It's going to be hard for any neutral fan in Raleigh not to root for the Bonnies of St. Bonaventure.
Pitted in a regional against three programs that have won national championships, the Bonnies will be this region's little engine that could.
But can they?
That's tough to say at this point with Jim Crowley's club. In the opening round, the Bonnies sneaked past Florida Gulf Coast, a team in its first year of NCAA tournament eligibility. The Bonnies won in overtime after trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half. In the second round, St. Bonaventure faced Marist, the No. 13 seed. The Red Foxes have a history of proving themselves a formidable NCAA opponent. Still, beating both teams was not a daunting road to the Sweet 16.
And so St. Bonaventure will enter its tilt with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish still needing to prove a little something to the national audience. That's probably fine with the Bonnies. They've done well when underestimated this season -- beating St. John's on the road in November and hanging tough with Delaware. But their schedule has yet to offer the kind of challenge Skylar Diggins & Co. will provide: competing with a national championship-level program.
There's really only one underdog in this region, which will make the St. Bonaventure versus Notre Dame game a David versus Goliath, and Texas A&M-Maryland something like Goliath versus Goliath. We look at three X factors for each matchup.
(3) Texas A&M vs. (2) Maryland
ESPN/ESPN3: noon ET Sunday
1. Defending Alyssa Thomas: In the second round, Louisville provided a blueprint for guarding the ACC's player of the year. Cardinals coach Jeff Walz, who's a former assistant for Maryland coach Brenda Frese, instructed his players to pressure Thomas on the catch, even when she was outside of her shooting range. Most teams tend to back off Thomas when she's too far from the hoop, but Louisville did the opposite. Thomas also was slowed by foul trouble, but she scored only six points in Maryland's 72-68 second-round victory. She's a powerhouse scorer from within 15 feet, so Texas A&M will have to decide which strategy it wants to employ to stop the Terps' top scorer, who's averaging 17.4 points per game.
2. Balance, balance, balance: The Aggies have four players averaging between 10.9 and 13.3 points per game: Sydney Carter (10.9),
Adaora Elonu (11.8), Kelsey Bone (12.0) and Tyra White (13.3). To beat the Terps, Texas A&M will need at least those numbers from its balanced scoring attack. Throughout the season, the Aggies have occasionally had a breakout scoring game -- reserve Alexia Standish scored 25 against Kansas; Bone scored 26 earlier in the season -- but for the most part, this team puts its highest scorer in the midteens. Winning this way against Maryland will take impressive offensive execution all night long.
3. Clash of wills: Both of these teams know what it takes to win it all, which is something few teams in women's basketball understand. Considering the history of each of these squads, you'd have to figure Sunday's game will come down to something quite simple. Whichever team happens to be making shots that day likely will win. Neither team is going to be able to overcome a poor shooting performance, not when the team opposite it has national championship pedigree. Both teams will defend, execute and compete. But who will have the hot hand?
Pick: Maryland will win a close game because the Terps have the more dynamic shot-makers.
(5) St. Bonaventure vs. (1) Notre Dame
ESPN2/ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday
1. The little engine that could: The Bonnies don't need to worry so much about beating Notre Dame in the first five minutes. Crowley's team is smart and intuitive. If the Bonnies can find a way to hang around, keep themselves close as the minutes tick down, that would be key. They're led by two players, Jessica Jenkins and Megan Van Tatenhove, who have learned how to win under Crowley. The Bonnies need to fight off Notre Dame's runs. They can't allow a 5-0 burst to turn into a 16-0 burst. Manage the game and see what happens at the end.
2. Skylar Diggins, of course: Notre Dame's star is going to be a difficult defensive matchup for the Bonnies. She can shoot from the outside, get to the rim, take care of the ball, dish the ball. The Bonnies won't have seen a point guard as good as Diggins all season. It will be up to Crowley and his coaching staff to devise a game plan for dealing with Diggins because she is Notre Dame's engine. The Bonnies likely don't have one single defender to match Diggins, so it'll have to be a team effort.
3. Fun fact: During ESPN's broadcast of the Bonnies' victory over Florida Gulf Coast, the announcers mentioned that Crowley changed his coaching philosophy after reading the book "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis. (Graham Hays also wrote a column about Crowley and the Bonnies in mid-January.) The book details a method for building a winning baseball team by paying attention to certain statistics. During Crowley's first five seasons at St. Bonaventure, he posted five losing records, compiling a 44-96 overall record. After reading the book, Crowley began paying attention to potential recruits who might not have possessed eye-popping athleticism but who loved to compete. He also changed his system, encouraging his players to use most of the shot clock on each possession. (He figured if the Bonnies had the ball, the other team didn't -- and that was a start.)
Pick: Notre Dame will win because, in the end, the Bonnies will be overmatched by the Irish's top-level talent.