Women's Final Four Guide: team outlooks, x-factors, and predictions

 UCONN Huskies

UCONN Huskies

Connecticut

Road To Final Four

Def St Francis (PA)140-52

Def Quinnipiac 71-46

Def Duke 72-59

Def South Carolina 94-65

Team Outlook

Another undefeated season in the books & it’s been one that comes with marked less pressure than the one prior. The 111-game winning streak was cool to talk about, but the reality is, every individual season presents its own unique challenges. Part of mysolicitation of basketball as an artform versus a game or sport is in the journey, the process.

Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck & Moriah Jefferson were integral in the aforementioned streak & while continuing their legacy was what those kids said & believed they wanted, we all just want our own space, our own story.

This UConn team has scheduled tough, per usual, & rang the bell every time. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Recycled Tweet.

It’s disgraceful that anyone[who has vv likely never had to play the entirety of a 40-minute game at the highest level] feels the need to try & discredit this program every March,but realists know Geno & CD raised the bar. The rest of this year’s final four is indicative of the fact that the game is trending in the right direction.

Just remember, loyal women’s hoops fans:

Most “basketball bloggers,” as KD rightfully knighted thee, write from the perspective of someone who “wants in” on this hoop life & needs to ensure they’re received well by an audience, of their peers.

Meaning, the “cool thing” to do is troll women’s basketball with a politically correct kitchen joke. Jokes on them. Spaces continue to be created every single day & women, explicitly women of color [shouts to Felisha Legette-Jack], are way past due in this country & around the world.

Hate it or love it.

Keys to a Natty

Continue doing the things that have gotten you to the last four 11 consecutive years: playing as a connected unit that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

This season, versus, the parts are super Saiyan. Katie Lou Samuelson seems to have carved out her niche as the stud of the team & is now doing most of the things asked of you in your junior season at Connecticut.

Azura Stevens has helped this team weather the storms it has encountered thus far this season & will continue to be the case going forward. She spoke to the disdain of feeling helpless watching the streak last season & has grown more & more confident in her play with each game this season.

Key to an L

Saniya Chong had a stellar career for the Huskies & has gone on to carve out a niche for a Dallas Wings squad that should be competing at its highest level ever this season but her lack of experience in the big moment hindered her team in their national semifinal upset.

While Geno wants to put it behind them, realistically, he’s the one who hasn’t. With even more talent than last season, Geno continues to stubbornly ride his preferred 6. To their detriment. Suffering myself from shin splints since secondary school, it’s remarkable what Crystal Dangerfield has done thus far on them but any given day, she could simply just not feel up to it.

It will take another perfect storm, but while pundits misguidedly scream shame, UConn is more vulnerable than ever.

The issue is whether other teams can step up when the lights come on.

X-Factor

Kia Nurse was Lou before Lou arrived & has played a different role for this team every single year which is a testament to her will & competitiveness. Which also sometimes get the best of Kia & her senior teammate Gabby Williams.

The struggles for UConn recently have been associated with the weights & pressures associated with the program. Stories are written & interviews are completed & the human factor is forgotten. But if Nurse is able to focus & lead her team towards good habits during the tough times that are set to come, she will leave a champion.

What’s beautiful for Kia & Gabby anyway, is they leave champions regardless. This is going to be a really great weekend.

   James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

 James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame

Road to Final Four

Def Cal State University Northridge 99-81

Def Villanova 98-72

Def Texas A&M 90-84

Def Oregon 84-74

Team Outlook

Another day, another slay.

While UConn hums along at the apex, Muffet McGraw continues to evolve, whether willingly or forced, & her teams always transmuted her fierce, competitive spirit to the 94 x 50 hardwood canvas.

As a proponent of Marina Mabrey, point guard extraordinaire before it became a necessity, this run by she has been a joy to watch.

Also, Arike Ogunbowale has [finally] found the joy in involving her teammates. Jackie Young is a star-in-waiting.

Somebody pay Kathryn Westbeld, please.

Win or lose, this team got everyone’s best shot & everyone picked against them. Another stellar job.

Keys to a Natty

Due to a short bench & the lack of a natural point guard, Notre Dame cannot have an off night.

Realistically speaking? Two hot nights & they could walk away with the team’s first natty since 2001, when associate head coach Niele Ivey was setting the standard & killing the game from the head of the snake as McGraw’s point guard, as she denimly reminded us all.

Key to an L

The other three teams got here based on their capacity to be disruptive & take other teams out of what they do while Notre Dame relies on its zone & knowing player tendencies to try & contain other teams in order to get out in transition.

Of the teams left, ND is the team that controls its destiny the least, which isn’t at all slight or a bad thing.

