No. 12 Penn vs. No. 5 Texas A&M: NCAA Tournament preview

On Monday night, the Penn women’s basketball team (22-7, 13-1 Ivy) was selected to play Texas A&M (21-11, 9-7 SEC) in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. While the Quakers last two tournament appearances were in College Park, Md., Penn will travel out to Los Angeles for a Saturday 6 p.m. (9 p.m. EST) start.

Many bracketologists had listed Penn as a No. 13 or 14 seed, but the committee noted the team’s experience, conference strength (eighth in the nation), league record, Ivy Tournament win and strong out-of-conference schedule to move them up to a more favorable No. 12 seed. The Aggies, the No. 5 seed in the Bridgeport Regional were the No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament and made it to the semifinals, before losing 66-50 to Mississippi State (No. 2 in the SEC; No. 6 in the nation). While this is Penn’s fifth overall appearance, it is the Aggies’ 12th straight trip to the Big Dance.

The Aggies are coached by Gary Blair, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, who has a career record of 738-303. He is 13th in all-time wins and No. 8 in active victories. The team is led by Khaalia Hillsman, Curtyce Knox, and Danni Williams, second-team All-SEC members. Hillsman is a 6’5″ junior who is averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Williams, a 5’10” sophomore guard, is the team’s leading scorer who is putting up 16.8 points a game. Knox, a 5’6″ redshirt senior, adds 10.9 points and a nation-leading 9.2 assists per game.

As a team, A&M averages 69.7 points a game. The Aggies are a strong shooting team, making 44.2 percent overall and 38.1 percent from three. Averaging only 4.1 threes a game, their points mostly come from inside the arc – shooting 45.5 percent and 21.5 baskets from two, while hitting 76.9 percent and 14.6 from the charity stripe.

Penn, though, excels on the defensive end, where it has held opponents to 51.7 points a game (third-best in the nation) and 34.6 percent shooting. The Red and Blue also committed the second-fewest fouls in the country, so the Aggies may not find themselves at the line as often as they would like.

Kasey Chambers, Penn’s best on-the-ball defender, will spend the night covering Knox. When she tirelessly covered Shayna Mehta on Saturday, the Brown guard scored 19 points but shot 10 percent below her conference numbers. Similarly, the goal will be to wear Knox down and frustrate her as she tries to get her double-double.

Penn has held its opponents to 5.4 threes a game on 30.2 percent shooting. Matched with the Aggies’ low numbers, Anna Ross should be able to spend more time helping out Sydney Stipanovich and Michelle Nwokedi defending inside the arc, where the Quakers hold its opponents to 13.8 baskets and 36.7 percent two-point shooting. Stipanovich and Nwokedi, the last two Ivy Players of the Year, will need to use their shot-blocking skills (averaging 4.8 blocks combined) to pressure Hillsman, who shoots close to the basket at 62.5 percent.

While the Aggies are an excellent rebounding team, the Quakers are also solid in that department. The Aggies’ offensive percentage is 39.3 percent and Penn is 36.8 percent. On the defensive side, Penn rebounds at 69.6 percent and A&M is 69.3 percent. Penn had some struggles on the boards against Brown and Princeton this weekend, but the Aggies limited reliance on the three should allow Penn to successfully refocus its rebounding energies.

While the defense should be present for Penn, the bigger challenge may be on the offensive side.  Against a team that averages close to 70 points a game, Penn will need to improve on its 61.3 points per game. The Quakers were able to score 71 against Brown on Saturday, but they will be going up against a stingier Aggies defense.

The Quakers average 9.2 made free throws, so the points are going to have to come from the field.  Nwokedi is averaging 15.1 points on 41.6 percent shooting to lead Penn. Anna Ross, a second-team All-Ivy and first-team All-Ivy Tournament player, has averaged 9.3 points on 36.6 percent shooting.  Over her last four games, all against Ivy playoff teams, she has averaged 14.0 points on 52.7 percent shooting. Stipanovich, the team’s second leading scorer with 10.6 points a game on 42.2 percent shooting, has only averaged 4.0 points on 22.7 percent shooting over her last three games.

The Aggies limit three-pointers, where they allow its opponents only 4.9 a game on 31.6 percent shooting. Lauren Whitlach was Penn’s best three-point shooter, averaging 1.9 made threes a game, but she has been out the second half of the year. Ross (1.3 made threes at 38.6 percent), Chambers (1.2 made threes at 33.7 percent), Beth Brzozowski (1.1 made threes at 35.5 percent) and Nwokedi (0.9 made threes at 38.6 percent) have compensated for that loss, and will have to increase their production if Stipanovich cannot find her shooting touch.

The Quakers will not be intimidated by the Aggies or playing on the national stage. As typical of a No. 12 seed, they will need to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to pull off the upset. If they can continue to play their disciplined style while getting a small improvement in its offensive output, Penn has a good chance at making it into the second round to play either No. 13 Boise State or No. 4 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Monday.

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