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2017 Final Four: The UConn Preview

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Mississippi State beat top-seeded Baylor to reach their first Final Four in program history. Their reward? Playing the team that has won 111 consecutive games and the last four national championships.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-Connecticut vs Mississippi State
Morgan William and the Bulldogs are looking to avenge last season’s loss to the Huskies.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State arguably had the toughest road to the Final Four this season. The Bulldogs beat a 27 win DePaul team in the Second Round, followed by Kelsey Plum, the all-time scorer in the sport’s history, and the Washington Huskies in the Sweet Sixteen - a match-up that every ESPN expert picked Plum and Washington to win. State used a big fourth quarter from Teaira McCown to beat the 3rd-seeded team by double digits.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Mississippi State vs Washington Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In the program’s first ever Elite Eight, they were greeted by the Baylor Bears. The top-seeded team in the Oklahoma City region was playing their fourth straight Elite Eight game, while the Bulldogs were playing on a brand new stage. Baylor had beaten their three previous opponents by an average of a little over 54 points a game. Sunday night’s match-up between the top two teams in the region in front of a national audience on prime-time television was an absolute classic. The up-and-coming Bulldogs versus the team that had been in this spot the past three seasons. Both teams battled back and forth, setting up an overtime period that State used to outscore the Bears by 9. Morgan William cemented herself in MSU history with her performance to move Mississippi State to their first ever Final Four.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Baylor vs Mississippi State Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Welcoming the Bulldogs to their first appearance on the biggest stage of college hoops are the UConn Huskies. You may have heard of them.

Game Info

  • Final Four: 2-seed Mississippi state (33-4) vs. 1-seed UConn (36-0)
  • Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. CT
  • ESPN 2
  • WatchESPN
  • American Airlines Center
  • Dallas, TX
  • Mississippi State Watch Parties: Mugshots in Starkville, Columbus, and Meridian

Preview

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-Connecticut vs Mississippi State David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Behind legendary coach Geno Auriemma and numerous loaded recruiting classes, UConn has won their last 111 games (including a 60 point domination against the Bulldogs in last year’s Sweet Sixteen) and the last four national championships. The biggest dynasty in sports awaits Mississippi State Friday night in Dallas.

UConn had the first three picks of the 2016 WNBA Draft, but have not missed a beat on their way to going 36-0 this season up to this point. Although their conference is considerably weak compared to the SEC, the Huskies have knocked off Elite Eight teams Florida State and Baylor, as well as Final Four particpant South Carolina during the course of the season. This team has won the most consecutive games in the history of college basketball for a reason, but their performances against the three aforementioned teams - in addition to Maryland and Tulane - show that teams can play with them.

The Huskies rank top-ten in both offensive PPG and defensive PPG, showing that they are elite at putting the ball in the basketball and preventing the opponent from doing the same. UConn has a scary lineup that features two first-team All-Americans and another on the second-team. Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were both selected to the first-team for the amazing seasons. Samuelson is 6-foot-3, averages 20.3 PPG, and shoots 41% from three. Her dynamic play will provide concerns for the Bulldogs’ defense. Gabby Williams was selected to the second-team, but her play this season arguably warranted a first-team spot. The 5-11 junior forward is third on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG and brings down 8.4 rebounds. The trio is the best in the nation and is a huge reason why UConn is a huge favorite to bring home their fifth-straight championship. With a roster that has four players averaging 12 or more points a game, the Huskies are almost impossible to stop.

State features one All-American selection: Victoria Vivians, who was named to the third-team by the Associated Press. Morgan William earned honorable mention honors. These two must continue their elite play to give the Bulldogs a shot.

Saying a team has the tools to knock off a program that seemingly cannot be beat seems contradictory; however, with all that being said, State’s size, depth, and defense makes them the type of team that has the tools to potentially give UConn headaches. State needs to continue their impressive scoring during the tournament and take care of the basketball to limit UConn possessions. The Bulldogs are ready to avenge last year’s blowout loss and have the pieces needed to theoretically pull off one of the greatest upsets ever, but it is going to have to take excellent play from every Bulldog that steps onto the court.

Games against Comparable Opponents:

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Baylor vs Mississippi State Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

UConn and Mississippi State obviously do not play the same schedule, but the two teams do have four common opponents. In addition, State was in the top 5 for the majority of the season, so comparing them to Florida State (a 2-seed, Elite Eight) and Maryland (3-seed, Sweet-Sixteen) is reasonable.

Comparing Mississippi State and UConn’s results versus common opponents.

Mississippi State and UConn both played South Carolina, Baylor, DePaul, and Texas.

