KC: Two Intriguing Games

The NCAA pairings in Kansas City feel like a Final Four much more than a pair of Sweet 16 games. Two get a better handles on how Stanford vs. Connecticut and Vanderbilt vs. Michigan State will play out today, check out this detailed preview of matchups.

'Sixteen down to four.' We got that right.

'Look for the top three seeds, plus #5 Vanderbilt, to find their way to Kansas City.' I guess we got that right, too.

But now it's crunch time, for players and prognosticators, and there are no easy wins left. In the first two rounds, the top of the Kansas City bracket was pushed hard, playing some close contests, while the bottom of the bracket cruised through two lopsided wins. Does that mean anything?

We think it does, and that the winner of the UConn-Stanford game is going to the Final Four. They do, however, still have to play the games.

#1 Michigan State Spartans
East Lansing MI
44,836 students
Big Ten Conference (14-2; 30-3 overall)
Big Ten tournament and season champions
AP: #6
RPI: 4
SOS: 18
Coach: Joanne P. McCallie (fifth year)
#5 Vanderbilt Commodores
Nashville TN
44,836 students
Southeastern Conference (10-4; 24-7 overall)
At Large Bid
AP: #18
RPI: 27
SOS: 47
Coach: Melanie Balcomb (third year)
Unlike the deep, variable rosters for Stanford and UConn (see below), Michigan State and Vanderbilt rely on six players to do the job. What you see is what you will always see, and the matchups are clear.

Center: MSU's Kelli Roehrig makes even Janelle McCarville of Minnesota look small. Roehrig is a lane-filler, with good hands and capable offensive skills, but she is slow. Carla Thomas is the opposite: agile, quick, slight, a great leaper. Thomas scores better, by a few points a game, Roehrig rebounds one board better per game. Vandy would be smart to push the ball past Roehrig's lumbering transition from offense to defense, and feed Thomas early and often. Roehrig is bigger than anyone Vandy has to guard her, and should be the focus if the Spartans can make it a halfcourt contest.

Forward: Vanderbilt's Ashley Early is one of the best players in the country. There is no way that Liz Shimek of MSU will be able to guard her, and if Roehrig helps out, she will pass the ball to Thomas for a score. This one-two punch is the Commodores' biggest advantage, and it should make the difference. Early will get her 18.5 points and nine boards every game, including this one. Not that Shimek is a push-over. She is tough, dogged and smart. She, too, is her team's leading scorer. But she does not have Early's skills in any phase of the game, though she turns the ball over less often. Again, who sets the tempo may be the deciding factor. In the halfcourt, Michigan State is steady and efficient. But Vanderbilt could run the the Spartans out of the game.

Guards: Neither squad has a real wing player, as each keeps three guards on the floor most of the time. Kristin Haynie is one of the best point guards in the country, and everyone knows it. She shoots well (.357), though not often (only 15 on the year) from the outside, and averages 10.5 points, 5.2 assists, and a surprising 6.6 rebounds per game. She leads her team in steals with 105. Her much less famous counterpart Dee Davis has more assists than Haynie (185 to 160), shoots well (.362) and more often (38 on the year) from the outside, and averages 13.5 points and six assists per game. Lindsay Bowen is Michigan State's three-point specialist, with 73 on the year at 43%, and averaging 13.8 ppg. Abi Ramsey is also a three-point threat, with 85 on the year at 41%, scoring 11.2 ppg. Rene Haynes (MSU) and the combo of Cherish Stringfield and Caroline Williams (Vandy), are slashers and defenders, adding seven (MSU) and 10 (VU) points more.

Coaches: Both teams have excellent, experienced coaches with success wherever they have been (McCallie -- Maine; Balcomb -- Xavier). Bottom line: Vanderbilt's athleticism should prevail, particularly as Michigan State has looked out of sync in its two early games. Both teams have had long scoring droughts, and each has had stunning runs. Expect some of each, but in the end, Early is a better player than Bowen, and when called on in the clutch, has more weapons. Vandy is not going to leave Bowen open late like USC did. No one yet has been able to cover Early effectively. Assuming that the Commodores can run, they will win.

