For the first time since 2014, the final season of Chiney Ogwumike’s ’14 collegiate career, No. 4 Stanford (22-2, 19-2 Pac-12) will enter the conference tournament with the top seed. That year, USC upset Stanford in the semifinals en route to its only Pac-12 Tournament championship. In the NCAA Tournament, USC lost in the first round while Stanford reached the Final Four before losing to eventual champion UConn.
This year, Stanford will open the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas against eighth-seeded USC (11-11, 9-10 Pac-12).
Not since Ogwumike’s freshman season has Stanford seen a freshman with as many points through their first 23 games as forward Cameron Brink. Still, her most important role on the team may be on the glass. Brink is second on the team with 6.7 rebounds per game, but the clear leader in rebounds per minute.
Stanford has only lost the rebound margin twice all season. Once, against Washington State in a 71-49 victory, it was not a game changer that the Cougars had 18 offensive rebounds to the Cardinal’s 12. The other time was catastrophic.
Stanford’s 70-66 loss to UCLA can be mostly attributed to a breakdown in rebounding. The Bruins had 21 offensive rebounds, while Stanford had just 31 total. The Bruins were +13 in total rebounds and Stanford lost its second consecutive game.
That game was the last start for sophomore forward Fran Belibi, who had just two rebounds in 16 minutes. It is not nearly this simple, but head coach Tara VanDerveer inserted Brink into the starting lineup for the next game, and the Cardinal is now on an 11-game winning streak.
Brink’s first game in the starting lineup came against USC. The freshman hauled in 11 rebounds towards Stanford’s season-high +31 rebound margin.
Whether Stanford can win the rebound battle is the biggest question heading into tournament season. Here are the other questions the Pac-12 tournament will answer:
Does the full court press feature into any plans?
Pac-12 Coach of the Year Tara VanDerveer employed the full-court defense against Cal and limited the Bears to eight second half points on Senior Day. Often, coaches will use blowouts to put defenses on tape to force opponents to prepare for one more possibility, but Stanford’s success could encourage VanDerveer to dip into the well more often. Clearly, Stanford has the skill to play any defense.
Fifth-year guard Anna Wilson was named the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Junior guard Lexie Hull was named to the 2019-20 Pac-12 All-Defensive Team by the coaches, while both junior guard Lacie Hull and senior guard Kiana Williams were honorable mention for the same award.
No team has shot over 41.8% against Stanford this season. In its history in the tournament, Stanford is 41-1 when holding its opponent under 40%.
Wilson is able to be a lockdown defender because she is only being asked to play 22.5 minutes per game. Her on- and off-ball defense is suffocating, but also exhausting. At different times, both of the Hull twins have picked up Wilson’s matchup when she is out of the game.
VanDerveer has consistently rolled out a deep lineup and used her press conference following the regular season finale to emphasize that would continue. Whether the Hall of Fame head coach trusts Brink or the freshman guards Jana Van Gytenbeek and Agnes Emma-Nnopu in crunch time is another question, but at this point all indications are that Stanford will continue to use its bench.
With Brink in the lineup, Stanford also has rim protection. The freshman’s 58 blocks are the 11th-most in the nation for any class year.
Stanford’s defense has been the story all year long and we can expect the same in Las Vegas.
Can Stanford secure a No. 1 seed?
Right now, Stanford is in line for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal is No. 1 in the NET and ranked as a No. 1 seed in each of the committee’s two bracket reveals. As the only team to beat every other Pac-12 side at least once this season, Stanford is in a good position heading into the conference tournament. Winning the conference tournament to go along with the regular season crown would secure Stanford a place among the top four teams seeded for the tournament.
Falling short of a championship, however, would raise questions about Stanford’s ability in quick turnaround tournament settings and the Pac-12 altogether. Typically, Stanford would have a full non-conference schedule to sort out its national rank. With the pandemic, Stanford played just three games outside of the Pac-12 and had two more canceled. Building momentum will be critical heading into March Madness.
Of course, the lights may be blinding. The only fans in the building will be family members of the players but everyone knows that the air in March is different. Not only have the freshmen never played in a collegiate tournament, but sophomore guard Haley Jones also missed the tournament last season with an injury.
For the rest of the team, the last experience in the Pac-12 tournament was bitter. After upsetting Oregon in the tournament championship in 2019, Stanford was beaten badly in the 2020 championship game, the third bad loss to Oregon last year.
Stanford may have an advantage from its time on the road. Living out of a hotel will be nothing new, which will be a factor both in Las Vegas and in San Antonio, where the entire NCAA Tournament will take place.
The depth will potentially be massive with three games in four days. Not only was every starter named to an All-Pac-12 team, but Stanford also had Sixth Player of the Year Lacie Hull. While Hull missed the last two games of the regular season, VanDerveer emphasized her team’s health.
“I think the most important thing is that we’re healthy,” VanDerveer said after the win over Cal. “We don’t scrimmage a lot, we don’t go really hard in practice, so games are the only time that they really are going full speed.”
“I don’t think it’s by accident,” she added. “Our coaching staff, our trainers, we’ve worked hard every day to make sure that we’re working hard, but not grinding people into the ground. With the travel, with COVID, with the stress of all that we’ve adapted, we’ve had to be flexible with what we do. I’m very proud of our team.”
Does Kiana Williams hit 14 3’s?
Williams is currently the 10th highest scorer in Stanford history. The senior from San Antonio has had an incredible Stanford career and now has the opportunity to become the most prolific 3-point shooter in program history. Her 282 career 3’s are 13 behind Candice Wiggins ’08 for first place.
Over the course of the season, Williams is averaging 2.1 3-pointers per game, but in nine career Pac-12 Tournament games, she is averaging 3.8 made 3-pointers per game shooting 49% from deep. No player in the nation has made more 3-pointers in a conference tournament than Williams since 2018.
Since going 0-for-6 against Oregon, Williams has made at least one 3 in 14 straight games. It would take a few hot shooting nights, but Williams could potentially break the record in Vegas. Luckily for her, the first game will come against USC, a team Williams dropped seven made 3-pointers on earlier this season as part of a 27-point outburst.
At the very least, Stanford needs Williams to play her best. She has scored in double figures 20 of Stanford’s 24 games and leads the team in point, assists, minutes and free throw percentage.
Williams’ days in a Stanford uniform are numbered. Of course, she can always extend her playing time by winning and advancing. That is the task this weekend.
“The teams that go the furthest are ones that just don’t want it to end,” VanDerveer said.