State played South Carolina twice - both in the state of South Carolina - and played 7th-seeded DePaul and 1st-seeded Baylor in this month’s NCAA Tournament. While State dropped both contests to the Gamecocks, there is a legitimate argument to be made that they were minutes away from a sweep. State dropped a heart-breaker in Colonial Life Arena back in January. The Bulldogs had a shot to win, but foul trouble, a missed free-throw, and missed shot in the last seconds held the Maroon and White back in a close 64-61 loss on the road.

The two teams matched up again in Greenville, this time with the SEC Tournament Championship on the line. State had the advantage, and looked to be on their way to winning their first ever conference championship. But, the Gamecocks came storming back despite a five point deficit going into the final quarter, outscoring State 19-4 in the fourth. Despite the two losses, Mississippi State can beat a Final Four caliber team.

Going into the tournament, many experts seemed to think that Baylor, the top-seeded team in Mississippi State’s region, would be the best suited to knock off Goliath. The Bears had the size, depth, and the experience of playing in big games to support that argument. Baylor played them close at UConn’s place in November - falling by eleven - and were looking for another crack at the modern dynasty.

State had other plans.

After beating Kelsey Plum and Washington, Mississippi State entered their first ever Elite Eight with confidence. Despite falling behind early, State weathered the strorm and took the lead by the end of the first quarter. Morgan William had a legendary game, and Victoria Vivians had her best performance of the postseason. State has the size to compete with teams like Baylor, the depth to go 10 deep, and the players that thrive in big moments.

Both teams handled DePaul rather easily and both beat Texas - although UConn beat the Longhorns by 18 compared to State’s 11 point victory.

As far as teams UConn played that are comparable to the Bulldogs, the Huskies opened their season against Florida State, who earned a 3-seed in the tournament and reached the Elite Eight before falling to South Carolina. FSU played UConn to the wire before eventually falling 78-76. The Seminoles gave UConn their closest game of the season (and one of the toughest games during their ridiculous win streak). Maryland, a team that was given a 3-seed in UConn’s region despite a 32-3 record, also gave the Huskies all they could handle in a 6-point loss. The one thing State has an advantage over both Florida State and Maryland?

Size. State boasts 6-7 McCowan, 6-5 Okorie, and 6-3 Campbell in their front-court. Meanwhile, FSU and the Terps only have two combined players that are 6-5 or taller. This is an advantage Mississippi State can take advantage of.

How Mississippi State matches up with UConn:

According to Jeff Sagarin’s Women’s Basketball ratings, Friday evening’s match-up consists of two of the top five teams in the nation - UConn is rated 1, State is rated 5.

Mississippi State has beaten, per these rankings, the 2nd best team (Baylor), the 6th (Washington), the 11th (Texas), 22nd (DePaul), and the 23rd (Tennessee). State has also played South Carolina (3rd-ranked) twice.

UConn has defeated Baylor, South Carolina, Texas, DePaul, Maryland (8th), Florida State (9th), and UCLA (12th).

The Huskies are a perfect 18-0 against the top 50, while the Bulldogs are 15-4. Needless to say, both of these teams are battle tested against solid competition.

UConn averages 87.7 points per game, while holding opponents to 54.6. State averages 76.8 PPG and their defense limits teams to 57.2. Both squads feature strong defenses, while UConn scores more. However, with Schaefer making lineup adjustments, the Bulldogs have skyrocketed their scoring average to over 92 points during the tournament.

Mississippi State’s depth and size is where they can take advantage.

UConn has been playing with a rotation with only 6 players lately. For reference, Mississippi State played 10 against Baylor and 11 against Washington. In their six-player rotation, their front-court is especially thin. In fact, the Huskies played a four guard starting lineup versus UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. Yes, UConn has their players in top condition, but a team that’s bigger and deeper can play a big role in a tight game, especially if foul trouble becomes a concern. In UConn’s regular rotation, they only play one player listed 6-3 or taller.

As I mentioned earlier, McCowan, Okorie, and Campbell provide size that UConn simply will not be able to match. In addition, Vivians, Richardson, and Chapel are all over 6-feet as well. The champs obviously have supreme athletes that are used to winning and the big stage, but the game can be won down low. This is how Mississippi State must take advantage and control of throughout the game. The Huskies are going to make outside shots tempting, but the paint is where the game will be won or lost.

Keys to the Game

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Mississippi State vs Washington Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
  • Get McCowan going
    Sophomore center Teaira McCowan has been an important piece all season long for the Bulldogs - winning SEC Sixth-Woman of the Year. Her 6-7 height provides many mismatches to play with. But, she showed just how dominant she can be in the Sweet Sixteen. In the fourth quarter against Washington, McCown took over the game and exploded for 20 points to push State to an Elite Eight appearance. State needs to get her going early and often to put some pressure on the defending champs.
  • Vivians needs to score
    Victoria Vivians is a third-team All-American, but she started out on the bench to start the tournament. She has responded well. Vivians scored 24 points in the Elite Eight, in addition to 6 rebounds and a career-high 6 assists. If State wants to pull off the biggest win in school history, Vivians needs to take control and put the offense on her back.
  • Take care of the basketball
    Morgan William’s 41-point performance caught the eyes of everyone; however, her most impressive stat was how many times she turned the ball over: zero. William played 40 minutes Sunday night and made every single one count. Itty-bitty is what drives this offense, so her display of taking care of the ball and making good decisions is what gave State the edge over an elite Baylor team. Taking care of the basketball and limiting turnovers against a high-level defense will be a huge key in getting the win.

