Don't get caught up on North Carolina's 19.4 turnovers per game
The key number for the Tar Heels when they take on Tennessee on Sunday night (ESPN, 9 ET) is how many possessions they get in the national semifinal matchup.
A look at the X factors and players to watch in Cleveland when this pair of No. 1 seeds meet:
The Tar Heels aren't a great 3-point shooting team, hitting just 33 percent from downtown. Instead, they count on generating the bulk of their offense in three areas: second-chance points, points off turnovers and at the foul line.
The last one is easy. UNC has attempted 817 free throws this season, an average of 22.1 per game. The Tar Heels sink about 16 per contest, which amounts to 19 percent of UNC's 85 points per game. Simply stated, Tennessee can't bail out the Tar Heels by putting them on the foul line.
Rebounding also is a key area. North Carolina has grabbed 140 more offensive rebounds than its opponents this season and boasts a plus-11.1 rebounding margin heading into Sunday's game. That equates to a lot of second-chance points, so Tennessee -- which averages 38.2 rebounds per game to UNC's 45.4 boards -- must get on the glass. Nicky Anosike is the only Lady Volunteer with close to 100 offensive boards (98), but UNC has two players with more than one hundred (Erlana Larkins has 165, Camille Little 100) and a third not too far behind (LaToya Pringle has 96). Tennessee got outrebounded 43-33 by North Carolina when the teams clashed in Chapel Hill on Dec. 3 (UNC won 70-57), and if the Lady Vols don't close that gap, they will not win.
Of course, Tennessee's trademark all these years is its rebounding and defense, and that's the other big area for the Lady Vols. Right now, all the buzz is about how well Rutgers and LSU are playing defense, but Tennessee's defense has been equally impressive. The Lady Vols must force UNC to operate and execute in the half-court offense. That's not a guaranteed way to beat UNC. The Tar Heels are certainly capable of knocking down shots in the half-court -- it's just not their strength.
That strength would be UNC's 1-3-1 half-court trap, which harasses opponents into nearly 25 turnovers per game (Tennessee committed 24 in their earlier matchup against UNC). Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell, who led her team to the 1994 national championship, gets criticized for the high number of giveaways UNC commits, but it's unwarranted. Again, as stated above, the key is how many possessions the Tar Heels can produce in a game, or the ratio of turnovers to possessions. UNC aims for 100 possessions a game, and if it reaches that goal, it's hard to beat.
Breaking down the 1-3-1 is a real challenge. To do so, the Lady Vols must attack through the middle of the floor. When they do get out on the wings, they must reverse the ball quickly. If the Lady Vols put the ball on the sideline and then pick up their dribble, they'll find themselves in trouble. UNC is too long and too quick, and the Lady Vols will pass into a lane that looks open -- but isn't.
Obviously, rebounding and running before UNC can present its 1-3-1 is another way for Tennessee to beat it. And if the Lady Vols can't run, where that first outlet pass is made after the rebound is huge -- it needs to be over the top of UNC's first line of defenders.
Players to watch
For as much star power as this game has -- Tennessee's Candace Parker (my pick for player of the year) and UNC senior point guard Ivory Latta are returning Kodak All-Americans, Larkins makes an extremely strong case for the honor this season -- the Lady Vols' Shannon Bobbitt could end up having the biggest impact.
The 5-foot-2 junior -- one of just three junior college recruits in Pat Summitt's 33-year tenure -- has done a great job this year stepping into the point guard role, which also has allowed Alexis Hornbuckle to play her natural position at the 2 more often. Bobbitt must control the tempo and pace of the game and not turn over the ball. UNC didn't really pull away from Purdue in the Elite Eight until the Boilers started turning over the ball, and the Tar Heels will do the same thing to Tennessee if Bobbitt winds up giving them additional possessions. She had six turnovers in the first meeting with UNC. I'm not sure Tennessee can win if it commits more than 14 or 15 turnovers and you can bet the Tar Heels are going to try and force the Lady Vols into playing sloppy ball.
