DALLAS -- There are many topline numbers that everyone is discussing here at the women's Final Four, which will tip off Friday night with national semifinal games Stanford-South Carolina and Connecticut-Mississippi State.
There's 111, hovering over the whole sport, as in the record Connecticut keeps setting for largest win streak with every subsequent victory. There's the 10 straight Final Fours Connecticut has reached as well, along with the 113, as in the number of NCAA Tournament wins Auriemma has logged as a coach, passing even Tennessee's Pat Summitt for most in the game's history.
But as Auriemma pointed out, these numbers don't have all that much to do with the games about to be played.
"You know, the only reason we get asked that is because we've been here so much. That only applies to me and C.D. [Connecticur associate head coach Chris Dailey] and [assistant coach] Shea [Ralph] and [assistant coach] Marisa [Moseley] to a certain degree, as well. And we're not playing.
"So the players that are going to be playing, Kia has played a lot in two Final Fours. Gabby [Williams], not much. [Katie] Lou [Samuelson], a little bit. Saniya [Chong], not at all. Crystal Dangerfield, not at all. Pheesa [Collier], hardly at all. They don't own any of those 10 Final Fours," Auriemma said. "They don't own any of those 11 national championships. They only own part of the streak. I mean, the only thing that this team has to hold onto, I've said this before, is the 36 wins that they have right now this year."
So what statistical indicators will decide the national championship over these final three games of the season? Though it is impossible to say -- few would have predicted 41, as in the points scored by Mississippi State's Morgan William to topple mighty Baylor in the Elite Eight -- here's the best barometer for each team to watch this weekend.
For Connecticut, the number is 5, as in the number of fouls Gabby Williams can commit in any game. It's worth noting that she hasn't actually done this, trigger a disqualification. But in two games this year, Williams collected four fouls. The first came in Connecticut's season-opener against Florida State. The resulting limits on her minutes (just 23) and ability to aggressively front bigs who otherwise tower over the hyper-athletic but just 5'11 Williams led to a 78-76 close call that Auriemma has said he expected to lose in the final minutes.
The other instance of Williams committing four fouls came against Maryland, once again neutralizing her aggressiveness and resulting in a close-fought 87-81 win in College Park. Connecticut excels because they have four obvious first-round WNBA talents in Williams, Collier, Samuelson and Kia Nurse, while senior Saniya Chong has turned herself into an elite two-way point guard. But Williams is the true game-changer defensively, altering what would otherwise be a team weakness against size into a strength. Any team that wants a chance at upsetting Connecticut needs to get Williams into foul trouble, or it is hard to see it happening.
For Mississippi State, the number is 19, as in the team's rank in offensive points per possession nationally this year. It is a sea change from 2015-16, a year that ended with a 98-38 debacle of a loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. That Bulldogs team ranked 21st in the country in defensive efficiency, and this year's group is largely unchanged, at 34th nationally. But while the Bulldogs are 19th this time around in offense, last year's Mississippi State team finished 133rd in the country.
The primary reason for this change is the development and health of William, listed at 5'5, but who Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said "we probably need to remeasure, because I'm pretty sure she ain't the five in the second part of that." William's numbers in 2015-16 suffered in part because she played through the season with a fractured tibia (seriously), and the differences are stark. William jumped from 0.728 points per possession last year to 0.955 this year, per Synergy, with better lift leading to a sharp rise in her shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot opportunities while guarded and efficiency as ball handler off the pick and roll. This, in turn, has led to better looks all year for the other Bulldogs.
"Our offensive efficiency I think really starts with her, no question about it," Schaefer said. "I want the ball in her hands. I want her to make some decisions with the ball. You watch Connecticut the other night, just completely disrupted Oregon. That's concerning, but at the same time, you know, I know with Morgan and really the offense that we run, you know, we're pretty good at doing some things, creating space and going off the bounce. We have shooters. That's the thing."
For Stanford, the number will be how often Karlie Samuelson gets the ball, specifically how often South Carolina's defense can force her into getting it in isolation, rather than off of screens and other aspects of the Stanford scheme that get her looks in the flow of their offense.
While Stanford spreads the shots around -- six different Cardinal players led the team in scoring during various games this year, including four of them in at least seven contests -- Samuelson is by far the most efficient of the bunch, finishing sixth in the country among qualified Division I players, per Synergy, in offensive points per possession.
Her catch-and-shoot three has been a given from the moment she arrived at Stanford, but Samuelson now finds herself among the nation's best in virtually every offensive situation -- spot-up, off screens, pick and roll ball handler, handoff, in transition. Only in isolation does Samuelson see any drop, to just 0.765 points per possession. Stanford's offense is sophisticated enough that it seldom happens, though Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said she isn't concerned about the prospect.
"Karlie with the ball is all good for me whenever she has it, wherever she has it," VanDerveer said. "You know, maybe analytics say something different. Eye test says to give her the ball, get her a shot." Still, against a Stanford team that offers opponents few opportunities to keep them from the ideal shot, it has to be a major focus for Dawn Staley's South Carolina.
As for the Gamecocks, so much comes down to the number of touches Kaela Davis receives. For most of the season, Davis has been a spot-up shooter, and a good one. But on a team with both A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates inside, the opportunities to drive were relatively few, and the extent to which the offense ran through the two of them was nearly total.
Coates, however, was lost for the season due to injury prior to the NCAA Tournament. And the change in both Davis' game, and the way South Carolina uses her, has been remarkable to see, especially making such a change so late in the season.
"I think Kaela Davis has been a beneficial of the void that Alaina Coates has left," Staley said. "It put her in a position where she gets the ball in her hands probably 50 percent more than she did when Coates was in the lineup. Probably our entire perimeter players, because we've gone to a smaller lineup, and it's creating driving lanes. A'ja Wilson is able to block the block, work the entire paint area without feeling like she's on top Alaina and her defense."
South Carolina averaged 1.078 points per possession prior to Coates' injury. During the NCAA Tournament, they are up to 1.212. And Davis' emergence is central to all of it, with her true shooting percentage up to 65.8 percent during the tournament compared to a season mark of 49.9 percent. Accordingly, her points per 40 minutes are up to 27.5 during the NCAAs compared to 19.3 on the season, according to WBBState.com, while her rebounding and assist percentage have jumped as well.
"When Coates went down, obviously we were concerned," Staley said. "She's someone that has contributed to our program for the last four years. She's gotten us SEC Championships, both regular season and tournament championships. She's got us to the Final Four. You exhale for a second because you feel bad for her. Then once that moment passes, you got to get your healthy bodies ready to go. You got to get their minds ready. You got to get them ready spiritually, physically, emotionally. I mean, we never looked back. We never fretted it. We never felt like we didn't have enough in the room to get it done."