Match-ups to watch

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Mississippi State vs Washington Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
  • Teaira McCowan (C) / Chinwe Okorie (C) vs. Napheesa Collier (F)
    McCowan will get the attention down low, but Okorie needs to have a solid game, too. Okorie started all season at center for the Bulldogs up until the tournament, so her experience will be vital off the bench versus the thin and undersized Huskies. Collier is listed as UConn’s only forward in their starting lineup, and she leads the top team in the land in scoring with 20.6 PPG. With UConn’s limited rotation, the two women down low for State must use their size to their advantage to score, defend, and even get Collier into foul trouble.
  • Morgan William (G) vs. Crystal Dangerfield (G) / Kia Nurse (G)
    Morgan William’s 41-point, 7-assist, 0-turnover game in the Elite Eight caught everyone’s attention, including Geno Auriemma. William is who drives the Bulldogs with her fearless attitude and intelligent decision making. Although scoring 40 in back-to-back games is not something that can be expected, Mississippi State desperately needs their floor general to have another big game - whether it is through scoring, finding open teammates, defending, or just managing the game. Dangerfield is listed as the same height as William - five-foot-five. Dangerfield comes off the bench and averages over 6 points and a tad under 4 assists. Nurse is listed at 6-foot, so she obviously holds the size advantage in this match-up. Nurse gives the Huskies 12 points and will certainly be given the task of limiting William Friday evening. This match-up will go a long way in how this game plays out.
  • Victoria Vivians (G) vs. Gabby Williams (F)
    Vivians is State’s lone All-American, while Williams had numbers that warranted a first-team selection. Vivians seems to be getting into a groove at the right time, which is a significant positive for the Bulldogs. When her shot is falling, Mississippi State is a completely different team and becomes a bigger threat on offense. Williams, meanwhile, is big time forward for the Huskies. Almost averaging a double-double, the junior star is a big time play-maker that impacts games in more ways than one. This battle will either help State keep it close or risk falling behind by too much to recover.

X-Factors

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Baylor vs Mississippi State Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
  • Blair Schaefer (G)
    The coach’s daughter has played big thus far in the NCAA Tournament. Inserted into the starting lineup for the first two games of The Dance, Schaefer responded by averaging 19.5 points. Back to her original role off the bench, the junior guard has the ability to add some scoring and three-point shooting for the offense. Schaefer needs to be a spark for the Bulldogs on Friday.
  • Dominique Dillingham (G)
    The best defender on the roster, Dillingham is a huge reason why Mississippi State is in the Final Four. The senior has a tough mindset to take charges and make it hard on the opposing team’s best player. There was a noticeable difference from when she was on Kelsey Plum in the Sweet Sixteen compared to when she was not. The Bulldogs need their defensive leader to be herself in the big game.

Final Thoughts

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Baylor vs Mississippi State Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State is up against, without a doubt, their biggest and toughest challenge yet. They passed the test against an elite scorer in Kelsey Plum. They passed the test against an extremely talented and deep Baylor team that was looking to break through to get to the Final Four in their home state.

Can they pass this one?

Predicting a team that has won over one-hundred games in a row to lose is crazy. They are used to the big stage, the senior class only has one loss(!), and their coach is the greatest in the sport’s history. Mississippi State needs elite games from every player that gets minutes. Vic Schaefer is a great coach and is most definitely hungry for a chance to redeem himself after last year’s performance. I am confident he will come up with a strong game plan and have his team ready for battle.

In order for State to pull off the victory, I believe the Bulldogs will need a huge performance from Teaira McCowan, another impressive showing by Morgan William, and a scoring outburst from Victoria Vivians. The Bulldogs need a performance similar to Darryl Wilson’s in the 1996 Sweet Sixteen against Ray Allen and one-seeded UConn. I am looking forward to seeing how the team handles the big stage and plays with a chip on their shoulder.

Our writers took a shot at predicting how we believe this game plays out. While I like the potential advantages State may have on paper, I believe UConn will just be too much. Schaefer has the team ready, but UConn is UConn and the Huskies pull away to advance to yet another championship game. Prove the world wrong, ladies.

Vic Schaefer definitely seems ready for the challenge:

Hail State!