TV: Sunday, 7 p.m. (ET), ESPN2


#3 University of Connecticut Huskies
Storrs CT
14,716 students
Big East Conference (13-3; 25-7 overall)
Big East Tournament champions
AP: #10
RPI: 11
SOS: 6
Coach: Geno Auriemma (21 years)
#2 Stanford University Cardinal
Palo Alto CA
14,173 students
Pacific 10 Conference (17-1; 30-2 overall)
Pac-10 Tournament and season champions
AP: #1
RPI: 7
SOS: 20
Coach: Tara VanDerveer (19 years)
If the postseason really is made or broken by guard play, as Geno Auriemma (among others) has so often declared, then Stanford will win this matchup. The Cardinal is led by a trio of senior guards -- Susan King Borchardt, Kelley Suminski, and Sebnem Kimyacioglu -- each of whom can handle the ball and score from the perimeter. UConn, on the other hand, has struggled at the point all season, and has no go-to player in that position. However, nobody prepares a team for the postseason as well as Auriemma does, and the Huskies have played their best five games of the year after the end of the regular season.

UConn also plays the best defense of any team left in the Tournament, though Stanford is only slightly less stingy. UConn is somewhat deeper, using a 10-player rotation that never gets tired. Stanford is a much better shooting team, with at least four scorers on the court at all times, and its own 10-player rotation that can be used if necessary. This game will be a real coaching chess match between Tara VanDerveer (Stanford record 481-119, .802) and Auriemma (557-110, .835), as the advantages/disadvantages of various player combinations will be the deciding factor in the game.

Center: Stanford's Brooke Smith is a versitile scorer with perhaps the best individual post moves in the country -- as a sophomore. She has a hook shot with both hands, and a step-through move that can stymie big centers. She averages 13 points and 61% shooting. Smith is only an average rebounder and defender, however, and probably not as physically strong as any of her Husky counterparts. Her backup, Kristen Newlin, is physically more imposing, a better defender, and scores efficiently if she is allowed close-in post position. UConn's Jessica Moore is a better rebounder than either Stanford player, and one of the best athletes in this game. Her agility and quickness make her the perfect help defender in UConn's scheme. She will have to stay at home a bit more against the Stanford posts, and her teammates will have to adjust to that. Moore has averaged almost a double-double in this post season, including the wins over ranked opponents Notre Dame and Rutgers. UConn's defense has shut down several talented posts, most notably Jacqueline Batteast of Notre Dame. Wilnett Crockett, Moore's backup, has rightly been nicknamed 'Miss March' for her outstanding play in the past two NCAA Tournaments. She is the strongest player on either team and a ferocious rebounder who can defend on the perimeter. She is not often an offensive threat, however. Though T'Nae Thiel is supposedly ready to go; she hasn't played since Feb. 24, and Stanford will miss her rebounding if she's less than 100%.

Forward: Azella Perryman could make a big difference, as she will be the least guarded Cardinal, and is a capable but infrequent scorer. She will need to look for an open shot and move well without the ball. Barbara Turner has been a fireball in the postseason, playing up to her ability for the first time this year. Turner has dominated inside in the last four games, but has often had trouble against teams, like Stanford, with two capable inside defenders. If Thiel can play, and is paired with either Stanford center, Turner's inside game will not work, and she will have to move them out to the perimeter and try to hit the three or drive by. With smaller forwards like Kimyacioglu, however, Turner will have a field day, as she is quicker and stronger by far. But Kimyacioglu is a much better outside threat, though the least reliable shooter among the Stanford regulars. Nonetheless, Turner will have to be defensively focused not to get burned from outside. If she has to guard on the perimeter, of course, her rebounding numbers will drop.

