By Sofia Scekic
No. 1 Stanford (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12) has the opportunity to start 2021 with two statement wins that would strengthen their hold on the top spot in the AP Poll, as the team will travel to Arizona for matchups against No. 6 Arizona (7-0, 5-0 Pac-12) and Arizona State (6-2, 2-2 Pac-12). The matchup against the Wildcats will mark the Cardinal’s second-straight Top-10 matchup, and although the Sun Devils are not ranked, they received votes in the most recent Top 25 poll.
The Wildcats are the second-highest ranked team in the Pac-12, and the New Year’s Day matchup will include an Arizona team that is ranked the highest it has ever been when playing Stanford. The Cardinal are also coming off an 11-day holiday break, as their most recent game was a Dec. 21 win against then-No. 10 UCLA. Arizona most recently played Idaho on Dec. 23, and the Sun Devils, coming off a 56-48 victory against Utah on Dec. 18, will play California on Friday before the Cardinal come to town.
While early 2020 was not kind to the Cardinal because of the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, they have dominated in the opening months of the 2020-2021 season. The team ranks among the top 10 in the country in multiple categories, including scoring offense (ninth, 88.6 ppg), scoring defense (eighth, 50.3 ppg), rebounds per game (eighth, 48.86), opponent field goal percentage (sixth, 30.3%), scoring margin (third, +38.3) and assist to turnover ratio (first, 1.85).
Other notable categories in which the Cardinal rank among the top teams in the nation are blocked shots (11th, 41), turnover margin (16th, +7.00) and 3-point field goals made (20th, 63). Freshman forward Cameron Brink is the main reason the team has been able to block shots this year; the 6-4 freshman ranks third in the conference with 2.14 blocks per game. Sophomore guard Haley Jones also ranks 10th in the conference with 1.29 blocked shots per game, while senior guard Kiana Williams, one of the Cardinal’s best shooters, ranks sixth in the conference with 2.29 made three-point shots per game.
Stanford’s depth stands out this year as well, with all 12 players averaging at least seven minutes per game and nine players averaging double-digit minutes of playing time. Head coach Tara VanDerveer has started the same five (Jones, Williams, junior guard Lexie Hull, sophomore forward Fran Belibi and fifth-year senior guard Anna Wilson) since the season-opener, and all starters except Wilson average at least 11 points per game. Brink, who has yet to start a game but has still earned substantial playing time, ranks third on the team with an average of 12 points per game. Jones is averaging a double-double and leading the team with 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Arizona’s No. 6 ranking is their highest in school history, and their stretch of 22 weeks in the Top-25 is also the longest consecutive period of time the team has been ranked in Wildcat history. While the Wildcats have played the No. 1 team in the country just four times, with the last matchup coming in 2006 at Maryland, they have never upset the top-ranked team and hold a 0-4 record in games against the No. 1 team. Last season, however, the Wildcats upset then-No. 4 Stanford at the McKale Center 73-72 in overtime for their first-ever win over a Top-5 team. The Wildcats already knocked off then-No. 9 UCLA in early December in a close 68-65 victory and will look for their second win over a ranked team this season on Friday.
Senior guard Aari McDonald, whose 73 straight games scoring in double figures is the longest active streak in the nation, and senior forward Sam Thomas are two notable Wildcats who could lead Arizona to an upset victory. McDonald has been nearly unstoppable this season, averaging over 20 points per game, and while Thomas only averages 5.4 points per game, she is the conference’s leader in career blocks. Like McDonald, she can shoot from behind the arc, ranking sixth in Wildcat history in made three-point shots. The Cardinal also cannot get comfortable no matter how large their lead on Friday, as Arizona has erased double-digit deficits three times this season in comeback wins.
Sunday’s game against ASU will feature a battle between Stanford’s ninth-ranked scoring offense and the Sun Devil’s 20th-ranked scoring defense that allows only 53.6 points per game. ASU has not scored more than 64 points in a game this season and was held to 37 points in its Dec. 10 matchup against the in-state rival Wildcats, but the Sun Devils have also held all eight opponents to 65 points or fewer.
An area in which the Cardinal hold a noticeable edge against the Sun Devils is experience. ASU’s most recent starting lineup featured one player with 20 career starts and four others with eight or fewer career starts for a total of 46 career starts among five starters. Junior forward Jayde Van Hyfte, who started every game for the Sun Devils during the 2019-2020 season, was injured in late November and will miss the rest of the season, while junior guard Iris Mbulito was also injured in early December and has not yet returned, forcing ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne to rely on young and inexperienced players when Pac-12 play rolled around. By contrast, Stanford’s starting lineup has over 100 career starts among its players.
The Cardinal will tip off against the Wildcats in Tucson at 4 p.m. PT on New Year’s Day and then match up against the Sun Devils in Tempe at 3 p.m. PT on Sunday.