Women's Final Four: Previewing Baylor-Stanford, ND-UConn
Baylor-Stanford matchup will pit the nation's top two players against each other
Containing Brittney Griner will be the biggest challenge facing Stanford Sunday
Notre Dame has a chance to steal the national spotlight with a win over UConn
DENVER -- Four No. 1 seeds, but no reigning national champion among them. Powerhouse programs -- all have won a national championship -- that are hungry. Coaches who are considered the best in the business. A player who has revolutionized the game.
The women's Final Four has no shortage of star power or storylines.
This is a matchup of the two best teams in the country -- Baylor is undefeated and Stanford has just one loss. It's a meeting of the two best players in the country, though Brittney Griner casts such a long shadow that Nneka Ogwumike's outstanding season for the Cardinal has been largely overlooked. Griner is, quite literally, the biggest thing to come along in women's basketball, maybe ever. She dunks, she dominates, she's rendered RGIII to second fiddle at Baylor. UConn's wise-cracking coach Geno Auriemma had this to offer as a scouting report: "That big kid at Baylor is really good."
Stanford is making its fifth consecutive Final Four appearance -- the Cardinal made it to the final in 2008 and 2009, but hasn't won a title. Stanford, whose only loss was to UConn in the fourth game of the season, isn't usually an underdog but Vegas oddsmakers have Baylor as a 7-point favorite, something Tara VanDerveer plans to milk before Sunday's game.
Baylor and Stanford haven't played each other since Griner has been in uniform. VanDerveer might not have felt the same way, but Nneka Ogwumike was thrilled to see Baylor on her side of the bracket: "I didn't want to say that I didn't get to player before I left."
1. That big kid at Baylor. Griner burst on the scene three years ago as a novelty -- a 6-foot-8 girl, with a 9-foot-2 reach. She's evolved from curiosity to crusher: she's strong, athletic and skilled. How do you stop her? Better question might be how do you score on her? That will be Stanford's biggest challenge. "They understand if your 5-7 guard goes in against Brittney Griner," VanDerveer said, "she's going to need a toothpick to pick the leather out of her teeth." Griner has blocked 199 shots this season.
2. Sisterhood of the traveling shorts. Sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike -- the most lethal post duo in the country -- may be playing their last game together Sunday. Senior Nneka has led Stanford to the Final Four every season, and has gone from devastated to annoyed by her team's inability to win a national championship. Chiney was the Pac-12s defensive player of the year; she fouled out in last year's semifinal against Texas A&M and Stanford can't afford for that to happen Sunday. The sisters play with what Griner calls " that sister instinct," bringing an intuitive DNA-level connection to their court sense.
3. Pointers. Baylor is not just Griner and the four nobodies. Baylor's team is run by sophomore All-American Odyssey Sims, who is averaging 14.8 points, three steals and 4.4 assists per game. Stanford has true freshman Amber Orrange at the point. That could be the difference maker.
It's not often that UConn gets second billing in a tournament but this is a different year for Auriemma's Huskies. With the departure of Maya Moore, UConn -- seeking its eighth national championship -- is without any big name players. But the Huskies still managed to make it to their fifth straight Final Four.
This game is the opposite of the Baylor-Stanford matchup: there's nothing new about it. The two Big East rivals are meeting for the eighth time in the past 14 months. UConn has won four of those games, including the last one, beating Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final after being swept by the Irish in the regular season. But that doesn't mean anything: Muffet McGraw's team faced the same scenario a year ago and knocked UConn out in the semifinal, then went on to lose to Texas A&M in the championship game.
This is Notre Dame's fourth Final Four and the third time its met Big East rival UConn in the semifinal. In 2001, Notre Dame topped UConn and went on to beat Purdue for its only national championship.
1. Familiarity breeds contempt: These two teams are sick of seeing each other and the two coaches are a little sick of each other. Auriemma and McGraw have known each other for more than 35 years. McGraw took Auriemma's place on the staff of Saint Joseph's in 1980. Auriemma admits to hating Notre Dame because he was a Catholic kid who couldn't get in. He doesn't intentionally try to get under McGraw's skin but said, "if they keep beating us, she's in for it big time. She's going to need more than a leather skirt. She's going to have to wear body armor. I'm coming after her."
2. @SkyDigg4: Notre Dame's Diggins is the most high profile player in the Final Four not named Nneka or Brittney. The South Bend native has led Notre Dame's attack for the past three years and has been a promotional machine, blogging and tweeting and pushing Irish basketball to a higher profile.
3. Window of opportunity. If Notre Dame wants to steal the spotlight from UConn this would be a good time to do it. This wasn't supposed to be a very good year for UConn and the Huskies have been up and down, even losing to St. John's on senior day. But Auriemma's incoming recruiting class is loaded -- the best class in the country -- and the forecast is for more undefeated seasons and national championships in the future.
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