Small Forward: This is All-American, Pac-10 Player of the Year, freshman Candice Wiggins' spot. Wiggins was relatively quiet in the second round, but laid 29 points on hapless Santa Clara in the first game of the Tournament, and she is capable of that kind of play every game. Ann Strother is taller, and a better outside shooter, but Wiggins is probably the best one-on-one defender in this contest, and Strother will not be getting any open looks if matched with the freshman. This will take Strother inside, where her height has been effective lately, but expect her to be made a non-factor if Wiggins guards her. But VanDerveer may choose to pressure the turnover prone UConn guards with Wiggins, a choice that I would make. Strother has been effective with her height advantage over smaller defenders. Conversely, Strother has no chance of guarding Wiggins. Only Ashley Battle of UConn has any hope of slowing her down, and the help defense will have to be in top form if she is to be controlled. The small forward position, however, does bring up the Charde Houston factor. Like Wiggins, Houston cannot be guarded one-on-one if she is focused on the game. Her lack of consistent focus is one thing that sets her on a lower level so far than Wiggins. But she is just as quick, taller, and much, much stronger than her sister Californian. She has shown that she too can score at will, dropping 20+ points in three games against top competition in January. She is a great rebounder, the UConn steals leader, and second leading scorer on the season, while averaging less than 20 minutes a game. If UConn is to win, Houston will have to score near 20, stay out of foul trouble, and avoid dumb turnovers. If she can focus for even 25 minutes, the game belongs to the Huskies.

Guards: The Stanford guards are clearly superior in all offensive aspects of the game. Suminski is tough, capable and one of the best outside shooters in the nation. She can create her own shot, and will drive the lane if played too tight. Borchardt has been around forever, and will contol the offense if it begins to get out of hand. She is a tenacious player in every aspect of the game, and hits the open three at crucial times for the Cardinal. UConn uses four players at the point every game. Even Strother often plays the two, but freshman Mel Thomas and sophomore Nicole Wolff are more likely to be there in this game. Thomas has begun hitting her outside shots (50% in the last 10 games, but only one each game), but needs to be open to shoot. Ketia Swanier is the most capable ball handler, but often makes bad decisions with the ball. Stanford's guards score nearly 20 points a game. UConn's are closer to 12 on a good night. Stanford has averaged 10 steals a game (30% of them by Wiggins). If the UConn guards are incautious, as they have frequently been, Stanford will win on points off turnovers. If the guards are stingy with the ball, and can limit steals on the perimeter, then UConn will have a chance. If they let Wiggins pick their pockets very often, this one will not even be close.

Intangibles: Auriemma is the nation's most successful postseason coach over the last 10 seasons. VanDerveer is a premier coach herself, but has not seen as much postseason success since the early '90s. The difference is small, but could be real. Only eight players in this Tournament have a national championship; all play for UConn. No one on UConn's team has ever lost an NCAA game. But many of the Cardinal have played close Tournament games, and the seniors have been to the tournament every year. Don't expect much advantage there either. The largest question right now is whether Stanford, which played only one top 10 team all year (losing to Tennessee) is as good as it has looked while dominating a much-improved Pac-10 once again. It seems like the selection committee was not quite convinced.

Bottom Line: If UConn plays its A-game, and sustains that for 30 or more minutes, the Huskies can win. A B-game will mean a loss. But if Stanford plays its A-game, with Wiggins at her average, and the threes falling, the Cardinal probably have too much offense even for Connecticut's defense. That is, if the Cardinal, despite playing almost nobody out of conference, are all they appear to be. A Stanford victory will vindicate both the Cardinal and the Pac-10. A loss would leave all the questions about Left Coast quality still hanging over the program.

This game is a toss-up, and should be one of the best contests of the tournament. So why is it a Sweet 16 game? UConn's inconsistency for almost the entire season earned the Huskies a tough matchup in the third round, but Stanford, if the Cardinal are sent home, will wonder how they drew such a difficult opponent so early.

TV: Sunday, 9:30 p.m. (ET), ESPN2


Regional Final : Tuesday, March 29, ESPN, time to be determined

The time may not be set, but the winner is: Whoever comes out of the bottom of the bracket is going to the Final Four. The superior depth and defensive ability of either UConn or Stanford will more than offset the offensive skills of the Michigan State or Vanderbilt regulars and teams with fewer options will have fewer changes of strategy available.

And if Stanford beats UConn, the Cardinal will have proven themselves worthy of that #1 ranking in the polls. Either way, the Stanford-UConn winner will win again on Tuesday.


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