Guru's WNBA Weekly Outlook: Chicago and Connecticut Battle West To Stay On Top of East
By Mel Greenberg
When Seattle and Chicago made the offseason deal that sent Swin Cash and Le'coe Willingham from the Storm in the Northwest to the suburbs of the Windy City near Lake Michigan for the Sky's No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA draft, there was a sense that things might go topsy turvy in the positioning of both teams.
Chicago, which had been in a futile pursuit of a playoff berth in the franchise's six-year history, seemed to have the potential to finally land in the postseason.
And, Seattle, which was already going to be without Australian veteran sensation Lauren Jackson until after the Olympics, might be relegated to a work in progress despite adding former Tennessee star Shekinna Stricklen with the draft pick and former New York Liberty center Ann Wauters, who had been overseas.
Of course, there have been additional roster moves on both sides but when the two meet in an East-West matchup Wednesday night in Illinois for the first time since the deal, their respective situations will, indeed, be quite opposite what has been the norm in the series.
Chicago (6-1), on an all-time high and five-game win streak, will be seeking to at least stay deadlocked with the Connecticut Sun (6-1) or move ahead to sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference if the Sun, also playing Wednesday, succumb at home in a key East-West game with the visiting Los Angeles Sparks (6-1).
Seattle (1-6), whose lone triumph has been at the expense of the Western cellar-dwelling Tulsa Shock (0-8), is scrambling to stay close to the teams contending for the playoffs.
But at the time of the deal, Storm executive Karen Bryant and coach-general manager Brian Agler spoke more of the long-range future and getting positioned to grow young talent into title contenders.
Not making the playoffs means gaining access to the draft lottery and a shot at one of several premium picks, most notably Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, when the selections are made next April.
Several WNBA coaches passing through Newark, Del. this past season when the Blue Hens were making team history with a national ranking and a first-ever Colonial Athletic Association title, characterized Delle Donne as a "young Lauren Jackson."
So should that be the way the ping pong balls rotate with Seattle among the hopefuls, that might be quite the combination for the future.
Meanwhile, for all the talk about the additions in the Midwest, which includes such veterans as former Notre Dame, WNBA Detroit and San Antonio star Ruth Riley, and veteran All-Star point guard Ticha Penicheiro, the story of the Sky has been the scoring explosion and clutch shooting by former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, a third-year pro who gave up her senior season to go play in Europe and prepare herself for the league.
Her move at the time ultimately became a nightmare for Rutgers but it seems to played out like a dream for Prince.
She made the first of several season homecomings Sunday as Chicago beat New York in the Liberty's temporary Prudential Center home in Newark, N.J., within less than an hour's drive from where Prince did her thing for the Scarlet Knights.
The Sky have now navigated two big weeks of competition and have pulled out narrow victories to get a quick jump start that certainly makes it seem likely the postseason may become a reality at last.
Meanwhile, a New York City background, of which Prince is a holder, is also helping Connecticut thrive on the play of former UConn star Tina Charles, who has become the fastest person to reach 50 double doubles in the WNBA, which occurred Sunday in her 75th game with a win over the Atlanta Dream (3-5) at home.
The rebounding-scoring sensation also matched the franchise record of 50 set by Taj McWilliams-Franklin, which took much longer -- in fact enough time that one could travel around the world and still show up for the moment the original mark was set.
Connecticut could be a hybrid of Seattle and Chicago -- the former in terms of having had enough talent to twice make the WNBA finals and the latter in terms of collecting some lottery picks, the most significant being the deal prior to 2010 that sent All-Star and Olympian Lindsay Whalen home to Minnesota in return from which the eventual 2012 WNBA-champion Lynx sent the overall No. 1 pick that became Charles and former UConn star point guard Renee Montgomery.
The Sun are off to a good start in the heart of a difficult stretch with last weekend's sweep of the Indiana Fever (4-2) on the road and Atlanta at home.
All that said, let's go through the standings conference-by-conference, team-by-team, to do the weekly look ahead at what is at stake between now and Sunday.
Chicago Sky (6-1) -- Coach Pokey Chatman's group has made good for two straight weeks. Now comes a chance to keep the streak going and enhance the progress hosting Seattle Wednesday night in a game Chicago becomes the favorite, and then traveling to Indiana Saturday night attempting to put a little more distance from the Fever, who own the sole victory opponents have gained from the Sky.
For that reason, alone, a win is necessary to avoid Indiana getting near claiming a season series perk.
A sweep on the week keeps the hammer going, a split is acceptable, though the nature of the 1-1 is open to debate as to what is more acceptable, and a wipeout the other way is certainly a setback.
Connecticut Sun (6-1) -- As the Sun tries to keep shinning, this week's triple-pack is certainly a group of challenges for Connecticut to make a statement.
The game hosting Los Angeles means a chance to beat the Sparks, one of the two top guns out of the West along with Minnesota, which won at the finish in Connecticut last month.
After an opening home-and-home sweep of New York last month, a win at home Friday already puts one season series in the Sun's pocket, while a win at Atlanta on Sunday gets Connecticut close to another series triumph while also building up conference wins.
A sweep speaks for itself. Going 2-1 is OK with some arguing in advance, take the conference Ws if that's the case. If the Sun go 1-2 between now and Sunday, some traction gets lost, while 0-3 can turn joy into a downer real quick.
