NCAA Tournament Step 3: Previewing LSU

She's baaaaaaaaack. - USA TODAY Sports

Can the Bears take another unprecedented step? LSU stands in the way between Cal and the Elite Eight.

Well, well, well Nikki Caldwell, we meet again. I was so happy when you fled UCLA for an LSU payday. But I should have known that you'd be back, ready to haunt our basketball team again.

It's hard not to look at LSU's win over Penn State as a pretty significant break for the Bears. The Nittany Lions were a fashionable pick to make the Elite Eight, or for some even the Final Four. Both the RPI and the Sagarin Predictor ranked them as the toughest 3 seed in the bracket.

How lucky did the Bears get? That might very much depend on how much you believe in momentum and in-year improvement. As recently as early February, LSU wasn't going to make the tournament, let alone present a challenge to a team like Cal. The Tigers held a record of 13-10, with six losses to teams outside the RPI top 50. They were treading water at best, playing out the string in a deep SEC.

And since then they have won nine of their last ten games, which includes wins over Georgia, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Green Bay and Penn State. All of those teams are ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Those first three wins propelled them into the tournament (and to a six seed that some felt was undeserved based on their early season struggles) while the last two wins sent them to Spokane.

So which team is LSU? The team that was a non-factor in December and January, or the team with a top-10 resume in February and March? As always, the answer is almost certainly somewhere in between. In LSU's first ten losses, eight were by single digits. In their end-of-season run, four of their five wins over ranked teams (and another two wins over unranked teams) were by single digits. LSU is good enough to play close with most teams, but not good enough to pull away from mediocre teams.

Players to Watch

Theresa Plaisance: Man, with a name like that how could you play for anybody but the Bayou Bengals? Another day, another post player with the ability to pop out and hit a 3. I'm really getting tired of those types of players. Of course, that's hardly the only skill LSU's best player possesses. She is LSU's best offensive and defensive player, and the Tigers depend on her to score, rebound, and defend the paint. Considering her defensive role (2.5 blocks/game), she's not very foul prone, although if the Bears could draw a few early ones on her it would make a huge difference. She's just as likely to get the Bears in foul trouble, as she averages almost six free throw attempts a game, hitting 72% of them.

Adrienne Webb: The senior guard shot LSU to Spokane with an impressive 29 point performance against Penn State. She doesn't do much of anything else (1 assist and 3.6 rebounds/game), but she's fully capable of going off as a scorer. I expect Layshia to guard her.

Danielle Ballard: A versatile freshman combo guard who helps out a lot on the glass and picks pockets on defense. If Webb and Plaisance are both getting theirs (as they tend to do) then Ballard is the one you don't want adding on as a 3rd scorer.

Jeanne Kenney: A game-time decision against Penn State, Kenney didn't play perhaps because of a concussion after a collision with a teammate in the tournament's first round. She's not really a scorer, so it's hard to say exactly how much LSU's offense might suffer without her. She's travelling with the team, but still questionable.

Dianca Lutley: LSU's usual first woman of the bench will start if Kenney is unable to play.

Shanece McKenney and Derreyal Youngblood: Two 6'4'' posts who don't rebound very well considering their size. McKenney will start and is a high-efficiency, low-usage scorer in the mold of Talia Caldwell. Youngblood is a foul machine (one foul committed for every 3.6 minutes on the floor).

Anne Pedersen: Forced to play more minutes because of Kenney's injury. Played 19 minutes against Penn State and was 1 foul and 1 turnover away from throwing up a 19 trillion.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Sagarin Predictor: Cal by 5

Cal

LSU

Advantage

Cal eFG% vs. LSU eFG% Def.

46.0 (69)

38.9 (181)

CC

Cal eFG% Def vs. LSU eFG%

37.6 (106)

45.9 (71)

L

Cal Off TOV vs. LSU Def. TOV

19.1 (21)

23.0 (145)

CC

Cal Def. TOV vs. LSU Off TOV

23.0 (145)

22.4 (136)

Even

Cal RB% vs. LSU RB%

60.7 (3)

51.0 (128)

CC

Cal FT Rate Off vs. LSU FT Rate Def

16.1 (75)

16.4 (87)

Even

Cal FT Rate Def vs. LSU FT Rate Off

17.8 (160)

17.8 (19)

LL

Cal PPPO vs. LSU PPPD

1.001 (14)

.863 (166)

CC

Cal PPPD vs. LSU PPPO

.810 (67)

.915 (57)

L


Nothing above looks like a Nikki Caldwell defense. Frankly, it doesn't look like a tournament at-large quality defense. And it's not like the defense has been consistently great during LSU's end-of-season run - their points/possession over their last 10 games has more or less been in line with their season performance. It's the offense that has come up big when needed.

Perhaps the most shocking thought is that Cal has a major advantage in terms of ball control and turnover prevention. Keep in mind, just three years ago UCLA scored 44 points at Haas Pavilion and won by double digits. The hounding, trapping defense that Nikki Caldwell unleashed that day was truly spectacular, but I don't think we'll see it on Saturday, for multiple reasons. To start, LSU just doesn't have the personnel to do it. Against Penn State they only had 7 healthy rotation players, which meant that Caldwell's team didn't have the necessary depth or fouls to play a defense that aggressive.

And Cal three years ago is very different than Cal now. The Bears are now an elite ball-handling team with a great point guard. As a result, the stats say that Cal's biggest advantage over a Nikki Caldwell team should be scoring points. How weird.

Keys To The Game

Strongly Defend & Contest . . . : LSU's strength is their offense. They shouldn't be able to match the Bears on the boards, they're not the type of team to win by nailing a bunch of threes, and they don't force a ton of turnovers. For them to beat the Bears they're going to have to hit shots inside, whether from dribble drives or traditional post-ups. After an iffy defensive performance against Fresno State, the Bears bounced back with 39 minutes of good defense against USF. 40 minutes of that same defense will lead to the Elite Eight.

. . . Without Fouling: LSU averages 21 free throw attempts per game, and shoots at a decent enough percentage. I'll grant that a few of the fouls were a little fluky, but the Bears hurt themselves by sending USF to the line too frequently. LSU will want to live at the line. Defend strongly, but defend intelligently too.

Offense: Keep On Keeping On: The Bears have been lights out on the offensive side of the ball so far, and USF has a stronger defense than LSU. Clarendon has been a star, Boyd nearly has two triple doubles, Afure has been hitting her threes, all of our posts have been active inside . . . the offense is on a roll. If they play like they did in Lubbock, the Bears are in great shape.

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