UConn has reached the Women's Final Four 20 times overall, including the past 12 years in a row. Notre Dame is making its ninth trip; Baylor its fourth. And then there's the newbie, Oregon. The Ducks are in the national semifinals of the women's NCAA tournament for the first time, but nobody is doubting them. To the contrary, everyone has been waiting the past couple of years for that breakthrough.
They meet in Friday's semifinals in Tampa, Florida, with No. 1 Baylor facing No. 2 Oregon at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 UConn at 9 p.m. ET. Both games are on ESPN2/ESPN App.
Baylor and Oregon have met three times, including in the NCAA second round in 2005, when the Lady Bears won their first national championship. Notre Dame and UConn are quite a bit more familiar than that: Friday will mark their 50th meeting, and their eighth in the Final Four. UConn has the series lead, 37-12, but Notre Dame has the edge at the Final Four, 4-3.
We take a look at what's to come in Tampa.
Why Baylor can win the national championship?
Creme: As the third-most accurate shooting team in the country (50.3 field goal percentage) and the leader in field goal percentage defense (31.4 percent) and blocks per game (7.3), Baylor offers the most balance of offense and defense in the Final Four. The Lady Bears don't have to rely on one end of the court to carry them. With 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox providing the foundation of that versatility with a devastating high-low post game and intimidating rim protection, Baylor is physically unique, and it was the nation's most consistently dominant team all season.
Voepel: And what has to make coach Kim Mulkey even more happy is that her defense has been lights out. Admittedly, the Lady Bears as the No. 1 overall seed had the easiest road to Tampa. But even taking that into account, they have punished their foes defensively, with post player Cox and guard DiDi Richards almost a two-woman wrecking crew. An Iowa team that was able to run its offense well against virtually everyone else struggled to do that against Baylor on Monday. The Hawkeyes shot just 32.1 percent overall and made only 3 of 10 3-pointers; they also were outrebounded 47-26, and even Megan Gustafson looked frustrated at times -- and we didn't see that much this season.
Lauren Cox drops 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting to lead the Baylor Lady Bears past the Iowa Hawkeyes 85-53 and into the Final Four.
What is Baylor's biggest concern?
Creme: It's a nice problem to have, but Baylor doesn't have much experience in close games. The Lady Bears haven't truly been challenged in the NCAA tournament, winning each game by at least 25 points, and they have had just three single-digit victories since their nation's best 27-game winning streak began on New Year's Eve. As good as Baylor has been all season, it's unrealistic to think that a team at Oregon's level will be as easy to dispatch. The Lady Bears were very good down the stretch in their win over UConn in early January, but that was at home and a long time ago. What they will look like in a tie game with three minutes to go is a bit of an unknown. The Ducks, meanwhile, have faced far more late-game situations.
Voepel: Charlie is right on the money; Baylor hasn't had to deal much with late-game nerves and high-pressure situations. One might even point to Baylor's domination of the Big 12 for several years now as something that might have hurt the Lady Bears when it came to the NCAA tournament. But another issue is that Baylor isn't much of a 3-point shooting team. According to Her Hoops Stats, the Lady Bears are last in Division I in percentage of scoring from 3-pointers. They make only 3.2 treys per game, and they allow 7.1 by their opponents. Baylor is 35-1, so that has obviously worked. But it might be trouble against Final Four-caliber foes.
Sabrina Ionescu fuels the Ducks to an 88-84 win over Mississippi State Bulldogs, leading Oregon to its first Final Four.
Why Oregon can win the national championship?
Creme: Of all the great players in this Final Four, none has more influence on her team than Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu. In Ionescu, Oregon has something no other team in Tampa has -- a playmaker at the highest level who can completely dictate the rhythm of a game. She proved in the Elite Eight win over Mississippi State with nine points in the final four minutes how valuable a commodity it is when the star has complete control of the basketball in the game's most important moments. And her skill in the pick-in-roll is why the Ducks have four players shooting better than 41 percent from 3-point range.
