Picking the winner for today's matchup between the Connecticut Huskies and Notre Dame Fighting Irish today is no easy task.
Although Notre Dame won two of their three meetings this season, a more confident Connecticut team won the last one to take the 2012 Big East Tournament championship. And put simply, there hasn't really been one major statistical category that has determined winning and losing in the first three games these teams have played.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma was right to point out the potential importance of free throw shooting to the game, though the margins have been so narrow in that aspect that it's hard to say anything definitive at all. While turnovers will be significant between these two very good defenses, there might not be much we can say definitively from those first three games about how turnovers might influence this one. But the turnover story between these two teams has been interesting enough to be noteworthy.
X-Factor: UConn turnovers
Notre Dame has won the turnover margin in each of the three games, which might first seem to make it irrelevant - perhaps UConn can win despite committing turnovers more often against a defense that forces turnovers more often than anyone in the Final Four.
UConn turnovers in their three games against Notre Dame (via WBB State)
But a closer look at where those turnovers came from is actually telling.
In the first game, Bria Hartley had a team-high 7 turnovers and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 6. In the second game, Tiffany Hayes had 6. In the third - and victorious - game, nobody had more than 4.
Although the turnover rates in the second and third game were even because of the differing number of possessions, that no single guard in UConn's relatively thin rotation was giving up turnovers at the rate some players were in the first two games did make a difference - UConn simply doesn't have the luxury of having two guards having poor ball handling games, even if the team has managed to make up for that in other ways against Notre Dame (shooting more efficiently in all three games.
Obviously, one response to this might be that the Huskies need to just avoid turning the ball over against Notre Dame but turnovers are going to happen against this defense; all opponents can do is hope to mitigate the problem.
But one thing that really has stood out more prominently in the three previous games is the rebounding battle, as much who won the offensive rebounding as who stepped up for Notre Dame.
Key statistical battleground: rebounding
The Huskies had an inspired rebounding performance to beat the Fighting Irish in the Big East Tournament, which was the most significant part of their victory statistically.
UConn center Stefanie Dolson made it clear that was an emphasis, but that generally outhustling Notre Dame was the key.
"Well, we knew coming out into this game that like you said it was going to be a huge emphasis for us. I think we did a great job of just making sure all the guards were boxed out, making sure Devereaux (Peters) was boxed out. We just went after the ball. We had the mindset tonight of being so aggressive. We went after every, every ball. We had so many hustle plays. It wasn't just rebounds. It was everything."
And rather than dominating the offensive boards themselves, it really was a matter of boxing out guards like Kayla McBride and Natalie Novosel who had big rebounding games in their first two meetings. Keeping the guards off the boards helped UConn hold Notre Dame to a season-low 26 total rebounds and a meager 20% offensive rebounding percentage.
Bringing that same intensity on the boards will be vital for UConn's success in today's game, particularly in order to offset the turnover advantage that Notre Dame's defense is likely to establish. But Notre Dame has to enter this game with some level of confidence - after dominating Maryland on the boards, beating a tough rebounding team in Cal, and knowing their guards can rebound against UConn, it might be a matter of simply maintaining their defensive aggressive to force turnovers and simply outworking UConn on the boards.
For more on the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament, check out our "NCAA Tournament 2012" section.