#4/5 Stanford vs. #1 Tennessee is not the biggest home game of the season. Denial? No! Any NCAA game trumps a December non-conference match-up, and Stanford gets the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at home in 2008. Those games are "must-wins". This game is only a really, really, really, really, "wanna-win". Really. It is the game where the biggest and most elusive fish in the ocean comes to swim by the Pacific shore. As usual, Tennessee comes in ranked #1 or thereabouts and Stanford chases from somewhere lower in the top 10. Isn't that always the way? The Cardinal seem to be forever chasing the Lady Vols, coming oh so close, oh so often. The big fish has been on the line, but never quite reeled into the boat (grilled Orange Roughy fillets, anyone?). The Cardinal and fans just can't get no satisfaction, and a decade is a long time for that.
Will it be different in 2007? Do the Cardinal need to make a little magic, levitate a bit? Is it time to rise above the averages and the stats? Since levitation cannot be measured, all we can do for now is look at the statistics for the season to see what we can see. The Cardinal and the Vols have similar strength-of-schedule rankings (#2 for Stanford and #9 for Tennessee, according to Sagarin on December 19th), so the statistics ought to be fairly meaningful. We are ignoring the Tennessee/UCLA game to be played Wednesday evening. The Vols should not have too much trouble with young Bruins, who tend to scare but not beat the top teams and lose more easily to the lesser ones. Tennessee has beaten five ranked teams, three at home (Texas, North Carolina, and Old Dominion) and two on the road or at a neutral site (Oklahoma and West Virginia). Stanford has wins over ranked foes Rutgers, Old Dominion, and Baylor.
The Lady Vols have started the same five players in each of their nine games: center Nicky Anosike (9.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg), guard/forward Angie Bjorklund (10.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, and 41% three-point shooting), guard Alexis Hornbuckle (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, and 44% three-point shooting), guard Shannon Bobbitt (8.9 ppg, 4.7 apg, and 38% three-point shooting), and forward Candace Parker (22.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg). The Vols lost only one starter from their 2007 NCAA championship team, and freshman sharpshooter Bjorklund is stepping into that slot nicely. Tennessee is simultaneously well-balanced with big talent at every position, yet dominated by the presence of 2007 Wade Trophy winner and probable 2008 Olympian Parker. They start three excellent long-range shooters. They are experienced and very accustomed to big games. Plenty of talent sits on the bench in F/C Alex Fuller, F/C Vicki Baugh, F Alberta Auguste, and G Sydney Smallbone. The Lady Vols are only carrying nine healthy players this season. All but Smallbone (14 mpg) and Baugh (13 mpg) play over 18 mpg. Fuller averages 7.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg.
Stanford must first contend with All-American forward Candace Parker, and probably do it with a freshman, forward Kayla Pedersen, doing much of the work. Forward Jillian Harmon could help, but at 6'1", she may not have the size to cope with the 6'4" (or more) Parker. Parker, the 2006-07 NCAA Division I-A women's basketball player of the year, has not always been the most intense defender, so if Pedersen can attack, she might find success or draw some fouls. Cardinal center Jayne Appel will have her hands full helping Pedersen and dealing with Anosike, who is a strong post defender and an opportunistic scorer. Appel will need to finish strong against the powerful Tennessee defenders and be extra alert when she gets double-teamed, so that the thieving Lady Vols do not pick off any passes. It will also be a tough chore for the Stanford posts to play good defense but avoid fouls. Losing Appel or Pedersen to foul trouble could spell doom, as Parker would be free to dominate. She doesn't need the help.
On the perimeter the speed of diminutive Lady Vol point guard Shannon Bobbitt will pose problems for Cardinal point guards Ros Gold-Onwude and JJ Hones. They will have to keep her in front of them without allowing her space to get open for three-point shots. Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle will probably be asked to guard Candice Wiggins. Hornbuckle is a very good defender and her offense has picked up this season, especially her shooting. Along with Parker vs. anyone (and everyone), this will be a key match-up. Wiggins cannot let herself be controlled or forced into difficult shots. Hornbuckle is a top-quality guard who will be a high WNBA draft pick (some even say higher than Wiggins). Wiggins has to win that battle.
Thus far in 2007, Tennessee has had the higher-scoring offense while Stanford has had the more stout defense. The Vols average 81.3 ppg to The Cardinal's 74.5 ppg, but Stanford only allows 57.9 ppg to Tennessee's 62.6 ppg. Tennessee is shooting at a slightly higher percentage (46.3% to 44.5%), which is not enough of a difference to account for their higher point totals. Where the Vols gain those extra 6.8 ppg is beyond the three-point arc, where they shoot 36.7% compared to the Card's meager 27.3 % (which has been rising rapidly of late with Candice Wiggins heating up). Beyond that one very major area, the statistics generally (surprisingly?) favor the Cardinal, who hold opponents to a lower shooting percentage (35.7% to 38.4%), have a much better rebounding margin per game (9.2 to 3.0), and claim a higher assist/turnover ratio (1.2 to 0.9). Tennessee does seize one more offensive rebound per game than the Cardinal. Good offensive rebounding has always been a Tennessee trait. The Vols steal the ball much more (12.4 spg vs. 7.4) and force more turnovers (22.5 per game for Vol opponents vs. 16.3 for Cardinal opponents), but they also turn the ball over more themselves (19.4 per game vs. 13.5). The differential of turnovers forced to turnovers lost is actually only slightly less for Stanford (both teams are at about +3 per game).
So what does it all mean? If the statistics are to be believed, the Cardinal take better care of the ball, rebound better, and play better defense against a similar level of competition. They are not as aggressive in forcing turnovers and getting steals, but since they lose the ball much less frequently themselves, it is pretty much a wash. The Cardinal put less pressure on opponents' ball handling than Tennessee does, so one key will be that the Card do not let the Vols harass them into turnovers while keeping their own defense aggressive enough to lure the Vols into the mistakes they are already prone to make. The Achilles' heel of the Cardinal may be their relatively poor long-range shooting. Perhaps the most important statistical difference between the two teams (and perhaps the most frightening for Stanford partisans) is how much better the Vols can shoot threes. Fortunately for Stanford, three-point shooting has been trending upwards in recent games. It is fairly obvious that the Cardinal need to take care of the ball, rebound, control Parker, play tough defense, make good use of Appel on the block, and hope the Vol shooters don't happen to be hot. It is also obvious they need to shoot well overall and get Wiggins good looks from three-point range.
What is not so obvious is how high the Cardinal must levitate to win this game. The Lady Vols are excellent; they always are. They present extremely difficult match-up problems, and not only from Candace Parker. The Cardinal do come into this game with a stronger resume and better preparation than is typical. The game is later than it often is, giving the frequently slower-starting Cardinal time to work out the kinks. Stanford has played three top 10-ranked teams and beaten two. When was the last time the Cardinal came into the Tennessee game with that sort of record? Do the Cardinal truly need magic on Saturday, or do they just need to do what they can do, albeit do it all very well? Perhaps no levitation is required and they can win this very tough and much anticipated game with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
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