LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The KFC Yum! Center is less than a mile from the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, a place where baseball fans can peruse, order and worship the wooden tools that the best sluggers use to master what some contend is the hardest thing to do in sports. But as often as not, Mighty Casey isn't at the plate when the game is decided. The best hitter on a baseball team gets a chance only as often as the batting order dictates.
One way or another, the best player on the court decides almost every basketball game this time of year. Either the opponent finds a way to solve -- or at least manage -- her, or it pays the price.
No. 6 seed DePaul slowed a star and sped by No. 11 seed James Madison 97-67, while No. 3 seed Louisville's star punished No. 14 seed Central Arkansas in an 87-60 win on Friday, which set up a matchup between old rivals from the Big East and Conference USA.
DePaul has faced its share of talented players this season, including those on No. 1 seeds Baylor, Connecticut and Notre Dame, but it hadn't played someone who both averaged 20-plus points per game and was a former conference defensive player of the year. DePaul finally saw that in James Madison's Jazmon Gwathmey, the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year.
This isn't to say Gwathmey is better than Nina Davis, Breanna Stewart or Brianna Turner, but she is a handful in her own way.
Throughout the season, save for conference tournaments or the occasional holiday tournament that utilizes a bracket format, teams always know their next opponent. Although DePaul's players knew with relative certainty when they woke up Monday that they would be in the NCAA tournament field, despite losing in the Big East tournament, they didn't know their opponent until James Madison's name popped up during the selection show. After a week of waiting in limbo, the Blue Demons had three days to figure out the Dukes.
"Since we found out we'd be playing them, we've sort of just been tunnel vision on what they do and how they do it," said DePaul's Chanise Jenkins, the Big East player of the year. "Breaking it down and figuring out how we're going to beat that."
Much of what the Dukes did Friday revolved around Gwathmey. DePaul sophomore Ashton Millender said she had heard of James Madison's best player before the bracket was released, but she admitted she learned a lot more about her in the short time that followed. For 72 hours, all of the Blue Demons majored in James Madison. For Brooke Schulte and Millender, that meant a special concentration of study in Gwathmey.
"[DePaul coach Doug Bruno] had brought up, too, that we've never really played a player like her," Schulte said. "She's a 6-foot-2 guard with ball skills out of this world and could pull up, drive it to the basket, shoot a 3 on the run. She just had every aspect of the game down pat. I thought she was a perfect player."
The players' film study began Tuesday morning. As is the normal routine, DePaul players received DVDs breaking down James Madison's strengths and weaknesses. The Blue Demons knew that to play to their strengths, to get Jenkins and Jessica January out in transition off misses and feed the ball to Megan Podkowa in the post or at the 3-point line, they had to first neutralize the best asset at their opponent's disposal.
Come game time, Schulte took on the challenge at the start, all but face-guarding Gwathmey at all moments. By the time the latter hit her second field goal, neither of which came against her primary defenders, DePaul led by 13 points. By the time Gwathmey hit her third, DePaul led by 20. Gwathmey made clear on a number of occasions just why she represented such a challenge. She hit a few contested pull-up jumpers and used a quick first step and long stride to get to the basket, but it was all too little, too late.
"Our coaching staff did a phenomenal job of getting all the highlights of her, putting together what she does and what she does best, which is everything," Schulte said. "She is a phenomenal player. Guarding her was crazy, and just keeping her in front of you was a major key, having a left hand up, high contest, just to try to make her miss. Because even sometimes when I did feel like I was in her face, she made it in my face. She was just a great player."
"Don't forget: DePaul has a long history with Louisville. We've been coming down here and playing Louisville for a long time." DePaul coach Doug Bruno
Schulte and Millender succeeded, with some help from Mart'e Grays and others. Taking Gwathmey out of the flow early in the game didn't win it for DePaul -- shooting 61 percent in the first half helped with that -- but it was one of the moving parts. After that, it was off to the races. James Madison had no counter measures for DePaul's frenetic pace.
"My freshman year coming in, I was exhausted 24/7," Schulte said. "It was crazy. I was huffing and puffing. But throughout preseason and throughout nonconference, you start to get in game shape with how we play and how we press. It gets easier, but it's still hard. You really have to push your limits. But it's a fun pace to play at."
If the first half between DePaul and James Madison showcased the value of preparation, the opening quarter-and-a-half of Louisville's game seemed to go with a disjointed week in which coach Jeff Walz was forced to coach from afar -- if at all -- because of a case of the flu that he hoped to keep from running through the locker room.
Walz made clear after the game that he was disgusted with his starters' efforts defensively, and he made that clear during the game by turning to walk-on reserve Dakota Weatherford. Weatherford, who totaled 113 minutes in the first 32 games of the season, played 32 minutes against Central Arkansas, and she was instrumental in turning the tide on the defensive end. Offensively, feeding the ball to Myisha Hines-Allen inside the 3-point line as often as possible was just as important.
Hines-Allen, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, scored 11 points during Louisville's 20-2 run to turn a 30-29 deficit into a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter.
"Wow, I want one of those," Central Arkansas coach Sandra Rushing said after seeing Hines-Allen in person. "She can play. Just everything that we saw on film ... we got to live it today. We knew going in it was going to be a difficult matchup. I felt like we came out and had the energy. We were believing a little bit, but then they cranked it up."
The Sugar Bears played with energy and pride. They hit shots early. But they didn't solve the essential riddle: the best player on the court.
"The progress that she's made this season from last is tremendous," Walz said. "The kid wants to be a special player."
Even as he refused to speculate on a potential game against Louisville, which had yet to play its game at the time, Bruno tacitly acknowledged the likely pairing.
"If these players can stay focused ... they had some good road wins this year against some really quality, high-level teams," Bruno said. "Plus, our seniors did play here as freshmen. Don't forget: DePaul has a long history with Louisville [spanning 18 years in the two conferences]. We've been coming down here and playing Louisville for a long time."
Now DePaul's coaches will take to the film room to try to figure out how to slow Hines-Allen and turn their players' pace loose.