Parker, as everyone knows, was tremendous in her last game. She's playing with a real confidence and a different purpose than I've seen out of her. I really believe we're seeing the benefits Parker reaped from competing with Team USA last summer. She's just better at everything, especially on the defensive end.
This game will not be about first options. Rather, the team that is able to get production from its second, third and even fourth option will win. For Tennessee, that means Parker can't be the only player in double figures -- as she was last time these two teams clashed (27 points). Tennessee's Sidney Spencer must be involved in the offense and hit her shots, which will force UNC to go out and guard her. Hornbuckle has to slash. Bobbitt must penetrate and pitch.
Hornbuckle just doesn't get enough recognition for all her contributions. But she's just a great wing defender who prevents the opponent's ball reversal. As a result, the opponent ends up catching the ball beyond their 3-point line and not in the "red zone," which forces foes to have to make an additional pass or dribble. Instead of catching and shooting, they must pass into the set and find another option.
Parker has seen every defense known to man this season. She knows what's coming but the key for her is to continue to move around, spending time on the block and on the wing, taking the ball off the glass and alternating between her back-to-the-basket and face-up games. In defending Parker, UNC should play her one-on-one. The Tar Heels can't focus solely on her because she's going to get her points anyway. But if they play her straight up, that allows UNC to guard Bobbitt and Spencer, who have combined for more than 120 3-pointers this season. If the Tar Heels can take away Tennessee's shooters, the Lady Vols will become one-dimensional.
UNC's Larkins is another skilled post. She has such good hands and makes such great decisions with the ball that it's almost like having two point guards on the floor. And in fact, Larkins -- not Latta -- is most likely the one who will do the most damage against Tennessee. The Lady Vols will no doubt try to trap her and keep the ball out of her hands, but Larkins is very good at hurting defenses by getting the ball to the weak side.
Little, a great defensive stopper, must also be an impact player for UNC. Little, Pringle and Jessica Breland must contribute and give UNC some balance in its offense.
And then there's Latta. She has had her ups and downs this season, and she's still not back to the high level she was at a year ago. I'm not convinced she's all the way back from last year's knee injury. She doesn't seem to have that push off her knee yet and isn't getting her legs involved enough in her shot, instead relying on her arms and pushing the ball. That's not to say she hasn't been remarkable -- she always plays hard and continues to find ways to help her team. She is, however, still struggling with her shot, and her confidence just isn't where it was last year at this time. But she knows her team feeds off her and will continue to be UNC's emotional spark plug and will get the ball to the right people.
For UNC, it's going to come down to whether the Tar Heels' "L-Train" -- Little, Latta and Larkins -- come to play. At least two of the three need big nights. And if they don't, Pringle and Rashanda McCants must step up.
Tennessee is playing with extreme confidence right now and its best basketball of the season. The Lady Vols must continue to push tempo, play their pace and remain aggressive.
Pay attention to how often Tennessee is able to isolate Parker offensively. The Lady Vols run an extraordinary amount of post screens and back-screens to get Parker on the block. How UNC handles that will have a big impact on the game. If the Tar Heels are prepared and communicating, they should jump to the ball. But other foes this season have gotten caught up fighting to get down on the block that they leave Spencer open at the foul line or the top of the key. Like I said, the second, third and fourth options will decide this one.
At this point of the season, and because Summitt continues to put together the toughest schedule in the country, the Lady Vols have seen everybody's best shot and are well-prepared. And that can be a huge advantage at the Final Four. Tennessee can only play better against UNC this time around than it did in December. Also, the Lady Vols only benefited from playing Ole Miss in the Elite Eight. That contest prepared them for UNC in that the Rebels are as efficient in the half court as UNC and the speed of the game, especially the swarming, trapping defense, is comparable to how the Tar Heels play.
Both teams are playing excellent ball, with fantastic players and brilliant coaching staffs. I think the final score will be close, within single digits. But I also rarely pick against Summitt. With all due respect to coaching legends such as John Wooden, no one else has taken a program to 17 Final Fours. And I do not see anybody on the floor who can guard Parker.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.