Women Underseeded Again

When the Pac-10 Tournament concluded a week ago, the hand-wringing began. Would the Stanford women, who ascended to the #1 national ranking the same day that they cut down the nets in San Jose, hold up for one of the four #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament? The answer came Sunday afternoon, and it was sour news for the Cardinal. For the second straight year, Stanford carries a chip on its shoulder into the NCAAs.

The Stanford women made a good deal of history this year.  They concluded the regular season with 20 straight wins, last losing a game in another calendar year.  They snared their third straight Pac-10 Tournament title, on top of their fifth straight and 14th overall conference regular season championship.  A freshman won Pac-10 Player of the Year honors for the first time in conference history, and just the third time anywhere in Division I women's basketball.  The Cardinal set a school record for both scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.  They ended the regular season for the first time in school history with a #1 national ranking.

But the NCAA Selection Committee decided to write a little history of their own by knocking the top-ranked Card down a notch to a surprising #2 seed.  You have to go back more than two decades to find the last time a #1-ranked team did not garner a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  That ignominious honor was last handed to Texas in 1984.

Stanford previously had been seeded atop a bracket six times in school history: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998.  Four of those #1-seeded teams went on to the Final Four.  Both of Stanford's National Championship teams were #1 seeds.  Of course, the last time the Cardinal landed one of the four prized top seeds, they dropped to Harvard and became the first team in the history of either men's or women's college basketball to lose to a #16 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The #2-seeded 2005 edition of the Cardinal will play their opening game in Fresno (Calif.) on Saturday against a South Bay foe, #15 seed Santa Clara.  The game will tip off at approximately 7:30 PM and will be televised live on ESPN2.  Stanford ironically played at Santa Clara this year, while the Maples Pavilion renovation was being completed, but they never faced their neighbors on the court during the 2004-05 season.  The Broncos are familiar to the Card, nevertheless, with sophomore Yasemin Kimyacioglu the younger sister of Stanford senior Sebnem Kimyacioglu.  Santa Clara redshirt sophomore guard Lauren Michalski was also teammates and classmates with Stanford redshirt sophomore center Brooke Smith at Marin Catholic High School.

The other half of Stanford's pod pits #7 seed Iowa State and #10 seed Utah.  The Card and Utes met this year in Salt Lake City in the season opener for both schools, where Stanford won an uneven game, 63-57.

Opening weekend games in Fresno at the Save Mart Center were a given for the Cardinal.  As a lock for one of the top 16 overall seeds, Stanford knew that the pod system would keep them close to home, just a three-hour drive away.  But should the Card advance past the opening weekend, as they will be heavily favored to do, they will have to travel to Kansas City (Mo.) for the Midwest Regionals.  The difference in the path that a #1 has to navigate, as compared to what a #2 seed must face, is not necessarily that great.  Matchups can supercede the advantages or disadvantages that come with facing a higher/lower seed.  But the travel component is a huge disappointment for Stanford, who had hoped they would stay West and play their second weekend in more accessible and familiar Tempe (Ariz.).

A search for answers to this seeding slight will, alas, be incomplete.  There is no published formula or rating system than can give us a mathematical answer for why Stanford slid in the Selection Committee's eyes out of a #1 seed, despite a dominant 20-game winning streak.  On the televised Selection Show on ESPN Sunday, the chairman of committee did comment that Stanford had lost to a team outside the RPI top 50.  That loss came in late December by four points to Oregon, who Jerry Palm and collegerpi.com have currently with a #49 RPI.  The fact does remain that none of the four #1 seeds lost to a team outside the RPI top 25.  The Cardinal were again saddled with a weak strength of schedule, which ranks #40 in the nation and the lowest of any RPI top 20 team.  The Pac-10 is just the sixth strongest conference in the country, as measured by the RPI, which weighed down Stanford's strength of schedule and ultimately knocked them to #7 in the RPI.  The four #1 NCAA seeds were handed out Sunday to the RPI #1, #2, #4 and #5 schools.

There are two mitigating factors, though, which should have been noted by the Selection Committee and will go down in the history books.  First, Stanford lost its two games this year in December with a disadvantaged roster.  They dropped a game in Knoxville against the Tennessee Lady Vols by just three points despite not having the services of Susan Borchardt, who was still recovering from a stress reaction in her left foot.  Stanford lost two games later in Eugene to the Ducks, though Borchardt played just three minutes in only her second game.  Once she regained her conditioning and form, she finished the year starting 14 games for the Cardinal.  The fifth-year senior is a tremendous asset and addition to Stanford's backcourt, as both a ballhandler and a shooter.  The Cardinal are not the same team with vs. without her, and the Committee could and should have recognized as much in looking at Stanford's record.

Second, the Card had their strength of schedule sabotaged when the cowardly Gophers of Minnesota pulled out of the Great Alaska Shootout.  That took one of Stanford's biggest non-conference opponents off the schedule and dealt their SOS and RPI a blow.  Instead of playing Minnesota, who finished the regular season with the #14 RPI, the Card had to play replacement Louisiana-Lafayette at RPI #149.

