When Connecticut met Notre Dame in early December, the heavyweight matchup was billed as a possible championship game preview. When the Huskies traveled to South Carolina in early February, it was viewed as another Final Four preamble.
When Syracuse and Washington played in Las Vegas at the South Point Shootout in front of a few hundred fans it was … well, just another game, nothing more than a solid intersectional matchup between two good teams at one of many Thanksgiving weekend college basketball events with no television coverage. It was as far from the Final Four, both on the calendar and in prospects, as nearly any game could be.
Or so we thought.
Sure, even back then both were considered solid bets to make the NCAA tournament, but no one in the building that day used the words “Final Four” unless the conversation shifted to Connecticut, as so many women’s basketball discussions can.
Even after Syracuse rode an 11-game winning streak to the ACC tournament final before losing to Notre Dame, and Washington reached the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, each was given little chance to still be standing on the sport’s final weekend. Before the NCAA tournament tipped off, FiveThirtyEight put Syracuse’s chance of reaching Indy at 6.0 percent. Washington was at 0.2 percent.
But here we are. Syracuse and Washington have each reached their first Final Four.
Syracuse won 66-62 on that Friday afternoon in Las Vegas, largely on the strength of its defense. After building a 36-22 halftime lead and a 10-point advantage after three quarters, the Orange held on late, with point guard Alexis Peterson making a couple of big plays — as she would go on to do many times over the course of the season. Both teams struggled badly on offense and the game was ugly at times.
Two very different teams will take the court in Indianapolis.
Why they’ll win the national title
Syracuse: When Quentin Hillsman became Syracuse’s head coach 10 years ago, his early goals were to upgrade the talent level and change the attitude. Winning needed to be the culture, not a novelty. Over time, he implemented the 2-3 zone that he picked up from men’s coach Jim Boeheim. There was also the deeper dive into analytics that said press and shoot more 3-pointers.
Those are now the characteristics that define Syracuse basketball and the ideals that have gotten the Orange to four consecutive NCAA tournaments (the program had made three in its history prior to Hillsman’s arrival).
At Syracuse, field goal percentage no longer matters. It’s about volume possessions and volume shot attempts. The Orange do that with three basic tenets: create turnovers, get the ball on the rim and rebound. This season — specifically during the second half of this season — those all came to together to begin creating significant wins.
After blowout losses to Notre Dame and Louisville in late January, the Orange were 3-3 in the ACC. They followed that by beating 14th-place Boston College by just one point. Then something clicked. A good win at Miami got Syracuse back on the right footing. The Orange didn’t lose again until that ACC tournament final to the Irish.
They haven’t lost since, as their style really began to work with some consistency. Syracuse — which has a program-best five victories over ranked teams this season — ranks first in the country in forcing turnovers, is fourth in offensive rebounds and is third in 3-point attempts per game.
Washington: Notre Dame and its five straight Final Four appearances was the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Regional. Maryland, which had been to two in row, was the No. 2 seed. Kentucky was the No. 3 and virtually playing at home at Rupp Arena.
None of that mattered to Washington, which emerged unscathed to become the first No. 7 seed to make the final weekend since Minnesota in 2004. The Huskies took out the Terrapins and Wildcats — both in their home cities — watched Stanford stun Notre Dame and then beat the Cardinal for the second time in three weeks to get here.
Washington’s run has been as surprising and unusual as would be expected from a No. 7 seed. The Huskies didn’t just beat those teams, they controlled the games virtually from start to finish. Certainly those were upsets, but not at all flukes.
The Huskies rely heavily on a 5-foot-8 point guard to captain the ship, have essentially no bench and have a dominant rebounder who doubles as a key 3-point threat whose feet almost never leave the floor.
Kelsey Plum monopolizes the ball for the Huskies, but that is a good thing. She is the nation’s third-leading scorer at 26.2 points per game and has a basketball IQ hard to match and a nonstop motor.
That’s especially important because the roster was hit by injuries, forcing coach Mike Neighbors into a short rotation. It is now so short that only six players are seeing action in the tournament. Plum and seniors Talia Walton and Alexus Atchley, a former walk-on, have played every second of the tournament, all 160 minutes.
Chantel Osahor, a 6-2 junior, is the one starter who gets a breather. If Syracuse is the most unique team in the Final Four, Osahor is certainly the most unique player. She routinely trails transition play with the speedy Plum advancing the ball upcourt, but that often puts Osahor in perfect position for a top-of-the-key 3-pointer, which she fires off flat-footed and at a line-drive trajectory. Yet Osahor is a 36.1 percent shooter from deep.
Osahor was also the top defensive rebounder in the Pac-12 and grabs more than 11 boards per game. That number has jumped to 15 per contest in the tournament against three teams — Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford — with good size up front.
The Huskies are the quintessential example of the team that is playing its best when it matters most.
