Final Four Roundtable: Part I

Is UConn the unstoppable force ESPN tells me they are? Did you expect this type of a season out of Stanford this year? And this year's Stanford squad: better or worse than last year's team? Jake Kelman, KZSU play-by-play man, joins two Booties and diehard women's hoops faithful, Warren Grimes and Bob Kinder, as the break it down in advance of Saturday's clash with UConn.

One of the best thing about working with the Stanford community, and at The Bootleg in particular, is that some of the most intelligent, informed analysts you could possibly hope for are right at your fingertips. After all, they're the fans.

On the eve of Stanford women's basketball's Final Four matchup with undefeated UConn, we had the pleasure of catching up with two such diehard Stanford women's basketball supporters, prominent Booties Warren Grimes and Bob Kinder. We also reached out to a guy the Stanford women's hoops community knows well – KZSU play-by-play man and Stanford senior Jake Kelman, now just one or two short games away from broadcasting his last Cardinal game. All three broke down this year's Stanford team, the UConn matchup, and women's hoops at large, so without further ado, here is the first half of our roundtable:

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The Bootleg: You guys, thank you all for your time. First off, this year's Stanford squad: better or worse than last year's team?

Warren Grimes: Different. In some ways better. I think a flat yes-or-no answer doesn't make sense to me. [Ed: Touche. But that's the very essence of any and all sports analysis under the sun: reduce complicated situations into 10-second yes-or-no soundbites. You're totally right, Prof. Grimes, but the economy's in enough trouble as it is; let's not bankrupt ESPN, all of sports talk radio and every local columnist.] Obviously, Candice Wiggins was a one-time, unique star and perhaps that makes a difference, but we're more balanced this year, and I think the post play is better than it was last year. I think Jeanette Pohlen, in many ways, has shown herself to be better at moving the ball up the court against pressure than last year's team was ever able to do.

Bob Kinder: Better. We're better for a couple of reasons. One is defense, as we've been able to really smother most teams early on, which gets them out of their rhythm, out of their game. Our post depth is infinitely better than last year's. The biggest plus there is that last year, if Jayne got into foul trouble we had little offense to replace her. But this year, we have lots of offense to replace her. And then the third reason is conditioning. And by conditioning, it's not so much, ‘Oh, Jayne is in good shape now,' like she wasn't last year, because that's BS. But it's that we're able to wear teams down and those last five minutes, they belong to us every game.

Jake Kelman: I think they're a different team. All season long, they've been hearing about how they're a worse team than with Candice Wiggins and JJ Hones, after she went down. But Stanford has carved out an identity on its post depth. I think Jayne Appel, [Nnemkadi Ogwumike], Kayla Pedersen and Sarah Boothe – they're more physically intense than they were a year ago. Tara's talked about this as the best rebounding team in Stanford history. Maybe there's not an expierenced wing like Candice, but the depth is just as strong and just as dangerous. … Candice was such a type of player that she'd propel you to a victory and just had a winning mentality. So maybe last year's team would have an edge in that regard, but this year's team would beat out last year's team on the block. I don't know who'd win if this year's team played last year's team. That's a good question and I don't know the answer. That'd be a pretty good game.

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TB: Did you expect this type of a season out of Stanford this year? Would the year be a success with a loss to UConn?

WG: It would be a success. I think they've really grown as a team and they have to play, in all likelihood, the undefeated and best team in women's basketball -- perhaps ever. [Pause.] I wouldn't want to say that, how about "perhaps the best ever?" But Stanford has a shot.

BK: Yes, it would be a tremendous success even if we lost. Really, it's all about getting to the Final Four: that's the huge, huge goal. Anyways, that's the way I feel and I know others feel the same way. [Ed: Good foreshadowing. Told you our fans were mighty bright.]
Did I expect this same success as last year? Definitely not. It was not so much the loss of Candice Wiggins, but the loss of Candice Wiggins and the loss of JJ Hones.

JK: To answer in terms of expectations, I think in the beginning of year, people certainly didn't expect this. I didn't certainly, when they lost at Baylor in November and lost two of three in their trip through the South. I think there were people who thought maybe this was a little too much to ask of a young team. But then, as the year has gone on and young players have hit that stride, it's become clear they're in that upper echelon of teams, with Connecticut and Maryland.
Tara said something last week to me, she said in an interview that winning a National Title is the goal of any program, but getting to the Final Four in some ways is more gratifying and more special. The fact that they made it to a Final Four again kind of makes it a success regardless of what happens next. But they got to this point a year ago, and I was fairly confident Stanford was going to beat Tennessee in the title game. And when they didn't, I could say the season was not a success because we didn't complete the deal. So you could look at it either way.

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TB: Is UConn the unstoppable force ESPN tells me they are? How good are they compared to historic, undefeated championship teams?

WG: Maya Moore is phenomenal, but I don't think they're better than some of the undefeated teams of the past. UConn, Tennessee and Texas have all had undefeated teams, you know. I think [this year's] Connecticut is just really good, and what makes them really good is Geno Auriemma. He's a perfectionist, he strives for perfection and he really prepares his team well. They've got talent, sure, and I could talk matchups, but I suspect that's the next question. [Ed: Our analysts are on fire. Sure enough, they are asked to break down specific matchups to start the final half of this roundtable, so stay tuned!]

BK: It's hard for me to compare UConn to teams from more than five years ago. I could compare Stanford, but not UConn -- I just don't follow them as closely. But comparing them to last year, they seem much better, even though they're mostly the same players, even though they lost the No. 1 recruit in the country, who didn't even come to school. [Elena Delle Donne] So one would have thought, at the start of the year, they would not be this good. But they are so crisp in what they do. They are so athletic, so quick and there are no weaknesses.
The downside could be foul trouble: if someone gets hurt, then their bench isn't very strong. Well, they don't use their bench, so I guess they could be a surprise. They only play eight players normally.

JK: I thought when I saw them a couple of times last year that they were the most talented team we had run into at any point. Now, they have almost all the same players back with another year of experience. You don't have to look at anything but the numbers: they've beat ranked teams by something like 31 points per game. Maya Moore is the best player in country. So they're a great team.
But unstoppable? I don't think they are. I think Stanford can match up pretty well with them, and I think it's going to be a great game on Sunday. I don't think you could handicap it and say Connecticut should win by 15, like every other game. It's going to be a whole lot closer than that.

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As promised, Part II touches upon matchup analysis, the other Final Four game, and what this year's Tournament says about parity in women's basketball. Stay tuned!

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