It comes down to this: Two teams with proud tradition will meet Monday night in Spokane Arena. The winner claims the title of NCAA Women's Basketball Regional Champion and gains the right to be one of the Final Four teams to compete for a national championship. The East Coast based West Region top seed, the Maryland Terrapins, will take on a Southeastern power, the Tennessee Lady Vols who happen to be the second seed in the region.
As if you need to know
How to watch:
WHO: Tennessee Lady Vols (30-5, 15-1 SEC) @ Maryland Terrapins (33-2, 18-0 B1G)
WHAT: Women's basketball NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal game
WHERE: Spokane Arena, Spokane, Wash.
WHEN: Monday, March 30, 2015, 9:00 p.m. Eastern
WATCH: In Person
Weekend of intrigue
People can view Monday's game from a number of angles capable of generating a reaction something like this:
Haven't we met before?
The first fascinating tidbit is that Maryland played each of the three teams in the Spokane Region during the 2005-06 season. Certainly almost everyone connected, even marginally, with the women's basketball program knows about the epic matchups with Duke that season that culminated in the 78-75 overtime win in Boston. But some may not recall that Maryland played both Tennessee and Gonzaga.
The meeting occurred in a three-game Thanksgiving weekend tournament called the Paradise Jam played in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Terrapins finished their weekend with a 2-1 record, cruising past the Zags, 88-50, in the first game and losing to Tennessee, 80-75, in the final game. The game with Gonzaga is the only time the programs have met. Oh, and the Terps' other win happened to come over Michigan State.
Knocking off the one seed
In Maryland's run to the Final Four last season, the road to Nashville passed through Louisville. Maryland entered the tournament as the region's fourth seed. Its task in the round of 16 was toppling the No. 1 seeded Tennessee Volunteers. The Terrapins did just that in a 73-62 win, propelled by a career-high 33 points from Alyssa Thomas. Could the Lady Vols be looking for a little payback?
Maryland is 4-10 all-time against Tennessee, but the two games described above are the only two meetings between the programs since Brenda Frese assumed the head coaching duties. Tennessee is 0-1 against Maryland in the Holly Warlick era.
The last class
On a bit more somber note, this year's senior class at Tennessee is the last class recruited to play for the legendary Pat Summitt who, sadly, retired due to early onset Alzheimer's disease. The official record shows that Warlick, a long-time assistant to Summitt, officially became head coach in the 2012-13 season but Summitt became symptomatic in the previous season and did very little coaching. Tennessee last appeared in a Final Four in 2008 and the seniors are using this as motivation and inspiration this season.
The curse of No. 1
Should Maryland win Monday night, it will make its third trip to a Final Four under Coach Frese. Neither time in the past did the Terps reach that level as a No. 1 seed. They were a fourth seed last year and a second seed in the national championship year of 2006. In fact, the last time Maryland played in the Spokane Regional, it did so as the top seed and lost 98-87 to Stanford in the regional final game.
The Terps were the top seed in the Raleigh Region the next year. They again lost in the final and fell one game short of reaching the Final Four. In reaching the game against Louisville, Maryland rallied from an 18-point deficit to defeat Vanderbilt behind 42 points and 15 rebounds from Marissa Coleman. (Keep that in mind.)
Who are the 2015 Tennessee Lady Vols?
Before anyone jumps on me, although most women's programs have dropped the term, the Tennessee women's basketball program officially retains the term Lady Vols. I will do the same.
Tennessee enters the game with a 30-5 record and finished 15-1 in the SEC. Its five losses (with RPI in parentheses) have come to Chattanooga (No. 19), Texas (No. 21), Notre Dame (No. 1), and twice to South Carolina (No. 3). Both losses to the Gamecocks came without the Lady Vols' leading scorer and rebounder Isabelle Harrison as did the early season road losses at Chattanooga and Texas. They have beaten Boise State, Pitt and Gonzaga to reach this point in the tournament.
The Lady Vols finished the season ranked second in RPI and had played the nation's most difficult schedule that included wins over Stanford and Oregon State. In addition to the Fighting Irish (who won 88-77 in South Bend), the Terps and Lady Vols have one other common opponent. Tennessee traveled to Rutgers and came away with a 55-45 win in mid December. The Terps won by 12 in their game in Piscataway and, of course, the last time Maryland lost was a 92-72 decision to Notre Dame on Dec. 3.
The Lady Vols are 8-2 over their last 10 games with both losses coming to South Carolina -- once in Columbia and once in the SEC Tournament. They rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Gonzaga 73-69 in overtime to set up the Elite Eight game with the Terrapins.
