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Women's National Championship: Baylor vs. Notre Dame Preview

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Now that the Kentucky Wildcats won the championship that seemed inevitable last night in the men's tournament, the only thing left in the world of college basketball is the women's national championship game tonight at 7:30 PM CST on ESPN. That game pits the undefeated Baylor Lady Bears against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, two number one seeds from opposite sides of the bracket led by All-Americans: Baylor's towering Brittney Griner and Notre Dame's electrifying Skylar Diggins. Both programs seek to write last year's wrongs; Baylor to finish off the first undefeated 40-0 season in major college basketball history after losing last year in the Elite 8, and Notre Dame to avenge last year's national championship game loss to Texas A&M.

As I noted on Sunday night following Baylor's win over Stanford in the Final Four, this game is an SEC football fan's dream because it has already been played before this year. Baylor won that first matchup, which took place on November 20, 2011, by the score of 94-81, but the game was actually much more lopsided than that. Brittney Griner led the way for Baylor in that game with a dominating performance, racking up 32 points on 14-18 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Before a parade of free throws and 3 pointers in the last few seconds, Baylor actually led by 19 with 1:40 left in the game and pulled Griner from the game completely. Someone on ESPN, I can't recall who, described that game as "closely contested." That could not be further from the truth.

When I wrote up my first post about the game against Stanford, I stated my opinion that Stanford was the second best team in the country coming into this Tournament and the second-best team left playing in the Final Four. I still believe that to be the case. Skylar Diggins is good, but she's not Nneka Ogwumike, and she doesn't have anyone backing her with the same level of skill as Nneka's younger sister Chiney. What I feared from Stanford was their talent in the backcourt because of those two players, and though I admittedly haven't watched every game Notre Dame has played this season, I just don't see that same ability. Notre Dame's strength is its guards; its best players are the aforementioned Diggins and seniors Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory. Those are all perimeter players.

That's not to say, however, that this will be a cakewalk for the Lady Bears. Notre Dame is an extremely good team and Skylar Diggins is an incredible player. Let's head below the jump to find out what Baylor has to do to win and for more info about this game, including previews from around the web.

First, let me thank Nate Parham of SwishAppeal for pointing me in the right direction for advanced statistics about the women's game. You may recall that I mentioned how impressed I was with the statistics they use over there at SA, and he contacted me shortly thereafter to let me know about WBBState.com, the source for that information. Here is the WBBState page for the National Championship game tonight. That page should give you just about any statistics you would ever want to know about this game, and the team pages for Baylor and Notre Dame should give you everything you ever wanted to know about these two teams.

A few notes:

  • Even though Skylar Diggins is an efficient offensive player, Notre Dame's calling card this season has been their defense, particularly from beyond the arc. ND's opponents only made 19.22% of their 3PAs this season. That's even lower than the 29.08% made by Baylor's opponents. That's really good.
  • Natalie Novosel is the only member of the Irish team that shoots better than 40% from 3 (41.9%), but Brittany Mallory actually took more 3s this season than she did. Mallory seems to be a volume shooter-- she only makes 31.9% of her 3s-- and she caught fire against UConn in overtime to send the Lady Huskies to their demise.
  • The 6-2 junior forward Devereaux Peters is probably going to draw the responsibility of fronting Griner most of the time as she's the only regular of any size in Notre Dame's backcourt. Peters averages 11.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game. 6-3 sophomore Natalie Achonwa only saw about 10 minutes per game this season but might be called on in this game to contribute her 5 fouls to helping stop Griner in the paint.
  • Skylar Diggins does it all for Notre Dame. She leads her team in points (16.8), assists (5.8), steals (2.8), points per shot (1.17), offensive efficiency (18.5), and true shooting percentage (59.5). She doesn't turn the ball over, she rarely fouls, and she makes a decent percentage of her threes (35.2%). For Notre Dame to win, they will have to keep the ball in her hands and let her make plays. That makes the play of our opposing guards, particularly Sims and Madden, extremely important in this game. They have to keep Diggins under control.

As I said above, Notre Dame is an extremely good team. Their defensive ranks (available in the graphics on the WBBState page I linked above for the game tonight) are some of the best in the country. They are extremely efficient offensively. They don't give away points at the free throw line, and they don't really turn the ball over. Their biggest problem, however, is that, according to the rankings, Baylor is better at all of those things. Look at the defensive rankings for Baylor on that page. Basically 1s across the board. Kim Mulkey preaches team defense from the moment her players get on campus until the moment they leave and everywhere in between. With the 6-9 Griner patrolling the paint, this is a defensive team unparalleled in women's college basketball. Oh, and they just so happen to be one of the best offensive teams, as well.

I think Baylor is going to win tonight and win handily because they are the better team. They've won 39 in a row to get here without letting anything get in their way, and I don't see that stopping. Skylar Diggins is a great player and Notre Dame a great team, but they're simply not great enough. But don't take my word for it, let's see what people around the web that know a lot more than I do say about this game.

WBB, Notre Dame Battle for NCAA Title - Baylor Bears Official Athletic Site - BaylorBears.com
Looking to become the first NCAA basketball ever to go 40-0, Baylor takes on Notre Dame in the championship game of the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship, Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m. CT. Game will be nationally televised on ESPN.

Statistical Analysis: How Mallory's Calming Presence Helped Notre Dame Get To The NCAA Women's National Championship - Swish Appeal
Although it didn't really show up on the scoreboard, Notre Dame really struggled to establish any sort of rhythm in their normally-fluid offense in the first half against UConn in the Final Four. But with the ball in Brittany Mallory's hands toward the end of the first half, the Fighting Irish seemed to calm down a bit.

Three keys to the women's hoops national title for Baylor Lady Bears - Ann Killion - SI.com
One hundred and thirty-four days ago, Notre Dame and Baylor met with the same goal -- the national championship game -- and the same slogan: unfinished business. Their 2011 seasons had both ended unhappily and both to Texas A&M: Baylor's loss came in the regional final and the Irish fell in the title game.

Three keys to the women's national title for Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Richard Deitsch - SI.com
DENVER -- How do you beat Goliath? You engage her. That was the buzzword among Notre Dame players and coaches when asked about the game plan for the NCAA championship game against Baylor on Tuesday night. The phrase "engage Griner" came up about as often as "excited to be a Jet" did with Tim Tebow during his introductory news conference.

Theme of unfinished business drives Notre Dame, Baylor – USATODAY.com
Disappointing ends to their seasons a year ago major motivation for reaching for the top in 2012

Women's Final Four 2012 -- On and off court, Brittney Griner rises above - ESPN
From the physical pushing and pulling in the paint to the personal attacks on Internet message boards and social media, Baylor's Brittney Griner perseveres.

Women's Final Four 2012 -- Skylar Diggins-Odyssey Sims clash will be deciding factor - ESPN
Sure, Brittany Griner will be the focus for many in Tuesday's Notre Dame-Baylor clash. But the game within the game between guards Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims will ultimately decide who wins the national title.

Women's Final Four 2012 -- A quick look at Notre Dame-Baylor title matchup - ESPN
Tuesday night's title matchup between Notre Dame and Baylor pairs two teams with distinct styles that are looking to make history.

Scout.com: Championship Preview - Baylor vs Notre Dame
Tuesday night in Denver, the two top seeds in the tournament meet for the second time to decide who is the best this year.

I'll update this post throughout the day as more sites/blogs begin publishing previews for tonight's game.