The 2013 women's Final Four has been marketed as a nice little appetizer between Cal and Louisville prior to the main event titanic clash between powerhouse programs Notre Dame and UConn.
Louisville has been more notable for who they aren't (Baylor) than who they are, whereas Cal has to answer questions about not being Stanford. During the open practices, Louisville's assistants sported t-shirts with "#PartyCrashers" on the back.
Despite the perception that Cal and Louisville are just accessories, Louisville, not Notre Dame and UConn, knocked off the reigning national champion, and Cal was ranked in the top 8 in the nation all season and features a senior class that was the #1 ranked class in the country in 2009. The appetizer may lack the sizzle of the Big East battle in the second semifinal, but if the press conferences and open practices are any indication, the first semifinal should be every bit as exciting.
Louisville's win against Baylor has been perceived incorrectly, as Louisville's Head Coach Jeff Walz noted in his press conference.
"Everybody talks about our defensive effort that we did against Baylor. We held them to 81 points. They average 81 points. So in my book it's called average defense," Walz said. "But the whole key to it, instead of worrying about how we guarded Brittney [Griner], how we did this, maybe everybody should start asking how do we score 82. Because there's not been one team in the four years that Brittney Griner was at Baylor that scored more than 82 points. We scored the most points in four years during her career."
Meanwhile, Cal is known for its rebounding, and Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb mentioned rebounding as part of their identity, but they also led the Pac-12 Conference in scoring this season.
Most of the strategic discussion centered on each team's ability to stop the other in transition. Louisville's Bria Smith said about defending Cal's Boyd in transition, "That's also a key we were talking about, just being able to stop them in transition is going to limit their points, because they do like to push the ball a lot. And if we can get rebounds and limit them in transition, it will work in our favor."
In the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 against LSU and Georgia, Cal's Layshia Clarendon ignited the Cal offense with several transition baskets, and Walz mentioned that a focus of his is to stop the opponent's best player and make others score.
"My whole plan is when we go play somebody, I'm trying to take away your best player. And then if somebody else can score 25, then I'm going to lose," he said.
Based on the comments, it would appear that stopping Boyd and Clarendon in transition is the key to Louisville's game plan.
On the other side, Cal has to stop the streaking Cardinals' offense. Asked about her role as a defensive stopper, Pierre answered, "I think that they're very skilled, and we have skilled guards. But I think I'm really excited to do what I guess I do best."
Clarendon was respectful, but somewhat unimpressed, as she said that in watching tape, "We've seen them hit a lot of open 3s, a lot of dribble penetration, get by, force rotations, and then wide open shots. Our goal is to get in front of them and force contested shots, which we have the guards to do without a doubt."
Setting out to stop Louisville from getting and making open three-pointers may be easier said than done, but Louisville did show a susceptibility to on-ball pressure against Baylor, and specifically Odyssey Sims, and Pierre can match Sims' defensive pressure on opponent's guards.
Going into the game, the guards may attract the attention, but the post play likely will be the deciding factor.
"We're going to have to figure out a way to keep them off the offensive glass because they rebound the ball so well. And then they get to the free throw line," Walz said. "I mean, I think they average, in their wins, about 24 free throws a game, and that's something, if we allow that to happen tomorrow night, it's not going to be a good result for us."
Louisville must stop Cal from grabbing too many offensive rebounds to limit their scoring, but also to enable their transition game.
Beyond the likelihood of a high-scoring game between two teams who like to get up and down the court and score, these are fun teams.
"They dance every day," Gottlieb said. "They can break out into kind of song, but it's just really a neat kind of mixture of serious and focus on basketball and school, and then a whole lot of fun also."
Meanwhile, when asked a follow-up question about why he told Shoni Schimmel that "you can play anywhere. You're talented enough to play anywhere, but you can't play for anybody," Walz said, "Because I let her play. I let kids play. Some coaches think I'm crazy, but I want them to go out there and have fun. I think this game should be enjoyable. I think the kids should have fun."
Nothing demonstrates the fun of these two teams like watching Schimmel through behind the back passes or watching "Started from the Bottom", the video produced by Cal's women's basketball team.
Whereas the press conferences and open practices were fun and games, these teams and players are every bit as competitive as UConn or Skylar Diggins.
When asked about watching the Final Four last season, Cal senior Talia Caldwell said, "I did not watch it. If I'm not playing it, I'm kind of a sore loser, I'm done. So I was at the rec gym playing pickup that whole week. I was just disgusted seeing all those teams. I felt like we should have been there, even last year, and we would have competed and could have won the whole thing. So it just motivated I know me personally for next year and I wanted to work on my game asap."
Clarendon added that she "didn't want to hear about it. Sore losers, hate to lose. Didn't want to watch."
Meanwhile, Shoni Schimmel might be most famous for saying after the win versus Baylor, "She's Brittney Griner, but I'm Shoni Schimmel, you know? So I just kept going at her."
They're not UConn or Notre Dame, but they're Cal and Louisville, you know? And they're just going to go after each other for 40 minutes in what should be an entertaining, highly competitive match up.
Brian McCormick is an experienced coach and player development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He has previously contributed to Swish Appeal during the 2012 Final Four and with his thoughts on why developing coaching expertise at mid-majors is good for women's college basketball.
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