The best four teams in the land all season got here. Only one can win.

X-Factor

Jackie Young is the one Irish player that could singlehandedly control the entire narrative. A player who has just wants to do everything she can to support veteran teammates, Young reminds me of myself.

Great coaching seeks, acknowledges, & rewards great leaders & selfless individuals.

Thankfully Young has been surrounded by great coaching that can identify, groom & mold these traits.

If McGraw & crew are able to tap into the Jewel Loyd-esquequalities that Young has in her first Final Four, Muffet will be dancing for a lot longer than she likely imagined after watching player after player go down with injury.

 Twitter: @A_Hooper25

Twitter: @A_Hooper25

Louisville

Road To Final Four

Def Boise State 74-42

Def Marquette 90-72

Def Stanford 86-59

Def Oregon State 76-43

Team Outlook

This team almost makes you forget that Mariya Moore decided to finish her career at Southern California with her sister.

That caliber small forward between players who have won ACC player of the year in Asia Durr & Myisha Hines-Allen?

Hopefully now you understand why there was some major concerns as to how this team would perform when the lights came on.

Beating Notre Dame is one thing.

The same way UConn did to ND for a stretch in the best women’s college basketball conference ever, eventually you get tired of the bully & you put them in their place.

However, in a one-and-done format, instead of being susceptible to the fact that they’ve seen teams capable of upsets as recent history has proven, Jeff Walz has continued to flex his proverbial muscle as a basketball savant while reminding us he likely has the best personality in the game.

Kudos to this program for taking advantage of the elite recruits who believed in their vision.

Every one of Walz’s classes thus far have been to a Final Four. #Goals Asia Durr turned down Notre Dame for Louisville.

So, nothing that had this season surprised me.

Keys to a Natty

Continuing to throw the first punch, being disruptive & utilizing their length & athleticism defensively to impose their will on teams. The toughest route to the natty belongs to Louisville.

It’s one thing to face a program for the first time but its another to face it when it’s at its absolute peak.

The same could be said in return for Mississippi State, by some, but the reality is, Louisville has been to two championship games & won conference titles in its past.

This MS State team has its tallest player ever & won the university’s first women’s conference championship ever after going to its first final four & natty championship game last season.

Oh yeah. Then, if you beat them, you get UConn.

So being able to continue this trajectory of taking teams out of their comfort zone, creating easy buckets & just letting the Cardinals play to their strengths will be crucial. Louisville’s struggles come when they’re forced to execute in the half court or recover from a deficit.

Key to an L

In both losses thus far, Louisville scored less than 60 points. The only two games they won scoring less than 60?

Versus NC State & Virginia, two programs on the rise, who butter their bread from the defensive end of the floor first, which is a must when you don’t have the elite talent of some of the other teams in the country.

In these games, Louisville was able to win because they simply had more talent than the opposition.

The two losses? UConn & Florida State.

Equal or greater talent quotient, depending on who you’re asking. So, if shots aren’t falling, the Walz’s family can go ahead & break out the skis. The three teams left are all of equal or greater talent.

X-Factor

Sam Fuehring is toughness personified. Basketball saved my life in ways that it seems she can relate & to watch her trajectory change & it show in her game was been an absolute masterpiece to watch. & she’s got to bring her A-game this weekend.

Likely tasked as the primary defender on the 6’7” McCowan, Fuehring will need to be active, engaged & disruptive.

Be physical without fouling & most importantly, attack on the offensive end.

The Myisha Hines-Allen v. Victoria Vivians All-American matchup will cancel itself out as will the Durr v William backcourt showcase.

So, the battle inside will tell it all for these two programs looking to make its mark as the program with “next.”

 DENNY MEDLEY-USA TODAY SPORTS

DENNY MEDLEY-USA TODAY SPORTS

Mississippi State

Road To Final Four

Def Nicholls State 95-50

Def Oklahoma State 71-56

Def NC State 71-57

Def UCLA 89-73

Team Outlook

Vic Schafer is the exactly the human that Mississippi State needed to take its program to the next level.

When he arrived in Starkvegas six years ago, this was a program that’s had solid years & solid players.

Struggled a bit to keep great players in the state but if you’ve ever visited Mississippi, you’d understand why.

If there was going to be a player that was going to change the trajectory of that program by staying home, it was always going to be Victoria Vivians.

The kid many remember hating interviews even going back to 8thgrade: starting & scoring 50 points a night with 4 defenders on her.

Adding ancillary pieces with a story to tell & a chip on their shoulders was perfect.

• A tiny, underrecruited point guard from Birmingham that proves heart out measures height every time.

