Stanford's second round defeat in the Women's NCAA Tournament was painful for me, and I'm just a fan, not a player or coach. The Stanford team played beyond its seeding in two of the last three years, but this year's team fell well short of its own NCAA goals and failed to match past successes.
Stanford is the envy of most other teams in its conference and throughout the country. Having won the National Championship twice in the early 1990s, expectations of fans have since been set high. Let's face it, part of the bitterness of defeat lies in these high expectations. The Stanford coaches encourage high expectations for team members – you can't achieve high goals without setting them. And fans feed on these expectations as well.
High expectations exist in other top basketball programs such as Tennessee, Duke and Connecticut. Fans in these programs surely face some of the same frustrations that Stanford fans face. Duke is still waiting to claim its first national championship. Only one of those teams can win the championship this year, so fans from the other programs will feel frustration even if each of the #1 seeds reaches the Final Four. So is there something different about Stanford?
Only by degree. Coach Tara VanDerveer has spoken publicly about the difficulty in recruiting talented athletes that come from inner city schools. Was that a factor in the loss to Florida State, that presumably has fewer academic constraints in recruiting urban athletes? Perhaps it was. But let's keep things in perspective. Except for Connecticut, Duke, Tennessee and perhaps North Carolina, I'll take Stanford's long term record in women's basketball over any school in the country.
And what Stanford lacked in this year's team was only one or two small pieces of the puzzle that makes for a Final Four team. The team had a wonderful post presence and one of the best perimeter players in the land. But Stanford lacked a consistent perimeter scoring threat other than Candice Wiggins – last year's team had that threat in Krista Rappahahn. And the team lacked an experienced point guard who could score and take more of the burden off Wiggins. On that last point, both JJ Hones and Melanie Murphy show a lot of future potential. But for the last half of the season, Stanford's weaknesses were well known to opposing coaches and exploited in games such as the loss to California and the painful season-ending loss to FSU. As VanDerveer put it, the team had a small margin for error.
In the evolving world of women's basketball, it's increasingly difficult to achieve regular Final Four status. Over the past decade, Stanford seems to be caught in the limbo of being a very good team consistently, but one that falls just short of Final Four material. That's frustrating. The loss to FSU was frustrating. But I believe in the coaches and the players coming back (and the new ones coming in) next year. It's time to look ahead. There are lessons to be learned from the past, but the challenge ahead should not blur our vision of the sterling record that Stanford Women's Basketball has set in the Tara VanDerveer Era.
My hunch is that the coaching staff and players are going to put in a lot of time to ensure that the small pieces missing from this year's puzzle are available come November.
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