Last year, the Card finished the regular season with a Pac-10 Tournament title and a #10 national ranking but were shockingly underseeded as a #6 seed.  That forced them to play not only a stacked deck of opponents as they navigated their bracket, but it also sent them to the Midwest Regionals in Norman (Okla.).  Stanford played with a very public chip on their shoulder that March, upsetting #3 seed Oklahoma and #2 seed Vanderbilt before coming within inches of beating #1 seed Tennessee and advancing to the Final Four.

Head Coach Tara VanDerveer:

On the No. 2 seed and playing Santa Clara in the first round:
"We knew we were going to the Tournament, if we hadn't I think it would have been a little stressed in there [the locker room]. We're very excited. Our team has been working very hard this last week after the Pac-10 [Tournament]. I think the [selection] committee was really challenged to figure out who would be the No. 1 seeds and that's a good problem to have in women's basketball. Things aren't so clear-cut and there are a lot of great teams. There will be a lot of "upsets," but I don't see them being necessarily upsets. We're dividing a family in this first game [Sebnem and Yasemin Kimyacioglu], but I just think it's big sister's turn! We really have to focus on Santa Clara and play really well against them. They came out and did really well in their conference tournament, but if I need to, I'll call Seb's dad to get a scouting report. Our team has been working really hard and they enjoy playing with each other. We just want to keep it going."

On not being a No. 1 seed:
"A long time ago, I stopped trying to figure out the committee and seeds. What's much more important to me is our team being healthy and coming out and playing well. Our situation, the numbers are irrelevant. It's getting there. We're going to Fresno, which is good for us in terms of our fans being able to come and then Kansas City, we want to get there and do our very best."

On being a No. 2 seed:
"What were the men's and women's champions seeded last year? [Connecticut men and women were both No. 2 seeds]. Two's all right with me. I remember in 1990, we were never ranked No. 1. And in our bracket, and it was a smaller bracket than 64, so there weren't even 16 teams, we had seven of the top-20 teams in our one bracket. I remember going home and just getting all upset about it, and since then, I've let it go. You can't second-guess the committee; we just have to play. That's the approach I use with our tem. The game is going to happen and we just have to get ready. Our bigger concerns are getting T'Nae [Thiel] healthy and rebounding. It's not seeding and it's not brackets. I believe in our team and I love coaching this team and we want to play six more games."

On the Pac-10 getting five teams in:
"That's awesome, five teams! Southern Cal, I hope they keep playing the way they played against us, that would be really fun. I really feel the Pac-10 has gotten us ready. You're not going to play against a more aggressive defense than Arizona State; you're not going to play against anyone bigger than Shawntinice Polk [Arizona]; you're not going to play against a team deeper than USC or as big and deep as Oregon. And you're not going to play against a better individual player than Nikki Blue [UCLA]. I think we're in good shape."

Susan King Borchardt:

On UConn as the No. 3 seed in Kansas City:
"I think we're focused on Santa Clara right now, to be honest. More so than that, we're focused on having a good week of practice and coming out and playing good Stanford basketball. We're really focused on ourselves."

On not being a No. 1 seed:
"When we're playing well, I think we can play with anyone and I think we have demonstrated that this year. Everything is all good and we're just going to go play good basketball and not worry about that."

On thinking about being a No. 1 seed before the selection was announced:
"I really didn't know, I think there were a lot of good teams out there that could have gotten it, which they discussed on there [ESPN]. But I wasn't sure."

Sebnem Kimyacioglu:

On playing Santa Clara, her sister's team, in the first round:
"I thought we may both end up in Fresno, but I really didn't expect to play them in the first round. But we're both really good competitors and we're going to come out there with our A-game."

On Santa Clara:
"I've seen them play a few times and they're a very good team, but I think we'll be prepared and so will they. It will be a good match-up."

On her parents' reaction:
"They're probably picking up their jaws! No, they're excited, I'm sure they're really excited that we'll be at the same place and they'll get to see both of us play. I don't think they were expecting to see us play at the same time, but I think it will be interesting. They're excited to see their daughters play, and we have similar [school] colors, so they don't really have to plan their wardrobe out too much."

Candice Wiggins:

On her first NCAA Tournament:
"I'm really excited, I was just talking about it to my friends [at other schools] who are also freshmen. To be watching it on tv and now to be experiencing it first-hand, it's really exciting."

Kelley Suminski:

On thinking about being a No. 1 seed before the selection was announced:
"I thought we had a good shot, definitely. I believe we're one of the top teams in the nation, but I don't think we're disappointed. We're just excited to have an opponent and to be focused on who we're playing against. I'm just excited to play."

On this being her last NCAA Tournament:
"This means everything to us. It's our last chance. This is what I want more than anything in the world right now, to make it to the Final Four."

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