December 28, 2012
Watch the right hand of Chiney Ogwumike.
And even with Tara VanDerveer's pledge not to go ugly, watch for bruises on the UConn players.
UConn and Stanford will run great offense Saturday at Maples Pavilion. They always do. The road map for Geno Auriemma and VanDerveer followed to their induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame demanded precise, creative and unselfish ball movement. The two took the ballet to Springfield. They didn't take the dump truck.
"UConn and Stanford are the two prettiest teams to watch when they're playing well," said Doris Burke, the ESPNU analyst for the showdown between the nation's top-ranked teams. "They're aesthetically pleasing.
"Geno and Tara have a definitive idea of who they want taking the most shots. They put their players in the best position to score. They don't turn the ball over. They have a vision of how the game should be played, both from a strategic standpoint and in terms of a purity and honor of the game. They play it to a standard, not a score."
Having said all that, maybe in April we'll look back and say that this wasn't the real No. 1 vs. No. 2. Maybe we'll look back and say that Stanford only beat Baylor by two in Hawaii in November because Odyssey Sims missed 36 minutes with a hamstring injury. Maybe in April, we will be burning incense at the altar of Brittney Griner's greatness.
This is still December. Stanford is No. 1. UConn is No. 2. And one of the teams is going to have to trip up the other's ballet. Somebody is going to have to throw a wrench in a purring engine of those motion offenses. Like we said: Watch the right hand. Watch for bruises.
"I think [the biggest key of the game] will be the Kelly Faris-Chiney Ogwumike matchup," said Rebecca Lobo, who'll serve as the ESPNU sideline reporter. "I think Chiney is what makes that team run. Kelly did a really nice job defending her a year ago. She is really the only player UConn has that defensively is a good matchup for Chiney. For UConn to beat Stanford I think Kelly has to have a great game defensively.
"She has to make things hard for Chiney. She can hit the free-throw line jumper, but where Chiney is so tough is putting the ball on the floor especially going right with a dribble or two to the basket. She's probably the best offensive rebounder in women's college basketball. Kelly has to keep her off the offensive glass. Chiney is just a monster."
A monster with some new flight patterns.
"Stanford is running a different offense this year, too," Lobo said. "They're not running the triangle. They're running a bit more Princeton offense, more pick and roll and a lot of it goes to Chiney. She is going to have her hands on the ball a lot."
Asked the same question about the No.1 key, Burke took a similar track.
"If UConn's defense can disrupt the rhythm and flow of Stanford, they have a great chance to win," she said. "You need to take away their catch and shoot transition opportunities. You let them catch and shoot, they will beat you.
"I think they'll sit heavy on Chiney's right hand. Try to take that away. Give her a jump shot at 15 feet as opposed to a right-handed drive. And you have to take away her offensive rebound opportunities."
Ogwumike averages 21.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, including five on the offensive end.
"I'm sure Kelly will end up guarding Chiney and I'm sure that will happen frequently," Auriemma said. "But one of the problems is if you put Kelly on her, Stefanie [Dolson] is stuck guarding most of the time on the perimeter. We'll have to be smart about it.
"I'm not worried about Kelly defensively. I don't think there's anyone in the country she can't guard. We've just got to be careful what the other matchups are. Helping ourselves in one area can hurt ourselves in another."
Lobo raved about this UConn team's chemistry. The more she watches tapes of other teams around the country, she said, the more she appreciates UConn's motion offense and unselfish passing. Burke said because of his coaching ability, Auriemma has scored 25 to 30 win seasons with teams that didn't play the prettiest offense, or had the greatest talent.
"But this team to me is vintage UConn," Burke said. "What strikes me is how they move the ball and how many different scoring options they have. They beat you with interior play. They beat you with exterior play.
"You have to take transition away from UConn or they can make you look foolish, it's like layup lines. And if I'm Stanford, I'm looking at those 90 threes UConn has made. Five players have double-digit threes. They're shooting at a 40 percent clip. You better contest the three."
We saw what Maryland's and Penn State's recent response was to offensive flow and so much depth. They flexed their muscles. They prayed for the referee to bury their whistles.
"Penn State and Maryland both showed that it can be effective in disrupting UConn's offense by being physical," Lobo said."That's how Stanford played UConn two years ago when they ended the streak. Tara has big players who can play a physical brand of basketball. I would imagine they will play as physically as they can."
Said Burke, "Remember when Chiney took on Maya Moore and how physical she was. Stanford has that ability at certain positions. That's' where Mikaela Ruef was so integral against Baylor."
It also will be interesting how Stanford decides to attack freshman Breanna Stewart. Will they make her life miserable by trying to bog her down with physical play?
"Breanna Stewart has been impressive," Lobo said, "although I don't think she has shown what she can do."
"This is where I get crazy," Burke said. "I used to nitpick Maya Moore for not getting to the free-throw line more. What strikes me about Breanna is it doesn't look to me that she knows exactly how good she is. She's getting 17 and seven and it's an easy 17 and seven. There's still times she looks like she's bouncing around the floor and not necessarily dominating as much as she can. There's not a place she can't score from."
Will the whistles blow? Will the bruises mount? For her part, VanDerveer steered all talk away from the rough stuff.
"Philosophically, I think basketball is different than wrestling, hockey and football," VanDerveer said. "I think there is a part for physical play, but not at the expense of the athleticism and skill our team has. Quite honestly, our team has never said we're going to try to beat you up instead of beat you at basketball.
"I feel the game has become too physical and it doesn't highlight the great skill of the female players that people pay good money to come and watch. From my point of view, it will be a basketball game."
Responded Auriemma: "That's great to hear. Because last time we were here  we probably could have used some helmets. That was one of the more physical games played that year."
My view? Watch Ogwumike's right hand.
And watch to see if UConn bruises.