Championship Challenge

Most observers expected to see tonight a third match-up between the top two teams in the conference, with #1 seed Stanford battling #2 seed Arizona State. The third-seeded Bruins of UCLA had something to say about that Sunday and instead will face the Cardinal in the Pac-10 Tournament championship. Is that good or bad news for Stanford? The answer depends on what you want from this game.

Heading into tonight's Pac-10 Tournament final, Stanford is going to the NCAA Tournament.  There has been no mystery for the Cardinal who, as the conference's regular season champion and best team through the breadth of the year, has had a lock on the Big Dance for their postseason plans.  There is the matter pride - the Card would like to collect the Pac-10 Tournament title for a fourth straight year and keep alive their winning streak.

But what precisely are the Cardinal playing for tonight when they face #3 seed UCLA in the 2006 Pac-10 Tournament championship game?  And is it better or worse that Stanford will face the Bruins rather than #2 seed Arizona State?  Looking at these questions from three different perspectives, we offer some answers.

NCAA Tournament seeding

The Cardinal may be the top dog out West, as regular season champs in the best conference, but they are not in great shape for the kind of NCAA seed you might expect to accompany that role.  With a poor preseason record, and some bad luck with some of those non-conference foes tanking below expectations this year, Stanford owns an RPI that ranks approximately #15 today.  On a strict S-curve, that would give them a #4 seed and set them up with a probably game against a #1 seed in the Sweet Sixteen.  Moving up to a #3 or #2 seed can move that match-up out to the Regional Finals (aka Elite Eight).

UCLA is hot of late, and at #25 in the RPI they are not chopped liver.  However, Arizona State is #13 even after last night's loss.  The Sun Devils were Stanford's best win of the year, and the chance to take two out of three in the season series would have added some needed muscle to the Cardinal's résumé.  If Stanford beats the Bruins tonight, UCLA will likely fall in the RPI and leave Arizona State as the Card's single Top 25 win this year.  Also noteworthy is that a second win tonight over Arizona State would have given the Cardinal a highly ranked win outside Maples Pavilion.  Their only "quality" wins away from home or on a neutral court against USC (twice), currently #47 in the RPI.

If Stanford wins tonight but still receives a #4 seed on Selection Monday, the lackluster preseason performance - particularly on the road - is where to place your blame.  However, the Cardinal could have given themselves a big boost by playing and beating the Sun Devils tonight.

NCAA Tournament preparation

The match-up everybody wanted to see tonight was #1 Stanford versus #2 Arizona State.  The two best teams in the Pac-10, and the two teams who have been ranked in the Top 20 nationally through the year, would have been the fitting final.  That does not necessarily mean that the Sun Devils presented the best preparation for Stanford heading into the NCAA Tournament, however.  ASU plays a unique style amongst top teams in women's college basketball today, utilizing a deep bench with frequent rotations.  It is not unusual for Charli Turner-Thorne to substitute five players at a time, resembling the line changes seen in the NHL.  The Sun Devils play a high-energy, physical style that seeks to overwhelm their opponent.  More often than not this year, that has succeeded.

The Pac-10 Tournament final tonight will instead pit the two most talented teams, with five of 10 First Team All Pac-10 players suiting up.  Arizona State is well-coached and has a deep rotation, but they do not have individual talents that can match the best players of either Stanford or UCLA.  When the Cardinal play in their biggest games in the Big Dance, they will face big-time players who can change the complexion of the game.  Such is the legacy of the NCAA Tournament.  Playing against Arizona State is a unique experience that bears little resemblance to any other opponent Stanford would likely face on its march to Boston.  UCLA may have suspect coaching, but their three superb guards (Nikki Blue, Lisa Willis and Noelle Quinn) offer the kind of talent that Stanford will have to beat to make it to the Final Four.  Quinn (18.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is the less experienced player as a junior who also missed a big part of last season with a knee injury, but she is the only player in the conference who is almost as complete and talented as Candice Wiggins.  Willis (17.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.6 spg) and Blue (12.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.8 rpg) are seniors who have played well against Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament before and can take the Bruins to another level when they are "on."  In that respect, it may be better preparation for the likes of Candice Wiggins, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Krista Rappahahn to face UCLA's "Big Three."  It could also be a good test for the team when they play spurts of zone defense, should that be employed against the Bruins' guard triumvirate.

The downside to playing UCLA, however, is their lack of talent in the post.  Stanford was bounced from last year's NCAAs when they were physically beaten by Michigan State's monoliths, scoring and rebounding in the paint.  Brooke Smith can continue to improve against those tests, which are not often available in the Pac-10 this year.  While Arizona State does not have elite post players, their physical style of play would have been good to experience in the Cardinal's last tune-up before the Big Dance.

