Stanford's Selection Sunday proceeded very much like the Final Bracketology Update's (link) projected worst-case scenario. According to ESPN's interview with committee chair Lynn Parkes, the committee agreed LSU and Tennessee were far and away the best two teams; Duke and Ohio State were the bottom #2 seeds; and the four teams in the middle - Stanford, Baylor, North Carolina and Michigan State - all possessed virtually identical résumés .
However, the committee needed to distinguish between these middle four teams, and, in order to do so, the committee significantly studied each team's worst loss. The eventual third #1 seed Michigan State lost on a neutral court to RPI #23 TCU, 80-75; the eventual fourth #1 seed North Carolina lost at RPI #20 Penn State, 77-71; top #2 seed Baylor lost at RPI #71 Nebraska, 103-99, in three overtimes; and second #2 seed Stanford lost at RPI #49 Oregon, 62-58. While the difference between these losses is only slight, the four teams had to be distinguished, and, even prior to Selection Sunday, Stanford understood they could end up a two seed.
While a #2 seed is understandable, several additional factors conspire against the Cardinal. As one of the top #2 seeds, Stanford should draw into the same region as one of the bottom #3 seeds. However, placed into Stanford's region stands the Connecticut Huskies, arguably the strongest #3seed in the field, along with Rutgers. While the potential Sweet 16 match-up certainly would entice fans, the Cardinal might have a much easier match-up against two of the other #3 seeds: Minnesota (1-6 versus the current RPI Top 25) or Texas (only 8-7 away from home).
Connecticut is hardly the only formidable opponent separating Stanford from its third national crown, as the Cardinal got placed into a draw much more difficult overall than the top-ranked team in the country might expect. The first round match-up against Santa Clara appears to be the only true breather on the schedule, for after the game against the Broncos, the Cardinal will face either a Utah team that Stanford squeaked by 63-57 in the season-opener or an Iowa State team that has hung tough with the elite teams of the Big 12. A close second round game might also force the Cardinal to bring back senior forward T'Nae Thiel earlier than would be ideal for the fractured bone in the Texan's left foot.
If the Cardinal survive the opening weekend, Connecticut looms as the Sweet 16 match-up, with that game's victor most likely facing top-seeded Michigan State or, at a huge crowd disadvantage, Kansas State in the Kansas City Regional final. If Stanford wins the Kansas City Regional and the committee's seedings hold to form, the Card would still need to defeat Tennessee and LSU to capture its first title in 13 years. With the difficult draw, however, comes a chance for the Cardinal to prove themselves to the country. If Stanford does capture the national crown, it would be the program's most impressive run ever, as the team would cap a 26-game winning streak by defeating four consecutive top-10 opponents en route to the crown.
In addition to placing several tough teams on a collision course with the Cardinal, the committee placed Stanford in the Kansas City Regional, while placing the other top #2 seed, Baylor, in the Tempe regional, a move that seems illogical from both schools' perspectives. Tempe, a Pac-10 venue, would seem a more natural venue for the Cardinal, while Kansas City, in the heart of Big 12 country, would seem a more hospitable site for the Big 12 champion Lady Bears.
The placements of Baylor and Stanford were hardly the committee's only bizarre decisions. While Stanford has plenty of reason to dislike their draw, the team with the most to complain about is undoubtedly the Temple Lady Owls. The 27-3 squad has won 24 games in a row and stands ranked #15 in the country with an RPI of 21, yet the team received only a #6 seed from the committee. Most analysts felt Temple had a comparable résumé to Minnesota (24-7, RPI #14, only 1-6 against RPI Top 25), who was quite lucky to receive a #3 seed.
The committee must have heavily weighed conference tournament performance, as Pac-10 Tournament runner-up Arizona State (22-9, RPI #22) was pleasantly surprised with their #5 seed. Nonetheless, if the Sun Devils can win their first two games in Fresno against Eastern Kentucky and the Notre Dame/UCSB victor, they will then have home court advantage in the Tempe regionals. While probable opponents UNC and Baylor are formidable, the home court would give the Sun Devils a strong possibility of winning the bracket and advancing to the Final Four. Indeed, the Pac-10 on the whole will have plenty of chance to make noise this tournament as #9 seed Arizona, #5 seed Arizona State, #2 seed Stanford, #10 seed Oregon and #8 seed USC all received bids. The five Pac-10 bids mark the most since 1998.
Of those Pac-10 teams, Stanford appears most likely to make the deepest run in its 18th consecutive NCAA tournament. This year marks the sixth year the Cardinal enter as a #2 seed. In their previous five attempts as a #2 seed, the Cardinal have reached the Elite Eight four times and the Final Four twice. Another positive trend is that a first-round win over Santa Clara would give the Cardinal their sixth 30-win season. The previous five 30-win seasons have produced four Final Four trips and two National Championships.
20 consecutive wins by an average of over 20 points have put the Cardinal on pace to break the school record for scoring defense this season. Stanford has limited opponents to 55.0 points per game, topping last year's record of 58.4 points allowed. If this year's Cardinal do set a new mark, it would mark third season in a row that the Cardinal has broken the school record for scoring defense.
