Much will be made of the absence of 6-foot-3 post Natalie Achonwa prior to, during, and after Notre Dame's Final Four game against Maryland.
And there's generally good reason for that: the absence of a 6-foot-3 forward with a true shooting percentage of 64.4% and the ability to facilitate the creation of scoring opportunities for others from the high post will hurt even the best teams.
However, Todd Carton of SB Nation's Maryland site Testudo Times made an astute observation in his preview of the game.
Of course, perhaps the biggest question hanging over Sunday's game is how the Irish will fare without Achonwa, the player Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw says, "sets the tone for our team in everything we do." The senior went down with what proved to be an ACL tear late in the regional final against Baylor Monday.
McGraw talked about what Notre Dame loses emotionally - but what do the Irish lose quantifiably with Achonwa unable to play? Certainly not the ability to win games. Notre Dame opened the season without her for their first three games. In addition to winning games against Valparaiso and UNC-Wilmington by 50 and 49 respectively, they managed to beat a good Michigan State team (RPI 31) by nineteen.
As he has done for most of the season, Carton covered the ins and outs of this game well enough that there's not a whole lot to add, but there was one additional point relevant to this specific game that is probably worth noting: statistically, Achonwa was essentially a non-factor the first time around.
That's not to negate the intangible factor of Achonwa's leadership both in her on-court presence and setting the tone emotionally. But it's not just an academic statement to say she was at the most a limited factor in their 87-83 win in College Park on January 27: Achonwa was on the bench for the majority of the first half after picking up two fouls in the first two minutes.
During the 18 minutes with Achonwa on the bench in foul trouble in the first half, Notre Dame mounted their largest lead of the game (22) and went into halftime up 12 points. With Achonwa back in the game in the second half, the Terrapins outscored the Irish by eight points.
So how much can we read into that? Quite a bit, especially the way in which Notre Dame shot in that first half.
What went well: The Irish shot the lights out
Notre Dame shot 66% from the field with Achonwa out of the game in the first half. That field goal percentage dropped to "just" 50% in the second half. Jewell Loyd led the way in both halves as an almost mirror image of the team's field goal percentages, shooting 7-for-10 in the first half and 5-for-10 in the second.
But let's put that in perspective: it was on the road, but Notre Dame needed a 66% first half to beat Maryland the first time around.
What could change: Jewell Loyd probably won't match her 31-points
By their very nature, career-highs don't happen often and career-highs as efficient as Loyd scored are probably even more rate: she got that 31 points on 12-for-20 shooting (65.90% TS%), which is quite remarkable for a guard. And, honestly, despite others taking home the nation's top awards, I don't think anybody in the nation really has a solution for Loyd right now and certainly not for whatever she matures into in the future. She's just entirely too athletic for anyone to stay in front of and way too efficient for anyone to stop once she gets the ball in her hands.
And even if she doesn't drop 30+ again, Notre Dame's forte is sort of having multiple players who can beat you.
Player to watch: Taya Reimer & Markisha Wright
After 6-foot-3 Achonwa was on the bench for most of the first half, 6-foot-3 Taya Reimer was on the bench for all but three minutes in the second half. That doesn't mean she'll be playing twice as much this time around, but she'll certainly be playing more minutes - or less sporadically - in place of Achonwa, making her an interesting person to watch.
And to Carton's point about quantifying what the Irish lose with Achonwa out, it's not unreasonable to say that in this particular matchup they won't miss much: Reimer's tempo-free statistics are stunningly similar to Achonwa's in key ways. And just for kicks, let's throw in 6-foot-2 junior fourward Markisha Wright as well.
Tempo-free statistics for Natalie Achonwa, Taya Reimer, and Markisha Wright from the 2013-14 season (links to WBB State).
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Reimer and Wright are Achonwa clones: the primary difference from Reimer is Achonwa's scoring efficiency, which might not be as big a deal as it first seems because Achonwa gets so many points off layups going toward the basket. Reimer might be more of an "heir apparent" than sufficient replacement for Achonwa, but can they get enough out of her to win two games? Possibly. Can Reimer replace the combined 9 points and 5 rebounds of production that she and Achonwa had against Maryland the first time? Absolutely. Can Markisha Wright perform in minutes more closely resembling what Reimer currently gets? That remains to be seen.
Key question: How much will foul trouble play a role this time around?
In a further similarity to Achonwa, both Reimer and Wright can somewhat foul prone players, with Reimer averaging 2.3 per game in just 18 minutes per game. So as folks have made very clear leading up to this game, Notre Dame will likely have to fill Achonwa's post minutes as a team rather than thinking of it as a 1-to-1 substitution; their M.O. all season has been their ability to adapt and step up when necessary and that highly-touted strength will be put to the test this weekend.
But the bigger issue is what happens if Maryland's impressive frontline gets Notre Dame's first string in foul trouble again. Could they exploit the post advantage that helped them win the rebounding battle the first time around? Very likely, but that might not be the most important key to winning this one.
What went well: The Terrapins dominated the paint in the second half
Interestingly, the Terrapins outscored the Irish 30-12 in the paint in the second half - when Achonwa was in the game - but DeVaughn had just 6 of her 16 during that time. If there's one thing that figures to hold in their rematch, it's the advantage in the paint.
What could change: Maryland probably won't win the turnover battle again
The Terps had just four turnovers in the second half of the first meeting between these teams to win the turnover battle 17-12 and that just seems unlikely to happen again.
As we highlighted prior to Maryland's game against Louisville, turnovers can be a bit of a problem for them. Against the Fighting Irish, they had 8 in the first half then cut that in half in the second half in order to get themselves back into it.
But we've seen how Maryland can sabotage their chances at winning with turnovers in their game against Louisville and that's probably not lost on a Notre Dame team that is plenty capable of forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition.
Player to watch: Lexie Brown
It has to be Lexie Brown: she had all three of her turnovers in the first half and finished the game with three assists. It has been mentioned before, but her ability to handle the ball efficiently is critical to Maryland's success; it might be going too far to say that Brown's play is the key to the game, but a poor game from her against Notre Dame's disciplined defense is probably something Maryland can't afford.
Key question: How will Notre Dame handle Alyssa Thomas?
Teams have stopped Alyssa Thomas for long stretches of games, either by using junk defenses to deny her the ball or baiting her into shooting jumpers instead of punishing opponents in the paint. But over the course of a 40 minute game, the reality is that the best a defense can hope for is to contain her and prevent her from making teammates better.
As Carton alluded to, the Irish never really figured out an answer to Thomas, but it's not like they're alone in that: neither Notre Dame nor UConn really ever found consistent answers for her in their wins and they're two of the best defenses in the nation. Both North Carolina State and Virginia used the junk defense approach to stop Thomas long enough to pull off upsets. But bear in mind what we're talking about here: containing Thomas still meant she had 18 and 27 and shot a combined 18-for-27 in the those two conference losses - the opponents just limited her touches for long stretches.
The challenge is that with Thomas' ability to rebound and initiate the break as well as getting to the line to get points from the free throw line, nobody's really going to stop her - she's gonna get hers. Teams just have to try to limit everyone else (and turnovers are a good start).
When you take Thomas' considerable talent into account, it becomes obvious that Maryland really does have a better shot to win this game than most of us are giving them credit for: it took a ridiculous shooting night, including a career-high from Loyd, for Notre Dame to beat them the first time. If Maryland can extend their dominance in the paint a little and find a way to limit their turnovers - especially the careless, unforced variety - it's really easy to imagine them pulling off an upset.
For more on the Final Four, check out our 2014 Final Four storystream.