The Lady Vols have reached the Elite Eight by virtue of an efficient offense and a stingy defense. For the season they score 72 points per game (ppg) while conceding 56.3. Both are in the top 50 in the NCAA. They shoot 42.8 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent from three point range. Their effective field goal percentage (eFG) is a moderate 47.1.
However, the team the Terps will face is not the quite the same as the one that accumulated the season long stats. Maryland will face a team that has had to adapt to playing without its leading scorer and rebounder. And they have adapted very well.
Since losing Harrison
Those who have read my previews throughout the year know that I am a proponent of some advanced metrics and put a great deal of weight on the efficiency metric which measures points per possession (ppp) on both ends of the floor. Since Harrison's injury, Tennessee has become a more efficient offensive team and has lost very little in terms of defensive efficiency.
For the season, the Lady Vols score at a highly efficient 1.017 ppp. (Think of anything over .90 ppp as efficient.) Since Harrison's injury, they have improved that number to 1.049 (excluding Saturday's win). Defensively, they conceded 0.793 ppp before Harrison's injury and that has increased only to 0.798 since. However, in Maryland, they will face one of the nation's most efficient offenses. The Terps score at nearly 1.09 ppp.
Tennessee achieves these numbers through solid but not overly aggressive defense and strong rebounding. The Lady Vols force only about 16 turnovers per game with just over half of them coming from steals. For the season, Tennessee out rebounds its opponents by an 8.1 margin. Since losing their top rebounder, the Lady Vols have hit the boards even harder with a margin closer to plus 13.
It is this increased rebounding effort that has contributed measurably to Tennessee's improved offensive efficiency numbers. It isn't a great shooting team as evidenced by its 42.8 shooting percentage. (For comparison, Maryland shoots at 47.4 percent.) And the Lady Vols are not particularly reliant on the three point shot. Only 19.87 percent of their scoring comes from beyond the arc where they shoot 34.6 percent.) Tennessee has even less reliance on the long distance shot than Maryland which shoots precisely the same percentage. The Lady Vols average fewer than 14 three point attempts per game while Maryland launches a tad more than 15.
In addition to collectively crashing the boards, one other adjustment the Lady Vols have made since Harrison injury is to try to slow the pace of their games dropping from the low seventies to the high sixties. On the surface, it would seem that opponents would want to try to speed the game up. However, while both Pitt and Kentucky managed to play their games at a speedier pace, both also came out on the short end of the score.
Players to Watch
Ariel Massengale #5, senior, guard, 5'7". Massengale currently leads Tennessee in scoring at 11.4 ppg. She also hands out 2.5 assists per game (apg) and is one of five players on the roster to average more than two apg. She is the Lady Vols' main threat from behind the arc and is responsible for nearly 40 percent of Tennessee's long range shots. She makes 37.3 percent of those attempts. Since Harrison's injury, Massengale has increased her scoring to 13.4 ppg and her assists to 2.8 ppg.
Bashaara Graves #12, junior, forward, 6'2". Graves is another player who has answered the call since Harrison's injury. She averages 10.7 ppg for the season but has scored at a 13.2 ppg clip since her teammate went down. She's second on the Lady Vols' in rebounding at seven per game but has averaged closer to eight in the post-Harrison games. She is also one of the quintet who dishes out more than two assists.
Cierra Burdick #11, senior, forward, 6'2". Burdick leads Tennessee in rebounds at 7.6 per game and had a tremendous rebound game against a very big Gonzaga front line when she pulled down 15 off the glass. She's the third Lady Vols player to average double-figure scoring for the season and poured in 22 points against the Zags.
Wrapping it up
Once the brackets were announced, this is undoubtedly the matchup that most observers expected to see in the regional final. Maryland likely latched onto the top seed simply because of Harrison's injury that likely contributed to the two late season Tennessee losses. Despite their five losses, four of which have come without Harrison on the floor, the Lady Vols have put together an impressive season against the nation's most challenging schedule.
The Terrapins, however, have put together an impressive season of their own that includes a program record 27 consecutive wins. Both teams will bring plenty of confidence into Monday night's game. The Terps are coming off an emotionally satisfying win over their erstwhile ACC rival, Duke. The Lady Vols came back from a 17-point deficit to win what was, for all intents and purposes, a road game.
The difference may boil down to Maryland's depth. Tennessee plays essentially an eight-player rotation and are a bit short handed without Harrison. Its overtime win on Saturday was not only physically draining but required a significant expenditure of emotional energy as well. The question the Lady Vols will have to answer is can they sufficiently recover in the short turnaround to overcome a deep and talented Maryland squad. For the Terps, the question is can they live up to their top seed.