Indiana Fever (4-2) -- There's a lot of early spacing between games in the Fever schedule. The weekend offers a back-to-back Friday and Saturday with a visit to Washingtgon (1-5) first to play the Mystics and then home to host Chicago Saturday in a game that could be called a must because it means a chance to get close to a season-series win over the Sky.
So a sweep makes things right with the world and if it is going to be a split, well, hard to say. A loss to Washington is a big upset setback and then there is little time to recover for Chicago, which will have had two days of rest.
Atlanta Dream (3-5) -- The two-time defending Eastern Conference playoff champions are doing a little better than last season's bumpy start and this one is going to have to be maintained until after the Olympics when Erika de Souza and Iziane Castro Marques return from playing on other national teams.
This week can finish great or not-so-great, but not totally awful if Connecticut handles New York on Friday.
Los Angeles visits Atlanta the same night, a chance to test the Dream on how they can perform in an East-West title against one of the dynamos from the other side of the Mississippi. Then Sunday's visit from Connecticut offers a chance for revenge for last Sunday's loss and to stay even in the conference series with the Sun.
A sweep is a downer but as long as the Dream can keep things from becoming a disaster before the Olympics are over, then it may not be all that bad.
New York Liberty (3-6) -- Beating Washington was a must and it was achieved even though a huge lead was almost squandered but the loss to Chicago 48 hours later ended the giddiness over the previous set of wins over Indiana and Atlanta.
The schedule is about to get real rough so stopping Connecticut on Friday night is a priority in terms of hanging on to a shot at the series, though the Liberty have no International reinforcements coming after the Olympics.
That's when the Sun and New York will open stretch play with an immediate set of games against each other to finish out their 2012 East competition in the regular season.
Washington Mystics (1-5) -- Well, if the Mystics have playoff ideas, they will have been off all week with plenty of rest to take on Indiana Friday night. On the other hand, the fanbase has endured medicority once before to land an overall No. 1 pick.
Minnesota Lynx (9-0) -- A year ago, a two-game weekend road trip to Phoenix and Seattle seemed like a challlenge while dominating the West.
Now it is simply about remaining focus, though Friday night's visit to the Mercury can result in a new best-ever WNBA start at 10-0.
Phoenix seems likely to be without Diana Taurausi for a while because of a hip flexor, a major absence joining the one that was already set in the preseason when news came of Penny Taylor's sideline injury until 2013.
Seattle, well, the Storm will be coming off the Tulsa game either mad over a loss or riding high with a win.
Los Angeles Sparks (6-1) -- A three-game road trip gives L.A. a chance to test itself crossing conferences to visit Connecticut Wednesday and Atlanta Friday, a game that features Sparks coach Carol Ross' first visit to Georgia since leaving the Dream as an assistant to take over the Los Angeles sidelines. Then it's back into the conference to visit San Antonio Saturday.
The worst case seems a 1-2 week, though that conservative approach is extremely close to a 2-1 shot considering Atlanta's situation. A Sparks 3-0 sweep almost ensures the worst finish in the West will be second, unknowns not withstanding, since the other four conference teams are likely to tumble-dry against each other for what will be a playoff shot or off to the lottery.
San Antonio Silver Stars (3-4) -- Well, if the Alamo ladies think they're a playoff team, Los Angeles' Saturday visit gives them a chance to prove it in their only game of the week.
But if Vegas had the game on its sportsbook, the Silver Stars have a big task ahead as the odds would say. A win is great but considering San Antonio has three other teams on a somewhat more level playing field in the conference, losing won't be the end of the world.
Phoenix Mercury (2-5) -- Minnesota visits Friday offering the fantasy for the Mercury of a morale-boosting unlikely upset of the defending champions.
But then things get balanced Sunday with a visit to Tulsa, though the Shock are quite capable, though nothing to show yet, of cooling the Mercury.
Seattle Storm (1-6) -- Most Storm matters were dealt with as part of the opening discussion to set up this weekly overview. But the three-game set is not pretty, though beating Chicago on the road Wednesday would be a boost.
Then it's on to Tulsa, Friday, with the best chance for a win, followed by Minnesota's visit Sunday with the Lynx already owning one blowout in the season series opener.
So a sweep, and maybe everyone in the Emerald City will have to stop talking about draft picks. Jackson did rescue the Storm after coming back from the injury last season.
A 2-1 would also cause excitment, though it would be tempered if the loss is to Tulsa. Now 1-2 is what everyone thinks is what is immediately ahead, but 0-3, some of the techno-geniuses better start work on live-streaming this winter of Baylor, Delaware or Notre Dame games.
Tulsa Shock (0-8) -- People who just look at records are tough to convince this group is actually performing better than the 3-31 dubious record-setters of a year ago. When Australian Liz Cambage comes back from the Olympics, the Shock are going to be spoilers and, as it keeps getting said, that East-West home-and-home at the end of the season with New York could have, ahem, implications.
Though having said all that, Seattle and Tulsa visit this weekend so 2-0 from the Shock may not be a shock. Even a split would be progress depending how the games go. But 0-2? Come back next week and try again.
And that's the WNBA overall scene until next week, though the Guru will be tweeting from somewhere, either Connecticut or Washington at @womhoopsguru.
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