From Marshmallows to Mission Impossible

The Bootleg's Sue Bair has her game on and is getting set for the Cardinal's spectacular surge to South Florida next April. This time, Sue gives us an early look at the defending Pac-10 champions' non-conference schedule for 2007/08. Stanford will be locking horns with multiple power programs, home and away, continuing its philosophy of taking on all comers and not just toasting "marshmallows".

In 2007/2008 the Stanford Women's Basketball team plays a non-conference schedule that has the team ricocheting back and forth between some of the toughest opponents around. There will be many miles traveled and plenty of challenges. Now follow the bouncing ball…

Game number one, against Yale in Connecticut, may not be a matchup to get the heart pounding, but this game will be valuable nonetheless, as it allows the Cardinal to get their "away" feet wet before a challenging second game in the eastern time zone. Yale was 12-16 overall (9-3 at home) in 2006/2007. Their RPI was a lowly 240 according to Real Time RPI. If the Card do not have their way with the Bulldogs, something is seriously amiss. This is one sweet, puffy marshmallow served up as appetizer before the meat of the season (or a nice vegetarian lasagna should you prefer) is hustled to the table. Be advised that the Yale head coach is none other than Chris Gobrecht, formerly of Southern California (and earlier of the University of Washington) and dear to the hearts of those who appreciate the art of the sideline rant. Oh, for the chance to yell, "Sit down, Chris!" once again. With any luck it is a home-and-home series.

The main course for this first road trip gets slammed onto the team training table with a bang two days later when Stanford faces NCAA runner-up Rutgers on the Scarlet Knights' home court. Rutgers lost no one of significance from a team that wound up 27-9 after tiptoeing out of the gate at 0-2 and then 2-4. Matee Ajavon, Essence Carson, and Kia Vaughn all spent the summer playing well for either the USA Basketball U21 or Pan Am teams. Those three players plus Epiphanny Prince (who famously scored 113 points in a high school game) all averaged about 12 points per game last season. Facing the Scarlet Knights and their tough, aggressive defense is never easy and they may be itching for a big win to get rid of the lingering stench from The Affair Imus(t keep my fool mouth shut). If there is a "Mission Impossible" game on the schedule, this early road game against a seasoned, athletic Rutgers team might be it. A Stanford loss here would not be unexpected. A win would be a major accomplishment.

Exhibitions are not normally worth much ink, but a rare opportunity to see some USA basketball veterans on Stanford's home court presents itself when the Cardinal return home to face the Senior National Team. Our future Olympic team may be beat up and missing several key players, but watching the younger Stanford players try to make an impression on these established stars will be great fun. Word is that superstar center Lisa Leslie hopes to be back in action for the college tour. Lisa Leslie vs. Jayne Appel? Might be tough on Stanford's young post, but most definitely worth a look.

Next up for Stanford is a trip to Salt Lake City to take on Utah. Last season the Utes were 19-14 (10-6 for an uncharacteristic 5th in the Mountain West) including a 74-47 loss at Maples Pavilion. Although Utah had a down year by the their recent standards and suffered multiple transfers over the summer, they are generally a solid, well-coached team. Playing them on their turf will be no picnic but after tangling with Rutgers and waltzing with USA Basketball, Stanford should be ready for this definitely non-marshmallow away game. The Cardinal had better not be looking ahead, however…

Because next up Stanford's got about fourteen tickets to paradise, namely the six-team "Paradise Jam" Thanksgiving tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Stanford joins Connecticut and Old Dominion in one group (on St. Thomas) with Duke, Purdue, and Temple forming the second group (on St. John). If the Cardinal can navigate this tough field, it truly will be "paradise". All six teams were NCAA tournament participants last season and none were placed below a #8-seed, although you might say this group has a little something to prove since four of the teams were upset and two reached but did not exceed their NCAA tournament seeding.

First up for Stanford is Connecticut (32-4 last season), an upset loser to LSU in the 2007 Fresno Regional Final. Everyone is back and consensus national high school player of the year Maya Moore, who also starred for the USA U19 team this summer, joins the party. UConn, the Athlon Sports preseason #1, is balanced. They have double-digit scorers in guards in Renee Montgomery, Mel Thomas, and Kalana Greene plus forward/centers Charde Houston and Tina Charles. The Huskies will almost certainly be ranked in the Top 5 going into the game. They will have played only relatively light competition in Stony Brook and Holy Cross, so Stanford may have an edge in readiness. UConn will be favored, and should be, but a Stanford win is not a long shot.

Stanford will face Old Dominion the next night. ODU was 24-9 in 2006/2007. Those in attendance at Maples Pavilion saw the Lady Monarchs lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament to the same Florida State team that took out Stanford in round two. True, ODU does lose two starters and a key reserve, but they have been consistently good for a long time, as long-time Stanford fans surely remember. Stanford will likely finish their group at 2-0 or 1-1 for first or second place.

The Cardinal will play one last Paradise Jam game, with the opponent determined by the record of the teams in each group. The top of one group plays the top of the second. The second place team plays the second place team from the other group. The third plays the third. The teams in the second group are somewhat in flux. Duke lost star point guard Lindsay Harding and rejection machine Alison Bales to the WNBA, but they have plenty of talent for new coach Joanne P. McCallie to deploy. Guard Abby Waner is the top returning scorer at 14.1 points per game. The Blue Devils are expected to open as a top 10 team in the polls. Purdue (31-6 in 2006/2007) lost even more, as their top three scorers are all gone. Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless graduated. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton tore her ACL playing for the USA U21 team over the summer. On top of that, starter Jodi Howell had shoulder surgery in September and is out for months. The third team in the group, Temple, was 25-8 and lost in the second round of the NCAAs. They will be missing graduated leading scorer and rebounder Kamesha Hairston and starting guard Fatima Maddox (12 points per game). Coach Dawn Staley has been busy all summer and fall with USA basketball duties. Considering the competition (several teams in varying stages of transition, but no marshmallows or even a tasty little gum drop), going home with a 2-1 tournament record would be a fine result.

