2005 Final Four Preview
Baylor University vs. Louisiana State University
If the game between Baylor and LSU matches the quality of their early season game, fans will be in for a treat. These are two dynamic teams with more than their fair share of dynamic stars.
Not much more can be said about everybody’s favorite for the Wade Trophy, Seimone Augustus (except, perhaps, to ask, “Are you coming out for the WNBA draft this year?”). Temeka Johnson is making the best of her decision to stay for an extra year, but LSU’s difference maker is (dare I say it) the Lisa Leslie-esque freshman Sylvia Fowles. She was impressive in the high-school all-star game a year ago, and in her first season of college competition, she’s managed to control her fouls and use her hands for deadly shot blocking. The two big questions for LSU will be “what about the rest of the team” and “what happens if the game comes down to free throws?” LSU is not good at collecting points from the charity stripe and is heavily dependant on its three superstars. Scholanda Hoston is a great defender, but she can only cover one superstar at a time. There’s little doubt this team will draw on last year’s Final Four experience, and there’s no under-estimating its desire to earn both recently retired Sue Gunter and her successor, freshman coach Pokey Chatman, a chance at LSU’s first championship.
Baylor is a team with distinct weapons. The most obvious are epees wielded by three musketeers, Steffanie Blackmon, Sophia Young and Abiola Wabara. They slice you to pieces with their length and quickness. Watch out for Emily Niemann – with the size, the strength and the ability to shoot the three, I’m expecting a breakout performance in the Final Four. She didn’t make much noise during the Elite Eight, but everyone who’s watched her shoot 50% from behind the arc this season knows that with her size and her range, she can open things up in the paint.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson can be as fun to watch on the sidelines as her team is in the paint. She has done a remarkable job in growing the women’s program at Baylor, and her team has grown up with her. While you wonder how much Louisiana Tech regrets not holding onto her when it had a chance, it’s exciting to know that Mulkey-Robertson, along with Chatman and Michigan State’s Joanne McCallie, are part of the new generation of coaches skilled enough to match up with the talented new generation of women’s basketball players.
Whoever wins this match-up, don’t you think the karma gods were working a tad overtime getting two of last year’s victims of Tennessee’s “last-second victories” a chance at revenge?
Michigan State vs. Tennessee
Tennessee’s Pat Summitt has drawn her share of attention this season, first with a freshman class that drew raves and then by breaking the legendary Dean Smith’s win total record. Along the way, player after player was felled by injury and yet, somehow, Summitt has guided her team to yet another Final Four – her 16th to be exact.
Despite the team’s overall success, it’s not been a particularly fluid season for the Lady Vols. There’s a sense of a changing of the guard as the seniors usher in the youngsters, but no clear “superstar” has emerged, especially on the offensive end. Certainly there’s more than sufficient potential, but it sputters at the most disconcerting times. Plenty of pressure on home-state kids Shanna Zolman and Shyra Ely – it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the local attention as well as finding, as the ESPN promo states, their recent lack of championship victories, “unacceptable.” I keep waiting for Brittany Jackson to explode, and while freshman Nikky Anosike may not have garnered as much attention as some of her classmates, she’s quietly proven herself to be a tenacious and gritty player.
In their way will be the upstart Spartans. Reflecting on Michigan State’s climb to the basketball limelight, I’ve got to ask: is it just me, or does anyone else notice the eerie parallels between Michigan State and last year’s Minnesota Golden Gophers? Both programs have no history of winning tradition. Both programs are built around local point guards (Kristin Haynie and Lindsay Whalen) determined to turn their team around. Both programs have big, impressive juniors in the middle (Liz Shimek and Janel McCarville – and no, I am not ignoring the very big Kelli Roehrig). Watch for Lindsay Bowen to regain her form – it took a lot of guts to shoot that little jumper in the last few seconds of the game and the team to play with a purpose.
While I’m at it, I know Chatman has already won a Coach of the Year award, but McCallie won my vote mid-season, and nothing she’s done since has shaken my belief that she’s been the best coach. Actually, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering McCallie’s a product of Coach U: Maine University, which seems to produces top-notch coaches the way some programs produce quality point guards. Despite her youth, she’s got her team playing smart, controlled basketball.
That being said, I’m looking forward to a superb Final Four. See you in Indy! I’ll be the one making a fool out of herself cheering.