Four teams, four tough outs among the squads who will compete at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Sunday’s first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
He’s a breakdown of the four teams:
No. 6 seed LSU
Record: 20-11, 10-6 Southeastern Conference.
NCAA experience: Five players participated in last year’s tournament.
Strengths: Despite a thin roster, the Lady Tigers have built a strong inside-outside game around All-Southeastern Conference center Theresa Plaisance (second in the SEC with 17.4 points per game) and senior guard Adrienne Webb. Webb has saved some of her best play for last, leading LSU the past four games with 16.5 points per contest. Add the defensive and rebounding presence of center Shanece McKinney, the slashing style of guard/forward Bianca Lutley, the quick hands of guard Danielle Ballard, and the inspirational grittiness of point guard Jeanne Kenney, and you have a team no one wants to see in their bracket.
Weaknesses: Did we mention the thin roster? LSU is down to eight players. And of those, Kenney (stress reaction, left foot) and McKinney (knees, concussion) both have been limited by injuries at times the past five games.
LSU can not afford to have players foul out (it’s happened only 14 times this season), and that at times impacts its defense. The Lady Tigers also turn the ball over at an alarming rate (17.1 per game), often a deadly sin in tournament play.
How the Lady Tigers can survive and advance: Despite an off-key performance against Georgia in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, this is a determined and confident team that seems to be on a mission to advance past the round of 32 for the first time since 2008. LSU can do that if it limits turnovers, gets scoring production from Plaisance, Webb and either Kenney or Lutley. Do that, and the Lady Tigers may be jetting off to the Sweet 16 in Spokane, Wash.
No. 11 seed Green Bay
Record: 29-2, 16-0 Horizon League.
NCAA experience: Eight players participated in last year’s tournament.
Strengths: A senior-laden, experienced team that won’t be intimidated by playing LSU on its home court. The Phoenix torched Iowa State on its home floor in last year’s NCAA first round, 71-57, and took Kentucky to the limit before bowing out 65-62. Green Bay is making its fifth straight NCAA appearance and has advanced the past three years, including a trip to the regional semifinals in 2011. A balanced, consistent squad, the Phoenix has won 24 straight games dating from a 54-50 loss Dec. 5 at Central Michigan and has incredibly had the same starting five for all 31 games. Four players average in double figures, led by senior guard Adrian Ritchie (14.2 points, 5.1 rebounds per game), who can drive to the basket effectively (an 85.7 percent free-throw shooter) and can pull up for the 3-pointer (38.0 percent). Green Bay shoots well overall (45.0 percent) and from 3-point range (35.1 percent), including good range from bigs like forward Lydia Bauer (37.0 percent). The team boasts two pairs of sisters: Sarah and Hannah Eichler, and Megan and Kalli Lukan.
Weaknesses: LSU’s height will be a problem for Green Bay. The Phoenix has only one starter over 6-feet: forward Stephanie Sension, who is 6-3. Green Bay hasn’t seen a trio like Plaisance, who is 6-5, and McKinney and Derreyal Youngblood, who both are 6-4.
Green Bay’s record is impressive, but according to WarrenNolan.com, the Phoenix has the worst strength of schedule in the Baton Rouge field (131st). And LSU’s fast guards will put Green Bay’s backcourt at a disadvantage.
How the Phoenix can survive and advance: Shoot at or above its season average, especially from 3-point range, force turnovers, and try not to get beat on the boards by double digits (Green Bay was outrebounded by 12 and nine in its NCAA games last year). It isn’t hard to see Green Bay being hot enough to get past LSU, but not Penn State.
No. 3 seed Penn State
Record: 25-5, 14-2 Big Ten.
NCAA experience: Nine players participated in last year’s tournament.
Strengths: Frankly, the Nittany Lions are probably underseeded by one line after repeating as Big Ten regular-season champions. What cost them, and what got them sent to play at LSU for the second straight year, was a clunker of a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions’ greatest strength is the ability to push an opponent to play faster than they are capable, leading to easy fast break baskets and mistakes galore. Penn State averages 73.5 points (14th-best nationally) and forces a shade under 20 turnovers per game. Point guard Alex Bentley possesses breathtaking speed from foul line to foul line, and Maggie Lucas is one of the nation’s sharpest shooters (20.5 points per game, 47.5 percent from 3-point range). She burned LSU for 30 points in the second round last year.
Weaknesses: After two sizeable regular-season losses to Penn State, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said she had her team blunt the Nittany Lions’ ability to drive up the middle and force them to the wings, making their fast break less effective.
Whether it was that or something else, Penn State shot 22 percent in a 54-46 loss. The Nittany Lions also don’t get much production from their bench.
How the Nittany Lions can survive and advance: Basically, play Penn State basketball: shoot well and force turnovers, forcing the other teams to be unable to keep pace. As they proved in the Big Ten tourney, the Nittany Lions aren’t infallible, but they are the team to beat in Baton Rouge.
No. 14 seed Cal Poly
Record: 21-10, 13-5 Big West.
NCAA experience: None. First NCAA appearance.
Strengths: The Mustangs share the wealth equitably among their top three scorers, led by 6-5 center Molly Schlemer with 13.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Schlemer stepped up her game to help Cal Poly win the Big West tournament, but the team doesn’t rely just on her, thanks to sophomore guard Ariana Elegado (12.3 ppg) and senior forward Brittany Woodard (12.0 ppg).
Weaknesses: The Mustangs paid a steep price for their win in the Big West Tournament final when do-everything guard Kayla Griffin went down with a season-ending knee injury four minutes into the second half against Pacific. Without her, Cal Poly is in an even bigger talent hole against Penn State.
How the Mustangs can survive and advance: Hope for the Nittany Lions to continue to shoot as they did against Michigan State. Frankly, Cal Poly has little hope of advancing and will likely have to be content to make its first trip to the NCAA tournament stand as its achievement for this season.