Notre Dame's second-opponent Oklahoma will have crowd and 'dynamic' offense on its side
It’s not difficult to build a case that Notre Dame built a better résumé than Oklahoma this women’s college basketball season.
Obviously, it wasn’t enough of a case to inspire unanimity, as the NCAA Tournament selection committee will tell you, but a compelling case nonetheless.
Why does that debate even really matter as the two teams get set to settle the argument at least in part for themselves when they square off at 6 p.m. ET Monday in their second-round game?
It potentially matters because of the site, which will be OU’s Lloyd Noble Center in Norman as opposed to ND’s Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
As a fourth seed, the Sooners (25-8, 13-3 at home) received one of the coveted top 16 spots overall and the accompanying chance to host during the opening two rounds.
As a fifth seed, the Irish (23-8, 13-1 at home) narrowly missed that hosting designation.
That means ND on Monday will play a true road game in the tourney for the first time since 2013.
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“From experience, we know how much energy the crowd can give a team,” Irish freshman Sonia Citron said Sunday afternoon, “so given that we’re playing at Oklahoma, it’s definitely going to be hard, but we just gotta find a way to get our own energy and play how we play at home.”
ND had little trouble in that last true road game in 2013, part of a period in which early-round sites weren’t always assigned on merit, but that instance was a top-seeded Irish club downing a No. 9 Iowa club, 74-57, in the second round.
This time it’s an OU club favored to win based on the seeds.
“Their crowd was really engaged yesterday,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said Sunday of the Sooners’ 78-72 first-round win over IUPUI, “and they fed off that, and especially in transition. Every basket, you can feel the energy rising, so we have to play our style of basketball, have to try to drown out the noise and make sure we are locked in.
“Fortunately, being in the ACC,” Ivey continued, “we’ve had many tough road opponents and we’ve been in crazy environments at UConn, at Georgia Tech. You have to sustain and try to take the crowd out of it with your performance.”
Most of the 3,952 fans in the stands at the Noble Center on Saturday were Oklahoma backers, and a larger crowd than that is expected Monday.
“It will definitely be a packed house,” Irish sophomore Maddy Westbeld said, “(but) I think we’re really excited about it and for the energy that it’s going to bring.”
ND is just 10-7 away from Purcell in contrast to its 13-1 at home.
Now the Irish face an OU team that is not only third in the nation in scoring at 83.2 points per game, but second in pace at 81.4 possessions per 40 minutes.
The Irish have generated just the 64th quickest pace among 356 Division I teams, but it remains the coach’s preferred style regardless.
“We’re definitely going to stay true to our brand of basketball, so we’re going to try to get out and run with OU tomorrow night,” Ivey promised. “Both teams like to run. Transition defense is going to be huge for us. We have to find the ball, slow it down and find shooters.”
Defense could be where ND separates itself, even in a higher-scoring game.
While the two teams are nearly even in points per possession at 37th for the Sooners and 40th for the Irish, OU — which has been vulnerable inside at times — ranks just 215th in PPP defense to 86th for Notre Dame.
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Ivey calls the Sooners “dynamic” on offense, which typically features five-out motion.
“We’ve never seen a shooter like (Taylor) Robertson,” Ivey said of the OU long-ball ace who leads the country in made 3-pointers per game at 3.7 and stands fifth in percentage at 45.0, “and Madi Williams, she can score in a variety of ways. She’s an undersized forward, but she’s also a guard. She can do it all.”
The Sooners checked in at No. 19 in the final coaches’ poll ahead of postseason and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, while the Irish were 21st in each ranking.
As for those aforementioned actual résumés of the two teams and how the selection committee arrived at its own conclusions, it’s an arguable bottom line given some of NCAA’s own stated criteria.
One item the committee is charged with considering is the NCAA’s own results-based formula, called NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). Notre Dame came in at 20th in NET, while OU was decidedly the worst of the eventual top-16 overall seeds at 35th.
Another item that’s supposed to be weighed is “significant wins.” ND had the most significant of all when it beat visiting North Carolina State (No. 2 in NET, No. 3 in both polls) 69-66 on Feb. 1, though the Sooners may have had more such wins by virtue of twice beating Baylor (No. 5 coaches, No. 6 NET, No. 7 AP), before falling to the Bears in the Big 12 Tourney semifinals, and topping visiting Texas (No. 6 AP, No. 7 coaches, No. 8) 65-63, before losing that rematch by 15.
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Meanwhile, “bad losses” are supposed to downgrade a team. OU decidedly had the worst when it fell 97-87 at home late in the season to Texas Tech (11-19, 4-14).
Being “competitive in losses” comes into play, too. The Irish were nothing close to competitive during their 73-47 and 86-64 February defeats against No. 4 Louisville, though the Sooners fell 94-65 to a far more pedestrian Kansas State club (20-12, 9-9) in late January.
Ultimately, to be fair, ND didn’t do enough to take itself comfortably off that top-16 bubble, and there are no fewer than five other teams ahead of the Irish in NET that didn’t get top-16 nods, either.
None of it will be on the minds of the participants Monday.
Instead it’ll be all about advancing to the real Sweet 16.