Flatter Than a Pancake

Against UC Santa Barbara, Stanford popped out to an early lead with hot outside shooting then dominated thereafter with their inside game to record an easy 74-39 win in the first round of the NCAA tournament in San Diego. We lament deeply that we could not see this shellacking in person, but here are some thoughts from watching through the filter that is TV.

Stanford squashed an overmatched UC Santa Barbara squad flatter than a pancake on Saturday but we've got nothing for you – no quotes, no true feel for the game, nothing – for we watched it on television, and it just isn't the same. For all we know they could have staged the whole shebang. The actress who played "Jayne Appel" might be stumping for an Emmy next year. But with the proviso that some of the ESPN "human interest" spots and commentary may have made us a little loopy (Has Carolyn Peck finally figured out who the Stanford point guard is?) here are some thoughts on Stanford's 74-39 NCAA opener over the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.

Stanford started the few first minutes of the tournament with the offense in hyper-drive. As Stanford opponents have been wont to do, the Gauchos began the game by surrounding Stanford junior C Jayne Appel like they were lost in a desert and Appel had the only canteen. Three or even four of them hovered attentively in or just outside the paint. When Appel zipped entry passes swiftly back out, Card perimeter shooters were wide open, and they did not disappoint. Senior F (yeah, we know it really should be G but we dutifully stick with the official designation) Jillian Harmon opened the scoring with a long jumper off an Appel pass. Sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen, sophomore F Kayla Pedersen (twice) and Harmon all hit three-point shots in the first five minutes of the game. Stanford swished 4 out of their first 5 three-point shots. Sexy stuff, and the Cardinal barely had to work the Gauchos inside to grab an early double-digit lead.

However, after the initial long-range barrage, Stanford was a miserable 2-17 from three-point range. They finished 6-22 (27.3%). For the game the Cardinal shot a measly 38.4% overall. The suboptimal shooting did not matter because after the opening shooting burst came the working the Gauchos inside portion of the program. The Stanford bigs were not always the most accurate, but they had their way inside as Stanford build a huge lead in the latter stages of the first half and the first few minutes of the second. While one can't really complain about the offense in a 35-point win, the Card definitely did not waste their sweetest shooting in what was destined from the first minutes to be a blowout. Is this a worry? Nah. This game felt like it was in the last minute of a rout just a few minutes into the second half. At about the 13:00 minute mark I was wondering how the team (and the viewers) would pass the time awaiting the final buzzer. Personally I lobbed small chunks of pizza crust to the dog and gulped a fermented beverage each time the Card grabbed an O board. Let's just say not much focus was needed in the second half of this game. The Gauchos were not coming back. The first game in the NCAA tournament is always one to just get out of the way. Tis done and teeth can now be sunk into the meat of the event.

Stanford's scoring was well balanced among the starters: Appel had 15 points, Pohlen 13, freshman F Nneka Ogwumike 13, Pedersen 10 and Harmon 9. As a group the reserves defended well and took care of the ball, but they did not shoot well. The bench accounted for only 14 points and went 5-23.

All the missed shots gave Stanford the opportunity to crash the boards, which they did in waves. How many sequences found Stanford missing a relatively easy shot (or shots) but gathering 2 or 3 offensive boards before finally finding the bottom of the net? Were they toying with the Gauchos? A little game of "keep away" using the backboard? They may have hurt their shooting percentage but they padded those rebounding stats. Stanford pulled down 57 boards (26 offensive) vs. 31 for the Gauchos. Leading rebounders were Appel, Ogwumike, and freshman C Sarah Boothe with 11 rebounds apiece. Pedersen was not far behind with 9.

UC Santa Barbara was not able to disrupt the Stanford offense or harass them into turnovers. Despite the lazy nature of a large portion of the blowout and the ever-shifting player combinations on the floor, Stanford accumulated but 8 turnovers. Stanford had 17 assists but as they did with their shooting percentage, they traded away assists for offensive rebounds too often.

Appel had only 2 personal fouls and none in the first half, which allowed her to play more aggressively on defense. The results were 3 blocks, a few walks by the opposition as they struggled to get over or around her, and not many made UC Santa Barbara shots in the paint. It makes a big difference when Appel can play defense without continuously worrying over the next whistle.