• & on the opposite end of the spectrum, an oversized personality & frame, for a kid who just wanted to be accepted for who she was.

• A transfer looking to redefine family.

• Finally, the stirrer of the sweet tea. A shooter who knew & understood her role would always be bigger than her. The ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate teammate. The ultimate coach’s daughter.

The perfect storm. The only way to end this fairy tale is with a national championship & Vic did the work.

After two years of finding her way, McCowan has developed basketball skills.

Three years of incessant chucking have turned into Victoria Vivians, professional.

& Morgan William absolutely looked disgusted with the idea of scoring the ball all season. Until March rolled around.

Keys to a Natty

Play your game. Of the four teams here, you have the most unstoppable, most imposing weapon left.

6’7” changes the way any team you play approaches the game which means, for stretches, you’ll be able to make a team try to beat you using game plan B or C.

Imposing your will & drawing on the experiences from last year could prove crucial. Mississippi State absolutely had the momentum last season & should’ve won its natty then.

But the South Carolina factor proved too much & this senior class, finally conquered that hurdle this season, to an extent.

The SEC tournament final loss could prove beneficial as Schafer has maintained it didn’t take a loss to motivate his team, but they took one. One where McCowan was stuck on the bench for stretches with foul trouble. Avoid that issue, continue to be disruptive & secure the bag.

If only it were as simple as typing this sentence.

Key to an L

If & when McCowan leaves the floor, Mississippi State has to find a way to play above average or they will not have any success. As confident as this team has looked all season, they looked completely flummoxed on the floor against a South Carolina team it had finally beaten weeks earlier.

Needless to say, this team’s entire identity is tied to McCowan’s presence on the floor.

Still solid, what has opened the door for better offensive production has given in terms of defensive intensity historically for a Vic Schafer coached team.

Daughter Blair & play daughter Morgan “Itty Bitty” William are no slouches whatsoever defensively but redundant in size & in turn, hurt you explicitly when McCowan isn’t there to clean up messes.

The only team left in the tournament to have the entirety of its chances hinge on one player, why not have her be a 6’7” tree of good (offensive rebounds & alley-oops) & evil (blocks & intimidation.)

Goof Troop no more, McCowan might just be a natty champ vv soon.

X-Factor

Roshunda Johnson likely could’ve helped this team win a natty last season & based solely on the hierarchy of Morgan & Blair’s relationship, might have been the odd woman out of the lineup had Vic Schafer continued to play a bigger lineup & doing what many presumed he would in starting Aussie freshman Chloe Bibby.

Instead, Roshunda Johnson has both facilitated Vivians’ best season ever while also becoming the team’s most dynamic two-way player.

McCowan has improved tremendously but still is using her size to her advantage. Johnson can score from all three levels & has also taken on the opposing team’s best perimeter threat every night. She’s played consistently well this season & thus have the Bulldogs.

Picks

  • Mississippi State over Louisville

Expect two fantastic, well-played games by four programs here to stay. Asia Durr may struggle or will kill it in her first experience in the Final Four but don’t expect anything in between. Her 47-point outing in Columbus to beat Ohio State to open the season might be the best indicator but, in the end,, too much McCowan, too much Vivians. Too many Dawgs.

  • UConn over Notre Dame

Labored over this pick more than ever because an offensive juggernaut that wasn’t supposed to be here with nothing to lose & a coach who always believes she has the better team? Sounds like the makings for an upset & it likely would be in the men’s game.

In the end, the short bench & the long season finally catches up to Muffet & Co. But watch out now!

Jessica Shepard & Brianna Turner will be the most exciting frontcourt in the country & if the basketball gods are listening, Muffet will bring her point guards along slowly & leave Mabrey at the one next year. Sounds like a natty champion to me. Remember, Skylar Diggins came to South Bend as a two-guard who just wanted to shoot too. Hi Marina, this is year tape.

  • Mississippi State over UConn

Absolutely a championship or bust season for Vic Schafer as every offensive weapon not named McCowan will be out of eligibility after April 2nd. In addition, McCowan realistically still could leave early. & while the recruiting class coming in gives you shades of this current crop of elite humans, they’re young & these things take time. 3-time MS Gatorade player of the year Myah Taylor hasn’t even seen the floor this season & that’s a complete waste from a program perspective if you don’t bring home the trophy. Tasked with the big bully & on the greatest stage ever, here’s hoping Vic can pull it off. He put in the work to get better once he got the talent, which is where many coaches falter. Too proud to ask for help. To learn. To get better. Tools, talent. Confidence, opportunity. Put up or shut up, Vic. What you got for me?