It is easy and understandable to treat the gathering of Final Four teams in Dallas this week as a Connecticut Huskies coronation.
For Connecticut, the consecutive win streak that began back in November 2014 stands at 111 games. The teams most experts consider best built to defeat them—Maryland, Baylor, and Notre Dame—have all been dispatched from the tournament already.
But the remaining three teams in the NCAA field—Mississippi State, Connecticut's opponent tonight, along with South Carolina and Stanford on the other side of the bracket—all present potential difficulties for Connecticut.
Each of the three rank among the top 30 tempo-free offenses in the country, and rank in the top 20 defensively. They are realistic about the challenge in front of them, but no one is conceding anything to the Huskies just yet.
The Bulldogs of Mississippi State are fresh off a victory that few saw coming over a Baylor team that was the top seed in their region and presented a set of mismatches nearly as daunting as Connecticut. It may seem easy to dismiss them now because UConn beat the Bulldogs, and most of the same players, in signature performance in last year's Sweet 16, triumphing 98-38. Same players or not, that was last year.
This Mississippi State team is far more effective offensively than last year's edition, led mostly by the improvement of Morgan William, the undersized point guard who scored 41 in that overtime win over Baylor. Meanwhile, as Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma pointed out, the primary cogs in that machine of a win—Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck—are no longer Huskies.
"I think [Katie Lou Samuelson] had one bucket," Auriemma said Thursday. "I don't think Kia [Nurse] had any. The other guys didn't even play. If they think they had anything to do with that win, they're going to be reminded today: No, they didn't. This is not the same Mississippi State team we played. The turnaround they've made offensively has been remarkable. They're still the same defensive team that they were. And we're not the same team by any stretch of the imagination. If those three seniors were here, I would have a tough time convincing them. But won't be tough with this team."
As for Mississippi State, their coach Vic Schaefer forced his team to watch last year's debacle, or at least, "bits and pieces of that game. You can probably figure out which piece we showed," referring to the first half that began with a 13-0 Connecticut run and ended with the Huskies ahead, 61-12.
In upsetting Baylor on Sunday, Schaefer's team managed to play a nearly flawless game, committing just four turnovers. Such things are possible facing Connecticut, and if the Bulldogs limit mistakes that much, Schaefer believes his team will be "right there" with Connecticut.
"We just have to go play," he said. "If we'll go play like we've been playing—look, we just bit a No. 1 seed. Baylor's pretty good, by the way. They're really good. Got a lot of really good players. They were so good they were talking about the UConn-Baylor matchup on Saturday night, before we played them on Sunday. They're obviously pretty good to a lot of people. I just think we have to take care of ourselves. Control what we can control, win the minute, win the hour, try to win the two hours."
Whoever wins the two hours will face the winner of Stanford-South Carolina, a battle of two elite defensive teams. They get there in different ways: the Cardinal rely on collective effort and traps, while the Gamecocks offer the more traditional equation of athleticism on the perimeter and a traditional rim protector in six-foot-five A'ja Wilson.
What may have changed most for South Carolina, however, is an offense that opened up the attack after losing its second big, likely future WNBA first-round pick Alaina Coates, to injury before the tournament began, by playing Wilson with four on the perimeter. This has given Wilson freedom to operate, improving her spacing, and allowed Kaela Davis to transition from spot-up shooter to a high post conduit through which so much of the Gamecocks offense runs.
"I think it's just been attacking the paint, being aggressive, not just settling for jump shots," Davis said of the change. "Just kind of looking past that first defender, and, like I said, trying to get points in the paint."
Whoever comes out of the game offers a challenge to the Huskies that is anything but predetermined. Stanford, let's not forget, pinned the last loss on the Huskies back in 2014. The Cardinal also ended the previous record winning streak by the Huskies, a 90-game span, back in 2010. That streak began following a Connecticut loss back in 2008 to, you guessed it, Stanford. Each of those teams was, and still is, coached by Tara VanDerveer, who's won more than 1,000 games now.
As for South Carolina, the Gamecocks played Connecticut tough back in February, losing 66-55 on a night Connecticut reached 100 straight victories in front of its home fans at Gampel Pavilion.
Gamecoacks coach Dawn Staley pointed out her team has had far more than the usual one day to get ready and scout an opponent in the national championship game. Then again, as she ruefully acknowledged, Connecticut has had more time to prepare for her Gamecocks.
"You have to work on something that is effective against them, and you have to perfect it from day one," Staley said. "You keep working. I think some of the things that we did in the game against them this year, if given the opportunity to play them on Sunday, we've been working on those things since then. That's something that you have to do. It's all about preparation."