Louisville Cardinals (28-2) vs. Connecticut Huskies (30-0)
7 p.m. EST
KFC Yum! Center - Louisville, KY
TV: ESPN2 | Online: WatchESPN
What can make Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel both fun and perhaps occasionally maddening for some is that she has always been a high-risk, high-reward player.
The cost of her aggressive style of play was on full display from the first half of the first game of her career - also fittingly the first women's basketball game played in the KFC Yum! Center - when she committed eight turnovers in the first half, as summarized by Charlie Springer of The Card Game in his preview of Louisville's regular season finale against UConn tonight.
But over time, we've also seen the rewards of Schimmel's style of play, epitomized by the play she made in transition against Brittney Griner in Louisville's monumental upset of Baylor in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Schimmel has delivered on being the type of program-changer that college fans always hope for when they're poring over recruiting rankings and imagining what they might become. As Rick Bozich of WDRB.com described, Schimmel is the leader of a senior class that has cemented the program as a player on the national landscape.
Here is what is not crazy: Crediting Schimmel and the team's other seniors, Asia Taylor, Antonita Slaughter and Tia Gibbs, with changing the perception of this program. They have earned the applause.
Sure Louisville surged when Angel McCoughtry gave the Cardinals star power - as well as a trip to the 2009 NCAA championship game. But many perceived the program as a one-woman band. Other programs had made their runs - and then disappeared.
That is not the perception of the program today. Now the Cardinals are perceived as a program that is serious about hanging out with the UConns, Notre Dames, Baylors and Tennessees at the top level of the women's game.
Considering all that McCoughtry accomplished at Louisville (and the WNBA), that seems like an unreasonably lofty claim. But beating Baylor in the tournament was easily one of the biggest moments in all of sports last year. Today, they look to register another big moment on senior night: beating undefeated UConn. And that might just start with Schimmel.
In Louisville's 81-64 loss to UConn on February 9, they held Schimmel to just nine points on 4-for-15 shooting simply by having sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson blanket her wherever she went to deny her the ball and prevent her from getting good looks at the basket. But that type of shooting performance hasn't exactly been rare in Schimmel's senior season.
What Schimmel has struggled with this season is scoring efficiency, perhaps in part due to the free-wheeling style of play that coach Jeff Walz empowers his players to embrace or the volume of shots that she takes from long-distance or off the dribble. Where Schimmel really struggles is actually scoring inside the three point arc - her 41.8% 2-point percentage is not an impressive mark as someone considered to be a in the mix for a first round pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft. Further exacerbating that inefficiency is that she shoots less than half of her shots from inside the arc - that's normally the mark of a player who's a three point shooter that struggles to create shots for themselves.
Of course, Schimmel isn't exactly "the norm".
What really sets Schimmel apart in the women's basketball universe is her ability to score with such ease off the dribble from beyond the arc. Adding to that is that she has the ability to penetrate, but often uses that opportunity to kick out or find cutting teammates once teammates collapse on her. That passing ability, which is often of the flashy variety, is something that can't go overlooked: Schimmel is on pace to have the least turnovers of her career with an assist ratio that matches that of some full-time point guards. Although her scoring draws the most attention, her maturation as a ball handler is probably the most promising aspect of her game.
On the other side of things, counterpart Bria Hartley is enjoying an efficient season as both a passer and scorer, which has made her among the best players in one of women's basketball's greatest programs.
Carl Adamec of the Journal Inquirer put together a nice career retrospective about UConn's Bria Hartley, who has fulfilled lofty expectations as a senior. After being honored on Saturday as part of UConn's senior day activities, Hartley went on to score 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting to highlight what her most significant improvement as a WNBA prospect this season. Hartley is still shooting nearly 50% from the field and 57.1% from inside the 3-point arc, which are impressive marks for a scoring prospect.
And of course, UConn has plenty of other weapons to lean on.
Fellow senior Stefanie Dolson has also carved out a niche for herself in UConn lore with her combination of defense, passing, and scoring ability from the post. Breanna Stewart is still nearly impossible to defend. And as of Saturday's game against Rutgers, UConn got Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis back after her bout with mono.
Even if Schimmel turns in the type of performance that's a genuine portrait of efficiency, their chances of beating UConn are slim: they might not get blown out by 30 points the way everyone else in the American does, but getting the win will be difficult. But there will certainly be no lack of motivation with Schimmel and Louisville's senior class looking to register another signature win in front of what will probably be a sold out crowd, regardless of the weather. John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant outlined what would happen to determine the top seed in the AAC tournament in the event of a tie, but more importantly it would have to dramatically improve Louisville's standing for NCAA Tournament seeding.