Stanford women’s basketball (28-5, 15-3 Pac-12) will begin its quest for a second national title in three years when it hosts Sacred Heart (19-13, 12-4 NEC) on Friday. The Daily’s Charis Charitsis, Ryan Beyer and Jason Link discuss whether the team will avenge their performance in the Pac-12 Tournament, when it fell in the semifinals, and give their predictions about how the Cardinal will fare in the NCAA Bracket.
Charis Charitsis: The roster took a blow with the departure of guards Anna Wilson ʼ22, Lexie Hull ʼ22 and Lacie Hull ʼ22. Of course, that is nothing new. Still, freshman guard Talana Lepolo rose to the occasion, and Wilson’s absence is not as evident as I thought it would be. At the same time, junior forward Cameron Brink keeps improving every year – this year in particular, she excelled on both ends of the floor.
There are players that you pretty much know what you will get before the jump ball. From the starters, senior guard Haley Jones, Brink and Lepolo fall into this category.
To me, the key factors that will determine Stanford’s run in the tournament are the following:
- Brink must stay out of foul trouble. With her on the floor, Stanford usually has the lead.
- Senior guard Hannah Jump’s performance is a good predictor of the outcome. She is a prolific scorer and when on fire, Stanford comes up victorious. The Cardinal is 16-2 when she has scored at least 10 points. Although she is arguably the best shooter in college basketball, she is not very versatile. The opposing teams know that she is looking for her favorite spots on the floor, which, for the most part, are behind the arc.
- Help from the bench. A team without a deep roster cannot go far. Senior forward Fran Belibi, freshman center Lauren Betts and sophomore forward Brooke Demetre will probably see the most action coming from the bench, but in general, every player stepping in must rise to the occasion.
- Sophomore forward Kiki Irafen has not even scratched the surface of her potential. If her performance reaches the level of her talent, she can be a difference-maker at the highest stage.
- Junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopou will also have a heavy impact on the Cardinal’s tournament hopes. While Lepolo was injured, she grabbed the opportunity to elevate her game and gain head coach Tara VanDerveer’s trust.
The team will win the first two matches easily. Then the Cardinal’s chances depend on the opponents – probably 4-seed Texas (25-9, 14-4 Big 12) and then 2-seed Iowa (26-6, 15-3 Big Ten) – but mostly on its own performance. Stanford is an elite program, although not as reliable as in the past. In a series, the best team usually wins. However, in elimination games, there is no room for mistakes like this past season against USC (21-9, 11-7 Pac-12), Utah (25-4, 15-3 Pac-12) and UCLA (25-9, 11-7 Pac-12). If the Cardinal play at the same level as against South Carolina – when despite the loss, they were up by double digits most of the time – they will have no problem punching a ticket to Dallas.
Ryan Beyer: I think the Cardinal have had some really strong performances this year which indicate they can make a deep run in the tournament. Admittedly, it is hard to overlook some of the defeats, namely the flat offensive performance at USC in January, and more recently, the fourth-quarter collapse against UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals. But I believe that these results have been unfairly scrutinized because of the off-season departures Stanford has had to contend with; people are quick to doubt whether the new-look roster has what it takes. But overall, this young team has handled that pressure superbly, exemplified by the incredible strides that freshmen Lepolo, Betts and Indya Nivar have made in their careers thus far.
Stanford still has great leaders and great depth; they’re scoring less, granted, but giving up fewer points, too. So where does that leave them? In spite of the disappointing Pac-12 performance, I have them reaching the final four, narrowly beating potential opponents Texas and Iowa. A matchup with undefeated South Carolina would presumably be their reward for such a run, however, and there I see their season ending, although the Gamecocks are certainly not untouchable. Stanford was in pole position to win the game at Maples Pavilion in November heading into the fourth quarter, before five Cardinal turnovers, two missed free throws and a jumper by perennial NCAA Player of the Year Aliyah Boston with two seconds left sent the game to OT. Let’s hope similar heartache does not befall the Cardinal now that we’re at the business end of the season.
It will be interesting to see how it all pans out in the next couple of weeks. What I can say for sure is that anything less than a spirited defeat in the Elite Eight (at minimum) would be a disappointment for a team brimming with talent. It would be doubly crushing to see star senior guard Haley Jones’ Stanford career end in an early round and part of me thinks that – if Stanford were to face a deficit late in one of the early rounds – she would take it upon herself to drag the Cardinal through to the next stage. This team has never been a one-woman show though, and the key is to include everyone in the game. If coach VanDerveer can trust her bench and get key contributions from Demetre, Betts, and Nivar on offense, and Belibi and Emma-Nnopu on defense, Stanford could have a real shot at winning it all.
Jason Link: There’s no question Stanford should beat the brakes off of Sacred Heart on Friday. The team was undefeated at home during the season (not counting the overtime exhibition loss to undefeated South Carolina), and considering their first-round and potential second-round games will be held at Maples, I see them cruising to the Sweet 16 on the backs of some Brink double-doubles and at least one 20-point game from Haley Jones.
From there, I’m not sure. Like Ryan and Charis mentioned, Texas, Iowa, and Duke all have the ability to go deep into this tournament, but they’ve all shown more weaknesses this season than the Cardinal. If Brink plays at her highest level, Stanford can walk through any of those teams. All they have to do is not let up another 29-point fourth quarter.
Once the field comes down to four, however, I foresee some problems. Their losses to Pac-12 opponents showed some serious issues against teams nowhere near the caliber of the other one and two seeds in this tournament, and a likely rematch against South Carolina is scary.
Book tickets to Dallas for a Final Four appearance, but not much else.
Tip-off against Sacred Heart is set for today at 4:30 p.m. PT in Maples Pavilion.