Speaking of home, that is just where the Cardinal will be for six of the next seven games, a stretch that takes the team into conference play. After six games on the road, Stanford finally opens at home against San Francisco, the #212 RPI team (Real Time RPI) with a 2006/2007 record of 10-16 (3-11 in the West Coast Conference). USF loses only one starter and thus will field an experienced team, but after being buffeted by turbulence all over the hemisphere, our intrepid Stanford travelers should be more than ready to show the chops they earned on the road to their fans at Maples Pavilion. Pop them on a stick and shove them in the fire, USF should be toasted in a flash.

Game number eight against UC-Davis features a sister act that might be called the "Double Donaghe Delight" (if that isn't already a Ben & Jerry's flavor), as Stanford freshman Hannah faces Davis junior Haylee. UC-Davis is new to the Big West Conference. They compiled a 13-16 record last year, good for the RPI's #264 ranking in the land, which is not so good in this land or any other. On paper, UC-Davis is the weakest non-conference opponent Stanford will face. It is a safe bet that the younger Donaghe will get the "W". She can hold the marshmallow stick over the open fire.

Following a two-week break for exams, the Cardinal will return to Maples Pavilion to take on the Baylor Bears. The Bears (26-8 overall and 11-5 in the Big XII in 2006/2007) are without graduated star post Bernice Mosby, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding, but they are still a very dangerous team with loads of talent such as guard Angela Tisdale (10.8 points per game) and promising young post Danielle Wilson. A top 15 ranking is likely for the Bears. This is the first true home test for Stanford. After facing so many top-level teams away from home, luring one to Palo Alto might bring out the grizzly in the now battle-tested Cardinal. If the season is going as hoped, this will be one more test that the team passes. No Bears of any persuasion should be winning in Maples.

A different sort of test will be found at altitude in Albuquerque when Stanford travels to face New Mexico. New Mexico (23-9 and 11-5 in the Mountain West) has become known as a very tough team to play on their home court. Even though they lose G Julie Briody (15.5 points per game) and G Katie Montgomery (12.1 points per game) to graduation and top forward Dionne Marsh spent the summer recovering from back surgery, there is no reason to think New Mexico won't be plenty tough. This might be an easy game to overlook, sandwiched as it is between two higher-profile showdowns, but there are no easily roasted marshmallows in the thin Albuquerque air.

And now we come to the game that has proven to be "Mission Impossible" over the past decade or so for the Cardinal. Yes, Tennessee comes to town to close out the schedule before Pac-10 games begin. Will this finally be the year? Tennessee won the National Championship in 2007 and return just about everyone, including All-Galaxy "It Girl" Candace Parker, so this particular moment might not seem propitious, but perhaps the tough early schedule will pay dividends for Stanford. This is not a make-or-break game for the season by any means, but whether the Cardinal are reeling in wins or straining to find them, a win over the perennial powerhouse Lady Vols would be huge. So what's new, right? The result, we hope.

Following the Tennessee game the Cardinal leap from the sublime to the somewhat less than sublime, starting the Pac-10 season facing a Washington State team that has been last in the conference for several years running. Because the conference race is a story for another day, we can stop with the Tennessee Tilt (and for you poker aficionados we might say that some "tilting" by Coach Summitt and the Tennessee players would be mighty fine). There is one more non-conference game, a mid-week meander over to neighbor Santa Clara in early February, but that is so close geographically and so far removed temporally that we will just figure that if the Cardinal are having trouble beating Santa Clara (13-17 with an 88-56 loss at Maples and a 5-9 mark in the West Coast Conference last season) in February, it will come as an unpleasant surprise.

Overall Stanford's non-conference schedule looks quite challenging. It is not entirely a Murderer's Row, with a few games that should be guaranteed to empty the bench. There are four games against teams with sub-175 RPIs (Yale, USF, UC-Davis, and Santa Clara), which maybe is marshier or mallowier than Stanford usually schedules, but is mostly because the local teams that pop up on the schedule regularly (USF and Santa Clara) have been a bit down recently, especially USF. In 2006/2007 the four lowest non-conference RPIs on the schedule were 95, 106, 127, and 191. All those teams lost by large margins. For all practical purposes the difference in degree of difficulty is minimal.

The remaining eight games are not to be taken lightly, in part because the schedule sports eight away games to only four home games. Utah and New Mexico may not be in the upper reaches of the rankings, but New Mexico was an NCAA tournament team last season and is notoriously difficult in Albuquerque, while Utah had been a perennial NCAA participant until 2007. If Stanford does not come out with urgency, they will be in for struggles against those two on the road. The Card have not been noted for their early season prowess, but they need to be ready this November to face Rutgers on the road and that group of good to "scary-good" Paradise Jammers many thousands of miles away in the Caribbean.

Stanford will face three teams (Tennessee, UConn, and Rutgers) that one could make a serious case for ranking one, two and three (the order being irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion). Baylor should start somewhere between 10th and 15th in the polls. Possible Paradise Jam opponent Duke is always a top 10 program. Sitting on a 10-1 or 11-2 record at Christmas would be a job very well done. The Cardinal could easily come into conference play with three losses and still be an excellent team. Going undefeated would be about as close to Mission Impossible as it gets. If the Card could manage that feat, they would almost certainly be sitting atop the polls for the New Year. That is not the most likely scenario, but we can dream. Hollywood created Mission Impossible. This Stanford team will create its own version of reality. The schedule has plenty of room for brilliance. Now all that is needed is a winning script.

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