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer does not seem to relish the spotlight like some of her coaching colleagues do. We don't get cameras in the locker room or other self-promotion techniques very often. Thus it was nice to see a couple of good ESPN spots featuring VanDerveer discussing the Final Four and what she likes about basketball - nothing in depth or fancy but a warmer, more relaxed mini-profile than we usually get of her from ESPN.

Stanford now moves on to face the tenth seeded San Diego State Aztecs on their home court. The Aztecs upset DePaul, the seventh seed, 76-70 behind Jene Morris' 35 points, some hot three-point shooting (7-14) and a lot of free throws (23-29). This matchup has been built up as a real test for Stanford, but while San Diego State has the home court and some quick guards that the Cardinal will have to keep from getting to the basket, there is plenty of reason to believe that unless Stanford struggles in some unlikely and extreme way, they will advance to the Sweet 16.

First of all, though much as been made of Morris' great game (and it was fabulous), she averages around 16 points a game, not 35, and that is against a schedule ranked #83 by the Sagarin Ratings. Stanford defends much better than DePaul, who from my brief glimpses at breaks in the Cal/Fresno State game (ESPN's choice, not mine) did not look like they were having a banner day. Stanford has been able to go with their big starting line-up with Pohlen and Harmon at guard in part because those two have proven capable of containing quick opponents. Stanford's guards and wings are taller and stronger than their Aztec counterparts (San Diego State starts three guards), and it will be tough for the Aztecs to shoot over or pass around Stanford. Junior G Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who has been a mainstay on defense on the perimeter all season, is available off the bench to help lock down the Aztecs as well.

Big bodies await in the paint should the Aztec smalls penetrate. Certainly the Cardinal could get into foul trouble if they do not move their feet well enough on defense, but they present quite a challenge inside for San Diego State guards who want to find the rim. San Diego State is not a great three-point shooting team, although they certainly were against DePaul. They made 7-14 threes, which is significantly greater in both number and percentage than typical. They also got a whole slew of shooting fouls called on DePaul and went 23-29 from the line. They didn't exactly stop the Blue Demons, who shot almost 50% for the game. A lot went the Aztecs' way to pull off the 6-point upset. Can they shoot that well again and get another career game from Morris against the Cardinal? Surely it is possible, but how probable?

San Diego State also bothered DePaul's guards enough to rack up 11 steals. Can they harass Stanford into unsightly turnovers? A little bit maybe, but while they are quick, they are not very tall. Stanford starts 6'4", 6'4", 6'2", 6'1", and 6' with size off the bench. San Diego State starts 6'4", 6'1", 5'9", 5'9", and 5'9" and they do not bring in any height among the reserves. Teams have not been making a living pressing the Cardinal lately. The taller Stanford players should be able to pass over the press and see well enough over the shorter Aztec guards in half-court sets. In short, the Card have seen much scarier presses several times already this season than that which the Aztecs might throw at them.

Another potential problem for the opposition is that the Aztecs are not deep; they played 7 against DePaul and 4 starters played over 30 minutes. Even if San Diego State is able to bother the Cardinal by driving and making pests of themselves on defense, can they do it for 40 minutes without wearing down? Wearing down teams has been a Stanford specialty in the second half of the season. Furthermore the Aztecs can't run if they can't rebound, and unless the game is played in some odd, alternate universe, Stanford, an excellent rebounding team with an average rebounding margin that is second in the country, will be able to destroy San Diego State, a team that has usually been out-rebounded, on the boards.

It goes without saying that Stanford should enjoy a huge advantage inside on offense and that the challenge of stopping the Card inside is certainly the biggest issue facing San Diego State. From my vantage point it doesn't look as if the Aztecs have the horses to slow down on the Card bigs as a group. Of course on any given day a #10 seed can beat a #2 seed, but I think even with the home court advantage to bolster the Aztecs, it would take a great deal to go very right for San Diego State and an even greater deal to go very wrong for the Cardinal for that to happen on Monday.


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