It can be difficult to watch the Notre Dame Fighting Irish play and not think that Skylar Diggins was solely responsible for carrying the team to its 31-1 record.
In the big moments, it’s Diggins’ star that seems to shine the brightest and there’s little question that she willed the team to victory in their triple overtime win over the mighty UConn Huskies. It has been an amazing season to cap an amazing career that can help remind you of the joys of watching basketball players stay in college for four years.
Yet what makes Notre Dame such a dominant team, and the favorite to make the Final Four out of the Norfolk bracket, is that Diggins is not acting as the lone ranger guiding a team of inept role players – there’s talent up and down the roster that helps them maintain their success.
Favorite: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Natalie Achonwa’s combination of tough rebounding (12.07% offensive rebounding percentage) and very efficient scoring (59.32% true shooting percentage) gives Notre Dame a potent inside-out combination that can get the job done on both ends of the floor. Kayla McBride is a solid all-around player who does a little bit of everything, but is relied upon heavily as the team’s second highest usage player (26.66%) while also making a solid contribution on the boards for a wing (6.2% offensive rebounding rate). Freshman guard Jewell Loyd has stepped right in as a starter and, among other things, has a 8.47% offensive rebounding rate.
I could keep going – because Ariel Braker and Markeisha Wright deserve a shout out as well – but you’re probably starting to get the point: their whole rotation hits the boards hard. And when you have two high usage guards in Diggins and McBridge leading the way for the team, that’s a huge asset that shows up in their statistical profile.
They’re a balanced and versatile team with a rotation that might not be quite as deep as others but plays extremely hard on both ends of the floor. Other teams might approach what they do on paper, but few can execute defensively and put pressure on defenses in quite the way they do and maintain that over the course of 40 minutes.
It’s hard not to pick them to get through the region even if they do get challenged along the way.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some interesting games elsewhere in this bracket.
Upset watch: #11 Chattanooga vs. #6 Nebraska
Having watched Nebraska quite a bit this season, I would be quite surprised to see this one. But James Bowman made an interesting point that got cut from our staff predictions: sometimes the thing you look for in predicting an upset is a player on the underdog who has the potential to go off.
What you want to look for are lower-conference teams riding long winning streaks – these are teams that are unfamiliar with losing. If those same players have high-usage players that are top scorers, the higher-ranked team is danger of facing a scorer who gets a hot hand on game day.
You want to look at #11 Chattanooga in the Norfolk region who is taking on #6 Nebraska. The Mocs have a 19-game win streak, and are led by F Ashlen Dewart, who scores 15.5 ppg and has a [high] usage rate. I’m tempted to call the upset right there and now, but Nebraska went 8-2 in its last 10 games.
As it turns out, the Mocs have a pair of high usage scorers: 6-foot-3 redshirt junior Dewart, who pairs a 32.77% usage rate with a solid 55.10% true shooting percentage, and fellow 6-foot-3 redshirt junior Faith Dupree, who isn’t nearly as efficient but has a 30.61% usage rate. Put those two forwards with 39.6% 3-point shooter in senior Kayla Christopher and, yes, you have a recipe for an upset: Chattanooga just has ways to score extremely efficiently, particularly if Dupree has an efficient performance.
Further contributing to the notion that an upset is likely here: Ed Bemiss’ power ratings project the likelihood of Chattanooga winning the first round win over Nebraska as 60.92%.
Omni Ratings, however, sees Nebraska as favorite and I’d probably lean that way.
Wild card: Nebraska Cornhuskers
As James noted, Nebraska went 8-2 over its last 10 games and 11-2 over its last 13, which included a 10-game winning streak. When they get hot, they’re extremely hard to stop. The problem is that when they get cold, they can drop games they shouldn’t and that’s probably why they weren’t seeded at least a bit higher.
As described before Selection Monday, Nebraska is a team that has shown a tendency to drift out to the perimeter and the problem is that they only shoot 31.2% from the 3-point line – in each of their losses a combination of cold shooting and an inability to get to the line did them in. And where that stands out in their statistical profile is a low free throw rate.
A team with that profile could find itself in the Sweet 16, even with the prospect of having to face Texas A&M;in College Station should they meet in the second round. But they could also find themselves failing to win a game.
And to James’ point about high usage players doing what it takes to get an upset, Nebraska has one of their own to keep an eye on.
X-factor: Jordan Hooper, Nebraska Cornhuskers
If Nebraska has any shot to advance to the Sweet 16, it probably depends heavily on 6-foot-3 forward Jordan Hooper. Hooper is a high usage player (29.93%) who isn’t terribly efficient (51.46% true shooting percentage), but can be a huge matchup problem with her ability to score inside and outside (33.33% 3-point percentage). If she gets hot – particularly driving to the basket for free throws instead of settling for jumpers – she could negate whatever Chattanooga’s scorers bring to the table.
And that’s before we get to the Cornhuskers’ best player.
WNBA Draft spotlight: Lindsey Moore, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Entering the season, I had Moore as a top 25 WNBA prospect but wasn’t clear on just how good she could become. Her senior year has removed whatever doubt anyone should have: on paper, if we removed names, Moore might be the best pure distributor prospect in the draft this year.
Moore exceeds the threshold for a WNBA point guard prospect with a pure point rating of 3.29 and points per empty possession of 2.28 at a usage rate of 21.67% – in short, she’s very efficient as both a distributor and scorer despite shouldering a significant scoring burden as the team’s second leading scorer behind Hooper (15.1 ppg). She shoots 40% from the 3-point line, a free throw rate of 42.1%, and an outstanding 2-point percentage for a point guard of 52.2% – all told, that’s an excellent true shooting percentage of 60.86%.
Moore alternates between point guard and shooting guard with the Huskers and it’s uncertain whether she’d do that in the pros, but in a draft full of a suspect point guards after Diggins she should almost certainly be in the discussion as the fourth-best prospect in this draft. The primary concern, and it’s a major one, is whether she has the quickness to help her transition to the speed of the pro game, but if she failed after a senior season like that we’d have to re-think a whole lot of what we know about draft prospects’ statistics.
Darkhorse candidate: Oklahoma State Cowgirls
Of all the brackets in the tournament, the Norfolk region seems to be the least likely one to produce a major upset or darkhorse candidate (defined here as a team seeded seventh or lower that will break through to the Sweet 16). Ed Bemiss has Oklahoma State as the lower seed most likely to advance out of the second round and Omni Ratings and Sagarin have them rated in the top 15 in the nation – meaning they’re arguably underseeded – so let’s go with them.
In the first round they get DePaul, a favorable matchup for them: OSU is a much better rebounding team and takes care of the ball well.
The problem, of course, is that they would likely draw Duke if they find their way into the second round, which isn’t quite as favorable a matchup. To OSU’s advantage is that Duke without Chelsea Gray isn’t the deepest team, which helps to mitigate OSU’s own depth issues this season. But as with the previous upset candidates above, OSU has a pair of stars who could lift their teams to victory with big games: point guard Tiffany Bias and power forward Toni Young.
Bias is a lightning quick point guard who could give freshman Alexis Jones problems. Young is an athletic forward who can hit the boards and score inside and out – she’s a 20-10 threat on any given day.
If OSU can force Duke into turnovers and win the rebounding battle they can compete. But this would be quite a surprising upset were they to pull it off.
Game to watch: #8 Miami vs. #9 Iowa
This might be the most even matchup in the first round: every projection has it as a near wash. I’m going with Miami simply because of their rebounding ability, led by senior forward Morgan Stroman, and their ability to force turnovers. With almost everything else being equal, the team that wins those hustle points will probably win the game.
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