Voepel: It's so exciting for the Final Four to have the Sabrina Show this year. But while the Ducks are known more for their electric offense than for their defense, they have had experience defending all types of great post players, which they'll have to do to win the championship. The good thing for Oregon is that it doesn't necessarily have to be lock-down on defense. It just has to be good enough, because the offense can do the rest.
What is Oregon's biggest concern?
Creme: Oregon's offense can be devastating with shooters everywhere on the floor, but the Ducks' ability to consistently defend and rebound hasn't been as steady. They did a solid job twice (in the regular season and tournament) against the size of Mississippi State, but Arizona State, UCLA, and Stanford -- the three most physical teams in the Pac-12 -- gave Oregon trouble late in the season. Baylor is bigger and more physical than any of those teams. The Ducks are only 239th in the country in offensive rebound rate, and Baylor is the nation's best defensive rebounding team, so Oregon might need to live up to its 50.2 field goal percentage to prevail.
Voepel: The Ducks likely will be irritated by how much they'll be asked in the coming days whether their defense measures up. As Charlie points out, they will be challenged on the glass. Baylor's offense might not be quite the thing of beauty that Oregon's offense can be, but the Lady Bears' post players work very well in tandem. Stanford was only team that has kept Baylor's inside game in check, so perhaps Oregon can look to that December game -- the Lady Bears' lone loss -- for some inspiration.
After being down by three points with two-and-a-half minutes left in the third, Notre Dame goes on a run to take down Stanford 84-68.
Why Notre Dame can win the national championship?
Voepel: The Irish have two guards in Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young who can create offense out of nothing, and both are big-game players. We saw that at last year's Final Four, with Young scoring 32 points in the semifinals and Ogunbowale's two now-famous buzzer-beating shots in both games in Columbus. If it comes down to making a big play at crunchtime again to win in Tampa, Notre Dame has two of the biggest weapons to do that.
Creme: If it's not one, it's the other, right, Mechelle? Ogunbowale saved the Irish against Texas A&M with a huge second half, and Young keyed the big run that got the Irish over the hump in the win over Stanford. But it doesn't end there, and that is why Notre Dame is so dangerous. All five starters are good enough to have breakout games, and Jessica Shepard is a rock inside. She's a threat that helps those guards flourish in space, setting screens and as an outstanding passer out of the post. In those same Final Four games last April, Shepard averaged 17.5 PPG and 8.5 RPG, and she produced a pair of double-doubles in Chicago.
What is Notre Dame's biggest concern?
Voepel: The Irish struggled to guard Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter in the Sweet 16 victory, and she finished with 35 points. Admittedly, someone like UConn's Christyn Williams is not going to take 34 shots like Carter, and they are very different types of guards. But the freshman Williams already showed she could torch the Irish; she did it in their regular-season meeting Dec. 2, scoring 28 points and repeatedly burning Notre Dame in transition. With everything else there is to worry about with UConn's offense, the Irish have to be concerned about a repeat performance from Williams.
Creme: No doubt Muffet McGraw will be losing sleep over Notre Dame's defense as the week progresses. In particular, Notre Dame struggled in Chicago slowing down a pair of perimeter players. McGraw said that her team simply could not guard Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter, who had 35 points, and Stanford's Kianna Williams had 20 on Monday night. Those performances, and what is sure to be some highly scrutinized game tape, might bring back bad memories of the 28 points UConn freshman guard Christyn Williams threw on the Irish in their early December meeting when the Huskies scored 89 as a team. Now Notre Dame is staring that matchup right in the face again.
UConn carries a 41-34 lead over Louisville into halftime behind nine 3-pointers, with four coming from Megan Walker.
Why UConn can win the national championship?
Voepel: Sure, the obvious answer is because it's UConn -- but that didn't hold true the past two seasons as the Huskies fell in the semifinals in overtime. The key this year might be the hunger with which UConn is playing. Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were on the 2016 Huskies championship team, but they were freshmen supporting players. They would love to make this title their "own." Junior Crystal Dangerfield, sophomore Megan Walker and freshman Christyn Williams don't have a national championship, and their excitement in reaching the Final Four -- even if it's the 20th trip for UConn -- was obvious on Sunday.
