The Stanford Cardinal will burst forth from their two-week exile for exams right into an intriguing and important contest. On Sunday, December 16, the Card face the undefeated Baylor Bears, who are ranked in the Top 10 of both major polls. Though Stanford has already compiled a 7-1 record during a difficult early schedule, these next three games, which are the last before Pac-10 play begins, might be the most treacherous and potentially rewarding yet. The Cardinal face Baylor at home, travel to play New Mexico on December 18, and return home to take on national powerhouse Tennessee on December 22. That sequence of high risk/high reward games makes for one very intense week. The New Mexico game, sandwiched ominously between higher profile home games, is quite worrisome due to the short travel/preparation time and the Lobos' tendency to be tough cookies at home. Walking into what might well be a packed New Mexico arena should jolt the Cardinal into focus if they are not already locked in on the Lobos. If the Cardinal can stride into the Tennessee game at 9-1, they will have already produced enough big wins to make the non-conference season a resounding success, thus turning the Tennessee game into more of an "icing-on-the-cake" challenge than a fearsome proving ground. There would still be plenty to prove, but the previous big wins would be both "money in the bank" and excellent preparation.
These next three games are vital for building the Cardinal an impressive "seed-worthy" profile. Sure, it is very early to be thinking about the NCAA tournament, and the Card would obviously need to continue to win throughout the long conference season, but a non-conference resume that includes wins over current Top 10 teams Rutgers, Baylor, and dare we say it, Tennessee, would allow the Cardinal to stake a strong initial claim to a high seed. If Pac-10 teams bash each other around, as they are wont to do, quality conference wins could be hard to find (Cal is lurking just outside the Top 10 in the polls but Arizona State has struggled more than expected and USC is hovering around .500 with several inexplicable losses.). When the Pac-10 is down, quality non-conference wins matter even more.
Speaking of quality, it is not easy to determine just how good Baylor is right now. As I write, they are an unblemished 6-0 with only a home game against shaky Oregon to play before they hit Maples Pavilion. The problem is that the Bears, while highly ranked, have played just one quality opponent and have ventured from Waco but once. One is the loneliest number, or at least the most confusing. How much can we conclude from one game? The Bears devoured Howard, St Mary's, Prairie View, Texas-Pan American, and SE Missouri State while barely lifting a paw. Only the last game was on the road. At this writing, those five teams claimed RPI rankings of #264, #158, #180, #257, and #303 respectively (Real Time RPI). The Sagarin ranking of Baylor's schedule has them at a wretchedly embarrassing #313. What else is there to do but take every statistic with multiple grains of salt and snarl back in disgust?
Fortunately for comparison purposes, Baylor did play one of their home games against Cal, perhaps because they felt a kinship over the whole "Bear" thing. The final score was 69-56 in favor of Family Ursidae, Texas branch. In that game, Baylor came back from a first-half deficit and foul trouble for their post players. They did it with hot shooting and balanced scoring. They ran, caused turnovers, and passed the ball well in that second half. We cannot really take too much from just one game, but as this was Cal's only loss to date and we know from experience that they are a quality team (though they were playing Baylor without 2007 Pac-10 Player of the Year Devanei Hampton), we can conclude that Baylor has fangs sharp enough to hurt even if we can't be sure they can bite to the bone.
Baylor has a limited roster of ten players. They do have plenty of experience. They return four starters from a team that went 26-8, having lost star post Bernice Mosby, their leading scorer and rebounder last season. The Bears start one senior, three juniors and one sophomore. The rest of the team consists solely of freshmen and sophomores. Against Cal, Baylor played seven players (the eighth played four minutes), so they are not very deep. What they are is balanced. All five starters average between nine and 14 points per game. In fact, three of them average 14 ppg each. The Bears have quality young posts in 6'3" sophomore center Danielle Wilson (14 ppg and 8.3 rpg), 6'1" junior forward/center Rachel Allison (12.2 ppg and 6 rpg), and 6'3" sophomore forward/center Jessika Bradley (8.3 ppg and 5.7 rpg off the bench), but they were not a very good rebounding team even with Mosby last season, and rebounding may once again be a weakness. There is nobody behind those three young posts, so foul trouble could hurt the Bears, as it did against Cal in the first half.
The remaining three starters are 5'10" junior guard Jhasmin Player (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 4.3 assists per game), 5'7" senior guard Angela Tisdale (14.3 ppg and a 40% three-point shooter), and 6'0" junior guard/forward Jessica Morrow (9.7 ppg and another 40% three-point shooter). Those numbers may have been racked up mostly against overmatched opponents, but they are still excellent. With Mosby gone and the experience and depth now focused at the guard spots, Baylor will depend more on their perimeter scoring. Tisdale is the point guard and senior leader. The Bears can shoot. Each of their top six in minutes-played shoots over 44%, and four of them are at over 50%. Posts Wilson, Allison, and Bradley are all over 60%. The Cardinal will have to defend everyone in green. They can hit from long range, drop in their mid-range jump shots and get out in transition. Their posts are athletic and mobile. This game will be a stern test for the Cardinal defense all over the court.
On the other hand, the Baylor Bears will be getting their first real taste of life on the road. If Stanford dove into the deep end on an unfamiliar shore, Baylor splashed around in the backyard kiddie pool. There is no way to know how the Bears will react to their first high-profile road game of the season, but even though Stanford is younger (starting two sophomores and a freshman), they have the twin advantages of the home court and previous experience in big games and tough spots. It may not be so easy for Baylor to remain balanced. The Bears were a good but not exceptional squad on defense last season, and there is no reason to expect that will have changed. Baylor as a team, and Danielle Wilson in particular, excel at blocking shots. Stanford center Jayne Appel will be challenged inside, but if Appel can post up strong and even better, draw some fouls on the Baylor posts in the process, she could be the difference. Stanford counters the well-rounded and sharp-shooting Baylor guards with All-American Candice Wiggins, but the Bears have more scoring options at guard and more overall experience, so they should have an edge there. A big night from Wiggins is probably a necessity for the Cardinal. Of course that will almost certainly be true of any big game Stanford plays from now until April.
The Cardinal have put in their time grinding out difficult road games. Now it is time to see if they can put what they gleaned from all the hard work to good use in this pivotal non-conference home game. The season is still young, but things are starting to shake out a bit nationally. Over the next week or so, the Cardinal will either solidify their perch on the mountain just below the summit (which in this case equals the twin peaks of the Southern Summit and the windy Northeastern Mountaintop Puppy Mill) or slip back down the slope into the mess of teams skulking about, waiting and hoping for those above them to make a mistake. These next three games will not necessarily define the season, but they will add bold brush strokes to the outline begun at Rutgers and continued in the Caribbean. If the Cardinal want to continue painting a pretty picture, they need to splash some more big swaths of red on the canvas, starting on Sunday.
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