- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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What better place for some of the nation's best point guards to gather than Norfolk, Va., which as the home of what's described as the largest naval complex in the world is a city that knows a thing or two about steering ships?
Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins is two wins away from leading her top-seeded team to a third consecutive Final Four and cementing her place in history as one of the college game's consummate floor admirals (this is a naval town). But if No. 2 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Nebraska or No. 12 seed Kansas is to sink the Fighting Irish, point guards will still figure prominently.
For surprise regional semifinalists Nebraska and Kansas, fresh off upsets against Texas A&M and South Carolina, that's through the play of seniors who lead with the ball in their hands: Lindsey Moore for the Cornhuskers and Angel Goodrich for the Jayhawks. In Duke's case, it's freshman Alexis Jones and a test of how well a preseason contender fares in the postseason with its star point guard, Chelsea Gray, sidelined by injury.
Let's look at three X factors for each matchup.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Kansas
ESPN, noon ET Sunday
40 percent or bust: Kansas has four NCAA tournament wins as the lower seed the past two seasons. In each of those games, its opponent failed to hit even 40 percent of its shots. (South Carolina and Colorado shot 38 and 25 percent this season, while Nebraska and Delaware shot 33 and 38 percent last season.) It would be one thing if grinding out defensive wins was standard operating procedure for the Jayhawks, but opponents averaged 40 percent shooting against them this season. If you narrow the sample to the 15 games they played against NCAA tournament teams during the regular season and Big 12 tournament, those opponents shot 45 percent against the Jayhawks. Statistically, offense is where Kansas stands out, but it is defense that has fueled postseason upsets.
Skylar versus Angel: Diggins owns a 14-3 career record in the NCAA tournament. The three point guards in those losses? Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson, Texas A&M's Sydney Colson and Baylor's Odyssey Sims. The point guard matchup wasn't necessarily the deciding factor in any of those games. (Robinson missed 15 shots, Danielle Adams scored 30 points for Texas A&M, and, well, Brittney Griner happened.) But if you're going to beat one of the best leaders in recent memory, it doesn't hurt to have a pretty good one of your own. The NCAA's active leader in assists, Goodrich padded that total with 16 assists and just four turnovers in 80 minutes in the first two rounds.
Tough path: History isn't going to decide anything once the ball tips. That's going to come down to things like Notre Dame's Kayla McBride making shots or the post contest between Natalie Achonwa and Carolyn Davis (who wasn't available for the Jayhawks in last season's Sweet 16). But history does help understand how much of an uphill battle this will be for Kansas. Only three times in tournament history did a team seeded eighth or lower win a regional semifinal, and no team seeded No. 12 or lower ever managed a win this late in the tournament.
Pick: Notre Dame
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 6 Nebraska
ESPN2, 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday
Points of emphasis: As if losing Gray to injury wasn't enough, Duke finds itself in a regional that is a branch campus of Point Guard College. Before the Blue Devils can worry about Diggins (or Goodrich), they have to deal with Moore. In four postseason games across the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Moore is averaging 17 points and 7.8 assists, slight improvements on the regular-season numbers that already made her special. Among the final 16 teams, only Kentucky and Louisville forced more turnovers than Duke, so her challenge is clear. As it is for Jones, the freshman cast opposite Diggins, Goodrich and Moore because of Gray's absence. All she did in her first two NCAA tournament games was record 17 assists, just one fewer than Gray had in the first two rounds a season ago.
Impact players: It's not entirely about point guards in Norfolk. Nebraska is in the Sweet 16 in no small part because of the defensive job it did against Texas A&M center Kelsey Bone in the second round, but as Huskers coach Connie Yori acknowledged, giving Bone the attention she demanded meant giving other Aggies looks from outside. That said, the 3-point line wasn't nearly the asset all season for Texas A&M that it is for Duke. Unless Nebraska wants to risk letting Tricia Liston, Haley Peters, Chloe Wells and Jones shoot it out in Norfolk, that might mean less help inside against Elizabeth Williams, Duke's leading scorer.
At the other end, Nebraska's Jordan Hooper is coming off an opening weekend in which she shot 48 percent from the floor and 54 percent from behind the 3-point line. Hooper is one of the most explosive scorers left in the tournament, but the first two rounds also marked just the fifth instance this season in which she hit at least 46 percent of her shots in back-to-back games (and the eighth in which she reached 40 percent in back-to-back games).
History redux: If the weight of history tilts against Kansas in the first game in Norfolk, the scales are surprisingly level for Nebraska in the second game. Unlike No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, which have an abysmal collective record in the Sweet 16 (19-81), No. 6 seeds own an 8-12 record in those games. (The most recent winners were Arizona State and Purdue in 2009, Stanford in 2004 and Washington in 2001, although Purdue was the favored seed in its win.)
Point guard play will figure prominently in Norfolk as Skylar Diggins tries to steer Notre Dame to a third consecutive Final Four.