Creme: Mechelle is spot-on. UConn, for the first time in years, has some doubters, and played with an even greater sense of purpose than usual in the regionals. And even though this seems unbelievable to say, the Huskies' talent might be a bit underrated. If Walker and Williams are producing at a level commensurate with their abilities, similar to the way they did against Louisville, UConn might just have the best starting five in Tampa.
What is UConn's biggest concern?
Voepel: Katie Lou Samuelson was fantastic in the Albany Regional final with 29 points, and the Huskies hit 14 3-pointers in that game. That was just too much long-range offense for Louisville to counter. But Samuelson has had back issues, and those can come and go. If she's the Katie Lou of the semifinals against UCLA -- she went 1-of-6 from the field for six points and didn't hit a 3-pointer -- the Huskies could have some worries.
Creme: None of these teams is deep, so officiating and foul trouble will loom large over this Final Four. With UConn using only six players since its opening-round blowout of Towson, the concern is even greater for the Huskies. They survived a key stretch late in the third quarter and into the fourth with Katie Lou Samuelson on the bench with four fouls in the regional final win over Louisville. If UConn's foul trouble is any worse than that or the Huskies have to go deeper than just short stints for Olivia Nelson-Ododa, winning on Sunday night will be difficult.
Who could be a breakout performer in the Final Four?
Creme: If Baylor is going to win its third national championship, then DiDi Richards might need to play big. She actually might have already broken out, considering she exceeded her 6.3 PPG average in the regular season in three of Baylor's four NCAA tournament games. And she had her two highest scoring outputs of the season (25 against South Carolina and 16 versus Iowa) in the regionals. Richards' greatest value is on the defensive end and will be the key to slowing Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu. But if the 6-foot-1 sophomore keeps scoring like this, Baylor should be celebrating on Sunday night.
Voepel: Richards is all arms and legs, and she can cover opposing players like a spider's web. But we'll also mention Oregon's Satou Sabally. Not because she's under-the-radar; she's the Ducks' second-leading scorer at 16.6 PPG. Nor is she worried about needing to wow everyone. But on the biggest stage, folks who might only know the name Ionescu might find themselves mesmerized by Sabally, a 6-foot-4 sophomore forward from Germany.
The starting five of Notre Dame is so familiar from the program's national championship last year that it's less likely there's an Irish player who will step forward unexpectedly. That's also true for the most part for UConn, but freshman forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa could emerge in an important role, especially on defense.
Which teams will advance to the title game?
Creme: Baylor and Notre Dame came into this tournament as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall teams, and they should still be classified as such. While they did get here in slightly different ways -- with the Lady Bears winning their four games by at least 25 points, and the Irish experiencing more than a few anxious moments during the regionals -- no two teams have been as dominant. Baylor and Notre Dame have combined to win 40 straight games, all but three by double digits. Make it 42 and we have an epic matchup for the title.
Voepel: Part of me thinks Earth will stop spinning on its axis if UConn actually loses three years in a row in the semifinals. I mean, who could imagine such a thing, right? But it obviously could happen, and I think that it will. Notre Dame will avenge its loss to UConn in December, thanks in large part to more backcourt heroics from the Irish guards. In the first semifinal, I'll go with Baylor's post-player tandem and their overall defensive prowess to prevail against Oregon.
Which team will win the national championship?
Creme: Notre Dame was the pick from Day 1 of the season to repeat, and I won't waver now. The offensive options and versatility are just so much to handle for any defense. Plus, this group of Irish players have been in close games in this exact environment before and prevailed. None of the other three teams can say that.
Voepel: Baylor's coaching staff has plenty of experience in the Final Four, but this current group of Lady Bears players don't. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is the defending national champion, and all its key players know what it's like to win it all. In a very close game, I'll lean toward Notre Dame to win.