This weekend presents Stanford with the opportunity to improve all these streaks and, more importantly, take two steps towards their third national title. First on the slate are the Santa Clara Broncos (17-13). This is Santa Clara's sixth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, although the Broncos stand only 1-5 all-time in the Big Dance. Santa Clara won their last three games to win the West Coast Conference Tournament title and claim the conference's automatic bid, but the Broncos had gone just 5-5 in their last 10 regular season games. The teams' only common opponent is Eastern Washington, whom both schools beat easily: Santa Clara by a 79-52 margin on January 2 and Stanford by 91-50 score on November 12. The links between the two schools do not end there, as Santa Clara's Yasemin Kimyacioglu is the younger sister of Stanford's Sebnem Kimyacioglu. The two sisters facing each other for the first time ever is a nice storyline, but the statistics indicate the Cardinal should roll easily in this one.
Two double-digit scorers lead the Broncos: 5'9" senior guard Quinn Thomas averages 14 points per game, and 5'10" redshirt junior guard Michelle Cozad chips in nearly 13 points each game. While those individual statistics are impressive, Santa Clara's team statistics show several defensive weaknesses the Cardinal should be able to exploit. Per game, Santa Clara allows an average of 69 points on 41% shooting, yields opponents 43 rebounds and turns the ball over an average of 16.6 times. Stanford's numbers (55 points allowed on 34.8% shooting, 33.3 rebounds allowed and 14.2 turnovers) are not only significantly stronger, but also have come against much tougher competition. All indications suggest the Cardinal should romp in an easy first-round victory.
The second-round opponents, by contrast, look much more competitive. If the seedings hold to form, the Cardinal will face #7 seed Iowa State (23-6) in Fresno on Monday night. Iowa State started the year with an 18-2 record before the Cyclones then endured a 1-3 slump. Since then, however, Iowa State won four straight games and advanced to the Big 12 Quarterfinals, where they narrowly lost to Texas Tech, 61-59.
Depth is not a strength of this Cyclone squad. Four of Iowa State's five starters average over 30 minutes per game; the starters combine for 62.7 of the team's 72.3 points per game, or 87% of the scoring; and only six Cyclones have played in every game this season. Despite their lack of rest, however, the starting lineup has produced with tremendous efficiency for the Cyclones this year. Leading the squad is all-around threat 5'11" fifth-year senior guard Anne O'Neil, averaging 17 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 46% overall shooting, 50% three-point shooting and 85% shooting from the charity stripe.
The team statistics show a Cyclone squad slightly poorer than Stanford in most categories. The teams are essentially even in shooting percentage, but while Iowa State wins by an average of 13.5 points, outrebounds opponents by an average of 4.8 boards and turns the ball over 14.8 times per game, Stanford's numbers of a 22.3 scoring margin, 6.6 rebounding margin and 14.2 turnovers are all slightly better.
Stanford also has the advantage in terms of common opponents. While Iowa State has lost to Texas Tech twice this season (89-62 on February 8th and 61-59 on March 9th) Stanford escaped Lubbock with a 61-58 victory over the Lady Red Raiders on November 28. The Cardinal have also defeated the Cyclones twice in the schools' only two meetings. With Tara VanDerveer at the helm for both games, Stanford won the first match-up, 83-82, on January 7, 1986 and emerged victorious in the second contest, 95-82, on November 21, 1999.
Stanford's other possible second-round opponent is the # 10 seed Utah Utes (25-6).
Stanford has won all seven all-time match-ups against the Utes, with the Cardinal most recently handing Utah its first loss of the year, 63-57, in both schools' season opener on November 19. The game, played in Utah, saw freshman guard Candice Wiggins score 24 and redshirt sophomore center Brooke Smith add 11 en route to the Cardinal victory. However 6'1" junior forward Kim Smith, 6'3" freshman center Deanne Hanchett, 5'10" junior guard Shona Thorburn and 5'10" senior guard Lana Sitterud all scored in double-digits for the Utes to give Stanford one of its toughest games on the season. The game played very evenly statistically as Stanford's 43.4% overall shooting barely topped Utah's 42.3%, Utah's 33 boards just beat Stanford's 31, and both squads finished with more turnovers than assists.
If the Cardinal wish to produce the same final outcome in a rematch, they will have to focus on stopping two key Utes. Smith averages a team-high 18 points and nine rebounds on 51% overall shooting and 84% free throw shooting, while Thorburn averages 15.3 points, six rebounds and a remarkable 6.6 assists per game. To put Thorburn's assist statistic into perspective, no Cardinal averages over three assists per game.
The Washington Huskies are the only common opponent the Utes and the Cardinal share this season. Utah defeated the Huskies, 64-56, on December 4, while Stanford twice downed the Huskies by larger margins: 74-61 on January 4 and 82-60 on January 27.
While the Utes have accumulated their team statistics largely against weaker Mountain West Conference foes, Stanford still holds the edge in nearly every statistical category. The Cardinal boast a stronger scoring margin (22.3 versus 12), rebounding margin (6.6 versus 4.6), shooting percentage (47.8% versus 42.9%). and turnover margin (3.9 versus 2.1) than do the Utes. All in all, the Cardinal appear well-suited to win two games in Fresno this upcoming weekend, though the latter match-up may be harder than a casual fan would expect.
Daniel Novinson is a freshman at Stanford University. He's broadcasting women's basketball on KZSU - listen along at kzsu.org or 90.1 FM. Daniel welcomes any feedback at email@example.com.
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