It's on to Louisville. In this case, I'm referring to the opponent, not the city. The Maryland women's basketball team is already in the city and the task before them Tuesday is to take on the 33-4 Louisville Cardinals, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Tournament's promised land - the Final Four. The Cardinals, who will be playing not only in their hometown but on their home court, are the third seed in the region while the Terrapins are seeded fourth.
Maryland advanced to the Elite Eight by virtue of their 73-62 win over top seeded Tennessee while Louisville downed seventh-seeded LSU 73-47. The Cards' only loss this season to a team that didn't have UConn on their jerseys was a five point loss at Kentucky in early December. The three losses to Connecticut were by twenty points twice and once by seventeen.
Before Jeff Walz left Maryland as Brenda Frese's top assistant to take the head coaching position at Louisville (where he's taken the Cardinals to two national championship games), the Terps and Cards had never met. Since Walz became head coach seven years ago, the squads have met twice -- both times in the NCAA Tournament. They've split those two meetings, with Louisville taking a 77-60 win in a regional final in Raleigh in 2009, and Maryland evening the series with a 72-68 win in the second round of the Tournament in 2012. That game was played in College Park, and all five of Louisville's starters played in that match-up -- the Terps return four players from that squad.
The defensive challenge
In facing the Cardinals, the Terps will once again be confronted by one of the better teams in scoring defense in the NCAA. Louisville yields 58.9 points per game and does so by sound perimeter defense that generates turnovers and forces their opponents out of their comfort zone. On average, they force over 19 turnovers per game or a turnover on one of every four possessions somewhat better than Maryland whose foes turn the ball over about twenty-two percent of the time.
The Cards are in the top thirty in scoring and shooting percentage defense and they do so without an intimidating shot blocking presence on the inside. Breaking it down a bit further, they yield about 0.79 points per possession compared to 0.85 for the Terps. Interestingly, both teams have identical field goal and effective field goal percentage numbers on defense with Louisville's 36.6 percent somewhat better than Maryland's 38.1 percent. (Remember that EFG% adjusts for the fact that a three point basket is worth 50% more than a standard field goal.)
Comparing the offenses
Though the Cardinals are a stout defensive squad, Maryland's offensive efficiency will challenge Louisville's defense. Scoring at a clip of nearly 83 points per game, Maryland is ninth best in the NCAA. Louisville is twenty-first scoring 79 per game but they are one of only three teams to have scored sixty or more against UConn this season. As you might expect, the Terrapins' field goal percentages are slightly better than the Cardinals'. The Terps connect on 48.6 percent of their shots overall and 36.2 percent from behind the arc compared to 45.8 and 35.6 percent respectively for the Cards. With respect to EFG%, Maryland holds a 52.7 percent to 52.1 percent advantage.
However, points per possession is the statistical measurement that may pose the greatest challenge for Louisville. Only Connecticut and Notre Dame score more efficiently than the Terps' 1.11 points per possession. While the Cards do land in the top fifteen registering 1.05 in this metric, they Will Likely need to control the Terps' offensive efficiency. Expect Walz to constuct a game plan that will try to limit Alyssa Thomas' effective touches.
Neither team gets to the free throw line particularly well but the Terps generally convert their free throws at a better rate. Maryland shoots 74 percent on 20.6 attempts per game while Louisville takes one more but connects on only 67.4 percent. It's worth noting, though, that the Cardinals have stepped up their percentage in the postseason shooting at a 76 percent clip in their six tournament (3 AAC and 3 NCAA) games. Maryland, on the other hand has stepped back a bit making just over 70 percent in their four postseason games. The Terps have been more on the mark in the NCAA Tournament returning to their season average.
Cleaning up the glass
As noted in a previous story, under Brenda Frese, Maryland has been among the best rebounding teams in the NCAA. Both this season and this NCAA Tournament have done little to dispel that. Despite facing two of the best rebounding teams in the country in Texas and Tennessee, Maryland has maintained their dominance on the boards out rebounding their opponents by nearly twelve per game. Louisville has also been consistent in tournament play with their seven rebound edge mirroring the advantage they held during the season.
The Terps are generally bigger inside than Louisville whose tallest starter is 6'2" Sara Hammond though their leading rebounder is 6'1" Asia Taylor. Taylor grabs 7.2 boards per game while Hammond adds six. The Terps starting front line is 6'3" Brionna Jones, 6'4" Alicia DeVaughn, and 6'2" Alyssa Thomas with 6'4" Malina Howard among the first off the bench. The rebounding battle is one the Terps should win.
Ten on seven?
Another place Maryland has an advantage is their depth. While Walz has used ten players, he generally limits his rotation to seven with guards Tia Gibbs and Jude Schimmel getting the bulk of the minutes off the bench. Frese has shortened her rotation some in the postseason by keeping players on a short leash when they haven't been productive and allowing greater run to the players who have been effective. Thus, players like Tierney Pfirman and Katie Rutan have seen decreased playing time while Laurin Mincy and Malina Howard have seen more minutes on the floor. The Terps' bench has played an important role in their last two wins.
The biggest advantage
So, I've just taken nearly a thousand words to say this: Louisville has an edge on defense. Maryland is deeper and better offensively and on the boards. The Cardinals do have one other advantage and it could be significant. They are playing at home. The Cardinals moved from Freedom Hall to the KFC Yum Center for the 2010-2011 season. In four seasons there they have lost only seven times while winning fifty-five (that's 88.7 percent, folks). This may be the toughest barrier for Maryland to overcome.
The player to watch for Louisville is Shoni Schimmel. The 5'9" senior guard leads the Cardinals in scoring and assists. Just as Maryland's offense revolves around Alyssa Thomas, the other Cardinal players are the orbiting bodies around Schimmel's sun. Schimmel takes 23 percent of Louisville's shots and 43 percent of their three point attempts. She's very effective behind the arc making 37.5 percent of those tries. However, as teams have begun to press her more on the outside, she has developed an effective mid-range jumper and is surprisingly quick and exceptionally creative in finding space to get her shot. Schimmel also leads the Cards making 82 percent from the free throw line. The Terps will need to work to control her.
The Cardinals' front line of Hammond and Taylor are Schimmel's main complements. Both average over ten points per game and both make over fifty percent of their shots. The Terps will need to challenge them inside and limit their efficiency.
One other player to watch is Tia Gibbs. Gibbs comes off the bench as Louisville's designated shooter. She makes nearly forty percent of her three point shots and 124 of her 209 shot attempts have come from from beyond the arc.
Keys to the game
The first key for Maryland could be controlling the crowd. The Cardinals averaged over 9,000 per game for the season and Sunday the Yum Center had over 11,000 in attendance. And, as noted above, Louisville doesn't lose there often.
If they are to win Tuesday night, the Terps will need better play from Lexi Brown. Though she scored 14 points in the win against Tennessee, the freshman had only one assist and an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Walz will have noticed this and will try to pressure Brown into continuing to make poor decisions.
Maryland should also look to exploit their advantage inside. If the Terps can continue to dominate the glass and can get effective scoring from their front line, it will go a long way toward securing a Terrapins win. Again, however, look for Louisville to press Maryland's guards and make entry passes difficult.
And the last piece, of course is Alyssa Thomas. The Terps' All-American played 38 minutes on Sunday and put out tremendous effort all over the floor. She had a phenomenal offensive efficiency rating of .486 per possession. For comparison, Meighan Simmons who scored 31 for Tennessee, had a .262 efficiency rating. It remains to be seen how much she has left in her tank and whether she can will her team to the first Final Four of her career and Maryland's first since the 2006 national championship run.