars quickly became one of my favorite teams to watch this season.
Yes, partially because they were one of the few women's basketball teams televised consistently, but also because of the way they've played basketball to win the West Coast Conference tournament championship and an automatic bid to the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament.
BYU's balanced, disciplined, and methodical offense is exactly the style of play that could cause an upset in a tournament setting because they're so efficient in what they do and can keep defenses off-balance by spreading them out with 3-point shooting and beating them in the post. They're led by 5-foot-4 point senior point guard Haley Steed, who is the among the most efficient distributors in the nation and the engine that makes their offense go with her outstanding decision-making and ability to control the flow of the game regardless of the pace of play. While she makes decision-making look easy by acting early to make plays and getting the ball into the hands of players in a position of strength to score, she's also a solid defender and relatively strong rebounder for her size.
A team seeded 7th or lower that could make it to the Sweet 16 or further.
#10 BYU vs. #7 DePaul
BYU and DePaul are very similar teams statistically, but Steed could be the major difference-maker in this bracket as one of the top distributors in the nation.
What stands out about DePaul this season - with 6-foot-3 post Felicia Chester having graduated and 6-foot-2 senior forward Keisha Hampton out for all but 12 games due to injury - is that their defensive efficiency declined dramatically, from 85th in the nation to 227th. Both of these teams are efficient offensively, but BYU's methodical offense might could give DePaul problems while simultaneously stopping the Blue Demons with their disciplined defense.
In addition, BYU will come into this game with a major height advantage with 6-foot-3 WCC Player of the Year Kristen Riley and 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson that should help exploit DePaul's rebounding weakness - opponents have beaten DePaul on the offensive boards 35.74% to 32.93%. The combination of BYU's discipline on defense, a methodical offense, and a potential rebounding advantage could help them earn a win against DePaul despite playing a "road game" in Chicago.
If they make it past DePaul it's likely they'll face Tennessee, which is a bigger and more athletic at multiple positions in the starting lineup. The Lady Vols' strength in the post could theoretically overwhelm a more finesse BYU team that relies on precision execution to score - as the superior team on the offensive boards, senior post player Glory Johnson could assume a large role in winning this game for the Lady Vols.
However, despite adding a pure distributor for the first time in years in the form of 5-foot-6 freshman point guard Ariel Massengale, there was a familiar common theme in Tennessee's losses this years: turnovers. Tennessee often struggles with turnovers during the puzzling stretches of time - sometimes called "the first half" - when star senior forward Shekinna Stricklen is relatively uninvolved offensively. But a large part of the problem for Tennessee just seems to be lapses in focus and intensity. Against a defense like BYU's, that could cause problems - BYU is just a steady defense that rotates well as a unit and has the potential to shut down even the most efficient offenses with solid interior and perimeter defenders.
To be sure, BYU and Tennessee are relatively even in both committing and forcing turnovers - one could predict the turnover column ending up about even if they were to meet. But teams with similar differentials rarely end up maintaining that when going head to head because one team eventually imposes their will. Although the odds are stacked against BYU in this case, they could pull off a huge upset if Tennessee has one of the historic lapses that they've suffered from this season.
#12 Fresno State vs. #5 Georgetown
As good as Fresno State junior guard Ki-Ki Moore is, she might not even be the reason Fresno State could pull off an upset; the combination of Georgetown's potential to go on ugly scoring droughts with Fresno State's ability to cause turnovers could make for an ugly game and an upset.
There's little doubt that Georgetown is the better defense between these two teams, but both Fresno State and Georgetown are top ten in the nation in forcing turnovers (9th and 5th, respectively). If this becomes a sloppy game dictated by transition points, Moore could end up stealing the show. On the other hand, the major advantage that Georgetown has is that they're a considerably better rebounding team and in a sloppy game where their defense prevents Fresno State from scoring, those second chance opportunities could be the difference.
Even if Fresno State doesn't pull off the upset, this game is worth watching - Moore could very well lead this team right back to the tournament next season.
Intriguing first round matchup
A competitive first round game other than the 8/9 matchup
#11 Kansas vs. #6 Nebraska
Statistically, Kansas should not win this game. However, in their last meeting as Big 12 opponents last season, Kansas won - these are two teams that will have some familiarity and that could make a difference. Turnovers could be a factor if Kansas challenges, but ultimately Nebraska's rebounding ability might tilt the scales here.
#1 Baylor Lady Bears
So there's this 6-foot-8 woman named Brittney Griner. Not only does she lead the nation with an 11.2% block rate, but her very presence in the paint has opponents retreating to the 3-point line and shooting only 26.5%.
Baylor is hardly invincible - Iowa State's game plan was pretty good: have a 6'7" player who can shoot threes pull Griner out of the paint to open lanes for others, move the ball really well, and hit a lot of threes. It worked well compared to most opponents as they had Baylor down into the second half. But ultimately, there's still Griner on offense, whose game has expanded to the point where if she gets the ball scoring somehow is a formality.
Only a little more than a year removed from UConn's 90-game win streak, the threshold for true invincibility is high in women's basketball - we fully understand that even the best teams will lose eventually. But Baylor is a team that will be difficult for almost any team to figure out.
For more on the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament, visit our "NCAA Tournament 2012 section". If you haven't done so already, also join The Swish Appeal Bracket Challenge to put your picks up against ours.