Women's Final Four coaches talk teams' strengths, biggest concerns
This year's Final Four is the first since 1989 that all four No. 1 seeds made it
Muffet McGraw: Notre Dame's strength lies in its relentless approach to defense
Tara VanDerveer: Star Brittney Griner isn't the only challenge Baylor presents
DENVER -- There are banners on street corners throughout this city that read THE PINNACLE AWAITS DENVER -- the slogan hanging above the iconic Rocky Mountains -- and for once the marketing matches reality. This year's women's Final Four is the strongest in a quarter-century. All four No. 1 seeds advanced out of the regional rounds for the first time since 1989. It also marks the first Final Four featuring four programs with a national title on their resume.
"If you look at four teams, you see maybe a little bit of similarity in the fact that all four teams are committed defensively to playing five-on-five and making it very difficult for teams to get the kind of shots they normally get," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "I remember playing all three teams this season, and we certainly remember how hard it was to score in every one of those games. I think the other thing you see is that each team has people that are OK with the spotlight. They're OK with the big moment. They've had enough failure and enough frustration to kind of harden them and toughen them. I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger. There is no defending national champion that's in the field."
Sunday's matchups feature UConn-Notre Dame (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and Baylor-Stanford (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). SI.com asked each of the Final Four coaches what they did better than everyone else in the country and what concerned them the most about their semifinal opponent.
The one thing Notre Dame does better than everyone in the country is: "We take a lot of pride in our defense. We have a really determined, relentless approach. I think we're a competitive team in that we don't like to get scored on. So we take a lot of pride in that. I don't think that's something that a lot of people talk about with us. They talk about our steals and our assist-to-turnover ratios and stuff like that. We do score pretty well generally. I have a lot of weapons and a lot of people that can shoot the ball. Probably our top six players, any one of them could lead the team in scoring."
Biggest concern about Connecticut: "I don't know if there's one thing. I think when we've played UConn, we've had a lot of different games with them. [UConn sophomore center] Stefanie Dolson really beat us. [Sophomore point guard] Bria Hartley's beat us. I think different people have stepped up in different games and played really well. When you're playing a team like Connecticut, they've had such an equal opportunity team that any one person can step up on a given night and play extremely well. So we don't generally game plan to stop one person. It's just kind of looking at the whole team."
The one thing Connecticut does better than everyone in the country is: "We do good dance videos. We've been really good at those. We've done a couple this year and they've gotten rave reviews. Other than that, I would like to think that our defensive effort and the way we've guarded people this year, I would put that up against any team in the Final Four. I would think that we're as good defensively right now at this point in time as any team playing college basketball. I hope we get a chance to prove it this weekend."
Biggest concern about Notre Dame: "Everything. This is the eighth time we're playing them in 12 months [officially, 14 months]. It's crazy, isn't it? I mean, it's just ridiculous. I think if you stripped them apart as a team and all the components, you would find they don't have any weaknesses, and you can't say that about a lot of teams. They've got experience. They've got ball handlers. They've got shooters. They rebound the hell out of the ball. They've got slashers to the basket. They pass the ball well. They're one of the best coached teams I've seen in the last 10 years, and they are one of the best offensive teams, one of the best passing teams I've seen in a long, long time. It's very, very difficult to find the weakness in this particular Notre Dame team."
The one thing Baylor does better than everyone in the country is: "I can tell you one of the things we're most proud of is Baylor and Connecticut guard people and we're very proud of the fact that those two schools are back and forth [leading] field goal percentage defense. There's a reason that Connecticut and Baylor are in the Final Four. Certainly it's talent. But the other thing is defense.
"We really, really think that we're pretty good on the defensive end of the floor. If you'll look through the history of the 12 years I've been here, that's a stat that jumps out at you about our teams because we're going to guard you. We may not always have the most talented teams but we're going to have teams that are consistent on the defensive end of the floor.
Biggest concern about Stanford: "You start with their strengths and their strengths are the Ogwumike sisters [sophomore forward Chiney and senior forward Nnemkadi]. They're just so talented. And then you start with the history of the program and Tara's ability to get to a Final Four year after year. You understand how disciplined they are, how well-coached they are and how talented they are."
The one thing Stanford does better than everyone in the country is: "One of the things our team does is really focus on a game plan. We really look at each team we play and try really hard to figure out what is going to give our team the best chance of being successful. I also think that our team does a really good job of staying positive and not getting frustrated, just playing confidently and playing loose and having fun with each other. In order to win at this level you have to shoot well, rebound well, and you have to play defense. You know you have to do that stuff. But I think this team has a lot of intangibles. They have great team camaraderie and energy and they're very unselfish."
Biggest concern about Baylor: "They give you so many puzzles to solve. First, you're not used to playing against 6-foot-8 [Brittney Griner]. How do you score? How do you defend 6-8. And then Baylor is a lot more than just Brittney Griner. They have [sophomore point guard] Odyssey Sims, [junior guard] Kimetria (Nae-Nae) Hayden, they have perimeter shooters, rebounders, they have depth. They have a very experienced coach. So it's not one thing. It's probably many things. But that's what makes it so much fun and so exciting."