1. First-timers on the bench: Neighbors and Hillsman are friends. They came through the coaching ranks in a similar fashion at the same time. They communicated regularly throughout this season after playing each other in Vegas. They both have used numbers and statistical analysis to fashion their coaching approaches and have built great two-way trust with their players.
When the teams met back in November, both were still in the feeling-out process with their clubs. Neighbors viewed Syracuse as the much better team that day, and the Orange did build a 19-point lead at one point in that game.
Meticulous preparation and film study is a big part of what each coach and his staff do. In that matchup, Hillsman tweaked his zone to have Peterson shadow Plum anywhere near the top of the key and severely overplay her dominant left hand. Plum’s ability to penetrate was stymied, and she struggled much of the game. She finished with 19 points, many coming late, but made only 2 of 7 3-pointers and had eight turnovers.
How the coaches adjust or react to that strategy and how they handle being under the bright lights of the Final Four for the first time should play a major role in the outcome.
2. Zone vs. zone: Both teams play a 2-3 zone the majority of the time. For Washington, it largely stems from necessity. Neighbors doesn’t have any reliable reserves to turn to, so the zone keeps his regulars fresher and less prone to foul trouble.
Syracuse plays zone because it offers the ideal pairing to the full- and three-quarter-court press and zone is the preferred defense in Central New York.
Both have been extremely effective in the tournament. The Orange’s four opponents have shot a combined 38.6 percent from the field. The Huskies have been even stingier at 37.1 percent. On the flip side, Syracuse has averaged nine 3-pointers in the tournament; Washington has made 8.5 per game.
Syracuse’s Brianna Butler, who leads the nation in 3-point attempts, made big shots against both South Carolina and Tennessee and made 10 total from deep in the two games. Meanwhile, Plum, at 33.8 percent, is the worst of the four 3-point shooters on the Huskies. The 6-2 Walton and Osahor offer some size to shoot over the Syracuse zone.
Whichever team manages to shoot better against the other defense likely wins the game.
3. Osahor vs. Day: When Osahor drifts to the 3-point line, she will have the guards at the top of the Syracuse zone to deal with, but the real battle will come inside against Briana Day, a tireless worker on the boards who gets 7.9 a game. Moving Osahor off her spot underneath proves difficult, but Day is the more athletic player and is 2 inches taller.
Hillsman doesn’t ask Day to do much in the base offense except screen and get to the glass. Most of her points come off putbacks or in transition. Chances are Day, or twin sister Bria, will be able to routinely beat Osahor up and down the floor. Stanford was not able to adequately take advantage of Osahor in that way. If Hillsman finds a way, it could be a big advantage.
The names you know
Alexis Peterson: The best player on each team is the point guard. Peterson wasn’t always that but has improved each year at Syracuse and has blossomed in the second half of this season. She just torched Tennessee for 29 points with an array of deep shots, pull-ups and misdirection drives to the basket. Like teammates Butler and Maggie Morrison, her range goes well beyond the 3-point arc, but it’s her ability to create driving angles off the dribble that has made Peterson, who leads the team with 16.1 points and 4.7 assists per game, more dangerous.
Kelsey Plum: No single player in the country is as important to her team as Plum. She directs and dictates everything the Huskies do offensively. The shooting percentage (40.8 percent) suffers because she is needed to take so many shots, but Plum is an outstanding deep shooter, a constant threat. That helps make her even better at getting to the basket, where Plum is not afraid of contact. She leads the nation in free throw attempts and is an 88.7 percent shooter from the line. One of the problems that perhaps kept Washington from bursting through earlier this season was the rest of the Huskies’ inability to create their own shots. Plum can get hers almost whenever she wants.
Syracuse’s Brittney Sykes: The decisions of Sykes and Butler, two McDonald’s All Americans, to come to Syracuse are what transformed Hillsman’s rebuilding project to the next level. They have been program-changing players. Sykes has returned this year after two devastating ACL tears that kept her out most of last season. As a sophomore in 2014, Sykes led the Orange in scoring and looked every bit the program’s best player. And Sykes has started to show signs of returning to that form, with 17 points against South Carolina and 24 against Albany in the tournament. She averaged 10 points per game on the season, but as an even more productive third scorer behind Peterson and Butler, Sykes, with her ability off the dribble and in transition, makes Syracuse even more potent.
Washington’s Talia Walton: The reliable second scorer, Walton, like Osahor, is a matchup dilemma for opposing coaches. She will pull taller defenders away from the basket with her range but can abuse smaller opponents with her 6-2 frame. She also happened to be Washington’s best weapon against the Syracuse zone in November, with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Walton is often the direct beneficiary of all the attention placed on Plum. She’s a real danger in the high pick-and-roll, where as the screener she is usually open for a jumper on a pass back from Plum. The 30 points she put on Kentucky in the regionals semis is an even more recent example of what Walton can do when defenses lean Plum’s way.