March S[imulation]adness: South Carolina draws red-hot Princeton in Sweet Sixteen

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: Carlie Littlefield #2 of the Princeton Tigers dribbles up court during a women's basketball game against the George Washington Colonials at the Smith Center on November 102019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: Carlie Littlefield #2 of the Princeton Tigers dribbles up court during a women's basketball game against the George Washington Colonials at the Smith Center on November 102019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Can Cinderella advance, or will the favored Gamecocks give the Tigers a rude welcome to the Sweet Sixteen?

[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]

Top-seeded South Carolina has rolled through the Greenville regional, and up next is five-seed Princeton in a matchup of two teams that haven’t lost since November.

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The Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet Sixteen seemingly without breaking a sweat, beating Samford by 45 points and Arizona State by 41. National Freshman of the Year Aliyah Boston had a triple-double against Samford, and senior leader Tyasha Harris paced the team with 14 points and 8 assists against the Sun Devils.

Princeton returns to the Eastern time zone after beating Dayton by 17 points and Iowa by 13 in Iowa City. If there was a Most Outstanding Player award for each four-team pod, senior forward Bella Alarie surely would’ve won it, as she had 48 points and 20 rebounds across the two games.

“It feels incredible to get through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and into the Sweet Sixteen,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube told High Post Hoops. “We knew this was going to be a really tough challenge beating Iowa on their home court. I’m so happy that Bella has been able to show the country what kind of player she is while carrying us to two amazing wins. I’m so happy for her and [fellow senior] Taylor [Baur] and our team.”

South Carolina and Princeton have never played each other, but South Carolina is a perfect 4-0 all-time against Ivy League teams. Princeton is 2-11 all-time against SEC teams, with one of those wins coming earlier this season at Missouri.

A win in this game would send South Carolina to its fifth Elite Eight (and its third in the last four seasons) or Princeton to its first. On the other hand, the losing team will suffer its first loss of the calendar year and just its second of the season. Here are three things to watch:

Point guard play

If there was an option to settle this game by allowing Tyasha Harris and Carlie Littlefield to play one-on-one full-court, I might take it. That’s no knock on all the talent around them—it’s just that Harris and Littlefield are two of the smartest, most talented, and most fun to watch point guards in the game right now. Harris, the winner of the 2020 Dawn Staley Award as the best guard in women’s college basketball, entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 12.0 points, 5.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game. Littlefield, a unanimous First-Team All-Ivy League selection, is equally versatile, averaging 13.7 points, 3.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game. They are only an inch apart in height and extremely competitive, so this would likely be a hotly contested, well-played game from start to finish.

In the more traditional five-on-five format, whichever point guard can get the upper hand will give her team a big advantage. Harris and South Carolina love to push the ball in transition and will look to get easy baskets on the run. But Littlefield is a player who decided on her own as a freshman to pressure opposing point guards full-court, and she swiped 10 steals against George Washington in November, so she has the skills to make life tough for Harris.

Berube said that stopping Harris has to be a full-team effort, but the Tigers can’t overdo that and allow other players to go off. The Gamecocks offense ranks third nationally in points per 100 possessions, and four starters average between 12 and 13 points per game. Meanwhile, the Princeton defense ranks first nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions.

“I’m looking forward to the matchup,” Berube said. “I know two of their freshmen quite well as I was lucky enough to coach both Boston and [Zia] Cooke during the summers of ‘17 and ‘18 with USA Basketball. … We’ll have to stop that Gamecock train – they’re so athletic and talented and playing at a really high level right now.”

The inside matchup—or not?

Aliyah Boston and Bella Alarie are the stars for their teams on the interior, but they may or may not guard one another. Boston is the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and might help slow down the red-hot Alarie, but Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley may not want to risk Boston getting into foul trouble. Instead, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the SEC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, might start out guarding Alarie. Staley then has plenty of options to rotate in, including Boston, LeLe Grissett, Victaria Saxton, Laeticia Amihere, and even 6-1 guard and noted defensive stopper Brea Beal.

On the other end, Alarie is the Tigers’ tallest rotation player at 6’4, so her size will likely be important against the 6’5 Boston. 6’2 senior Taylor Baur and 6′ freshman Ellie Mitchell both average over six rebounds per game and could also be important in defending and boxing out Boston, who averages 9.4 rebounds (3.5 offensive) per game.

How does Princeton handle the Gamecocks’ depth—and crowd?

South Carolina has nine players who average at least 12 minutes per game, and its bench contributes 28.1 points and 15.5 rebounds per game. That depth has helped South Carolina rank fifth nationally in points per game, ninth in field goal percentage, and second in rebounds per game.

South Carolina also has a “sixth player” on the court in its fans. The Gamecocks have led the country in attendance for the past six seasons and have had at least 10,000 fans at their last 82 home games. With this game taking place in Greenville, less than two hours from campus, South Carolina’s fans will surely provide a home-court atmosphere.

This combination of depth and crowd support could be daunting for any opponent, but there are some signs that Princeton can handle it. Princeton has eight players who average at least 14 minutes per game and two more who average nine minutes per game, so fatigue should not be a major issue. The Tigers are experienced—while this is the program’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance, this is its third straight NCAA Tournament bid—and they just beat Iowa on the Hawkeyes’ home court. (Iowa ranked tenth in average attendance this season with over 7,100 fans per game.) That improved Princeton’s record on the road to 13-1.

Asked how her Tigers have been so successful on the road, Berube said, “I think this team has done a really good job of treating every game the same, no matter who we are playing. They get up for road games the same way they do for home games. We try to stay as consistent as possible.”

South Carolina has to be one of the favorites to win this simulated tournament, but the Gamecocks will have their hands full with Princeton and will need to play well to advance. As Berube prepared for this Sweet Sixteen matchup, Berube tipped her cap to South Carolina: “What Coach Staley has done with that program is inspiring. What a season they’ve had!”

All non-simulated statistics are from Her Hoop Stats.

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