We do know that Stanford wants and needs a tougher test tonight than what USC gave last night.  We do not want to disparage the Trojans, who were gracious in their defeat, but they had tremendous difficulty staying on the same court as Stanford in the Pac-10 semifinals.  When I looked at the four-minute mark remaining in the first half last night, USC was shooting 22.6% from the field and 9.1% from three-point range.  They scored only 19 points in the first half, and Stanford pulled away while playing primarily reserves in the second half.  The Trojans finished the game shooting 11.1% from deep, and that came only from a Meghan Gnekow trey in the final 30 seconds of the second half - otherwise they had shot 2-of-26 (7.7%).  And it is not as if Stanford was burning up the nets; they hit for just 40.3% from the field in the game.  The only USC player in double figures was Eshaya Murphy with 14 points, and she needed 20 field goal attempts to get there.  Twenty!

Pac-10 Tournament title chances

If you don't care a hill of beans about these slim percentage points toward Stanford's NCAA outlook, then perhaps you simply cherish the goal of winning tonight and bringing home the hardware of a fourth straight Pac-10 Tournament title.  In that respect, Stanford is likely better off playing UCLA.  The Bruins did beat the Cardinal the last time these teams faced off, though few observers would predict a repeat of that outcome today on a neutral court.  UCLA is talented in their guard play but imbalanced on their roster and undercoached.  That means that even their "Big Three" can play hot and cold, as they swing from funk to fire on this topsy-turvy team.  A classic example last night against Arizona State was Lisa Willis, with a quiet seven points on 3-of-7 (1-of-4 three-point) shooting in the first half followed by 20 second-half points on 7-of-10 (4-of-5) shooting.  If they play their best basketball through 40 minutes, they can be a formidable foe, but UCLA has shown too often this year that they are incapable of that level of consistency.  Stanford's advantages scoring and rebounding in the post, combined with the coaching/consistency, should make this the more winnable game.

Arizona State split with Stanford this year, the same as the Bruins fared against the Cardinal, but there is nothing fluky about the Sun Devils when they play well.  As discussed earlier, their physical style of play on both ends of the floor buoyed by a deep rotation make them a tough match-up on any night - regardless of whether shots are falling or not.  Playing this ASU squad in the third game of a three-day event would have been particularly difficult.  Lisa Willis admitted last night after their narrow win over the Sun Devils how much she thanked her off-season conditioning for the ability to hold up in the final moments of the game.  Stanford won their first two games in San Jose with enough ease that they were able to rest their starters, but it would nonetheless been a great challenge to match ASU for 40 minutes.

And now, for some random news & notes:

  • In this fifth year of the Pac-10 Tournament, the Bruins are looking to reverse their fortunes against the Cardinal.  In three out of the previous four years, UCLA has been ousted from the conference's post-season gathering by Stanford (2002, 2003 and 2004).  The first meeting was a 35-point blowout, but the Bruins played within an average of 4.5 points in the last two tussles.
  • UCLA's 19 points in the first half of their game last night was their lowest of the entire season.  USC also scored just 19 points last night, in the loss to Stanford.
  • UCLA came back from their halftime hole against Arizona State, but that was a first for the Bruins this year.  They are 1-9 on the season when trailing at the half.
  • This will be the first time that Stanford ends their Pac-10 Tournament against an in-state opponent.  The Cardinal played either Arizona or Arizona State in the 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002 title games.
  • Stanford and USC last night combined for several Pac-10 Tournament records.  Their combined 142 field goal attempts bested the 132 taken two different times previously.  With the two teams not shooting very high percentages, it is unsurprising that a rebounds record was also broken last night.  The 102 total rebounds shattered the previous mark of 89.  The Cardinal and Trojans also combined to take 50 three-point attempts, which edged the old record of 48.  Stanford individually also set a new Pac-10 Tournament record with 59 rebounds in the game.
  • UCLA moved ahead at the end of their game against Arizona State with a pair of free throws, but they rarely made it to the stripe last night.  Their first trip to the charity stripe did not come until 23 seconds before halftime.  USC, interesting, also did not have much activity at the free throw line against Stanford.  The Trojans never stepped to the stripe in the first half and attempted just six free throws in the second half.  That statistic was helped by Stanford never making accruing enough fouls last night to put USC into the bonus.  The Card were called for just four first-half fouls and then six in the second stanza.
  • Three games in three days is tough for any team, but Stanford should be as rested as any could expect in this format.  Candice Wiggins has played just 47 minutes through two games.  Brooke Smith: 49.  Krista Rappahahn: 43.  Jillian Harmon: 42.  Kristen Newlin: 43.  Rosalyn Gold-Onwude: 55.

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