With Connecticut and California both punching their tickets to New Orleans on Monday night, just two Elite Eight games remain on the docket for Tuesday—and they are filled to the brim with star power.
Before the distribution of beads and celebratory Cajun food begins among the Final Four teams for this year's NCAA tournament in New Orleans, we may be seeing a coronation for the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins is the best-known player in the mainstream remaining, and she's joined by a group of eclectic stars representing the other three teams in Tuesday's action.
While Brittney Griner's exit casts a bit of a shadow on proceedings, the women's game remains filled with top-tier individual talents. That's especially the case when compared to the men's side, where only Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams remain as likely lottery picks.
It's a drastic contrast to the stereotype. The women's game is largely seen as team-oriented, with high-pass possessions and just a few ascendant stars worth watching, whereas the men's side is historically more individualistic. The script has been flipped this year, and it's been thrilling to watch.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of each team's biggest star performer before Tuesday night's tip offs.
OKC Region: No. 5 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 2 Tennessee Lady Volunteers
Shoni Schimmel, G, Louisville
Hidden behind all of the controversy regarding the Cardinals' physicality in their upset-of-the-century defeat of No. 1 Baylor on Sunday was the fact that it was a high-scoring game. Louisville defeated Baylor, 82-81, and the teams combined to score 95 points in the second half—not exactly what you would call Syracuse-level team defense for either side.
Other than the first-half physicality, the key for Louisville was lights-out shooting. The Cardinals made 16-of-25 from three-point land, jacking up just six more shots inside the arc than outside. It was a vision of long-range ecstasy, filled with perfect rotations and the occasional "now that ain't even right" shot from well beyond the painted stripe.
Schimmel, as it so happens, ascended more than any other Cardinal on Sunday. She knocked down 6-of-14 shots, including a 5-of-8 clip from distance—a figure only exceeded in the contest by teammate Antonita Slaughter. The team's leading scorer, Schimmel has always been a bit of a volume-over-efficiency type player but remained Louisville's go-to shooter when the chips were down.
Looking to knock off their second powerhouse in three days, the Cardinals will need that performance again on Tuesday. Schimmel shoots just 34 percent from distance for the season and 39.2 percent overall, so perhaps asking her for a repeat of her 22-point effort is a little much. But without it, Louisville won't be able to join its male counterparts in cutting down the regional nets.
Meighan Simmons, G, Tennessee
Speaking of on-again, off-again guards, Simmons may hold the key to the entire tournament—not just Tuesday night. When the junior guard is hitting her shots, there may be no more unstoppable player left in the tournament. She can take anyone from anywhere on the floor, delivering knockout blows from beyond the arc and dribble drives.
When Simmons is off, however, look out in the first row.
She clanked all but one of her 15 shots in Tennessee's victory over Oklahoma on Sunday, shooting her shots from Oklahoma City and half of them landing back in Knoxville. It was the worst of her tournament-long struggles with her shot, which included a 1-of-7 performance from distance against Oral Roberts in the round of 64.
That's been Simmons' statistical DNA all season—one game wildly off the mark, the next looking like one of the best players in the nation. For the overall campaign, her performance has vacillated far more to the good side than bad. She's averaging 17 points per game while taking on a scoring burden that very few of her teammates could handle.
The problem with that strategy is those teammates become dependent—especially this late in the tournament. Tennessee is the favorite, and rightfully so. But Simmons' stat line cannot mirror her Sweet 16 box score if the Volunteers are going to survive an exceedingly confident Cardinals team.
Norfolk Region: No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Elizabeth Williams, C, Duke
In Duke's ugly, drag-out victory over Nebraska on Sunday, it became clear how important Williams was to the Blue Devils. Despite a historically bad 3-of-24 shooting performance from deep, the Cornhuskers continued chucking shots from beyond the arc.
Why? Williams was waiting if they didn't. Though her offensive game wasn't exactly burgeoning, she stuffed seven shots en route to a 10-9-7 performance that nearly gave her a Larry Sanders-esque triple-double. It was a par-for-the-course night for Williams, a sophomore center who leads the Blue Devils in points (15.4) and blocks (3.0) per game.
With Brittney Griner eliminated, there is no doubting who the most dominant interior force remaining in the tournament is. Williams gives Duke a distinct, shot-swatting asset that the other potential Final Four teams cannot match—Notre Dame included.
That should be especially vital on Tuesday. The Irish play without a traditional center—Natalie Achonwa is their biggest player—yet they spend less time beyond the three-point line than one would expect. Skylar Diggins is the only Notre Dame player averaging better than one three-point field goal per game, and the Irish have no regular rotation stars who even hit a plus-percentage from deep.
With the Irish undoubtedly looking to make their way inside, Williams' intimidation factor will be just as important as her scoring for Duke.
Skylar Diggins, G, Notre Dame
Griner's elimination also has a secondary effect on Tuesday's game—it theoretically clears the path for Diggins to win an NCAA title. The Notre Dame guard has come within one game each of the past two seasons, falling to Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor last season in the season's final game.
Though there are some fearsome teams remaining, the Lady Bears' shocking loss puts Notre Dame in the spotlight as a favorite. Whether the Irish are able to come up with that win remains very much in their star player's hands.
The team's leading scorer and offensive spark plug, Diggins has been ascending through every round of the Big Dance. She poured in 27 points and nine assists in Notre Dame's Sweet 16 win over Kansas, becoming the school's all-time leading scorer in the process.
As Williams lurks in the middle for Duke, Diggins' distribution role becomes nearly as important as her scoring. She needs to put the ball in advantageous places for her co-stars to avoid the orange leather getting splatted to the ground like a gnat.
And, of course, scoring remains pertinent. Diggins is Notre Dame's most consistent shooter from beyond the arc, and knocking a few down from deep early should help the Irish's spacing immensely. Without a few early makes to spread the defense, Duke could easily just pack the paint and make life miserable for Diggins and her teammates—just like the Blue Devils did versus Nebraska.
With all eyes resting on the tournament's biggest remaining star, this is Diggins' moment to shine.