- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
- 0 Shares
Dear Coach VanDerveer:
I'm writing to publicly apologize to you and your Cardinal squad. I didn't know how good Stanford was this season, and the fact you folks didn't get many nationally televised games only fed my ignorance. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. But I realized that Stanford did in fact deserve better than a No. 6 seed this weekend after watching the Cardinal carve up tough opponents, Missouri in the first round and Oklahoma in the second.
OK, so we're kidding a bit here. But Stanford has to be one of the tournament's most underrated teams. Not only do the Cardinal have the most versatile player in the country in Nicole Powell, Stanford also has one of the most intellectually gifted coaches in Tara VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer.
And though we said on Selection Sunday that the East would be the most difficult region, Baylor, Stanford, Tennessee and Vanderbilt make the Midwest the toughest region at this point in the tournament. In addition to the best team on the West Coast, you've got three southern powers.
A look at the Midwest's Sweet 16 matchups:
Stanford vs. Vanderbilt
Stanford: The Cardinal play to your weaknesses and take away your strengths, and that's a credit to VanDerveer's game preparation. Nobody watches as much film as Stanford. Even as a player at Indiana, VanDerveer learned the value of preparation, sitting in on Bobby Knight's practices. When she was hired to take over Ohio State's women's program at the age of 26, VanDerveer employed the same techniques.
That has really paid off at Stanford, where highly intelligent students get the benefit of getting the best pre-game preparation possible. It was really evident against Oklahoma. Stanford knew the Sooners inside and out, and knew what play was coming before OU's guards were halfway up the court. Stanford knew the plays, the hand signals and the mannerisms, and as a result, was able to contain Dionnah Jackson and take away the Sooners' strengths.
In addition to Powell, guard Susan Borchardt also has been playing well. She gets after it defensively, is a great shooter and a great floor leader. And Borchardt's the one picking up the opponents' plays. When the opponents' point guard calls a play from her own backcourt, Borchardt turns around to her teammates and lets them know what's coming their way.
Vanderbilt: When it comes to intelligent play, the Commodores are right up there with Stanford. Look for this one to develop into an academic contest.
Vanderbilt is on an incredible run, winning 10 straight games since their last loss, at home to Tennessee, on Feb. 15. In that stretch, the Commodores are giving up just 55 points a game, which is nearly six fewer points than they were allowing before the streak. Obviously they are really getting after it defensively, and it has been a huge difference.
It all starts with Dee Davis, a 5-foot-7 freshman guard who can be lethal out on the wings. Vandy's perimeter is pretty big with 5-10 Abi Ramsey and 5-11 Hillary Hager, and that can present matchup problems.
Balance is probably Vanderbilt's biggest strength. Five players are averaging double figures, and that's tough to keep up with defensively. And if the opposing defense focuses too much on the perimeter, freshman Carla Thomas tears it up inside with Jenni Benningfield.
Key matchup: At 6-3, Benningfield is usually a nightmare to guard. She can step out and hit the 3. She can post you up, too, or score in transition. So who better to guard her than Powell? The versatility between these two should make for some excellent basketball.
Tennessee vs. Baylor
Tennessee: As good as top-seeded Tennessee is, the Lady Vols have done some things we didn't expect. Scoring 46 points in the first half against 16th-seeded Colgate is one thing, but scoring 50 against ninth-seeded DePaul was incredible. I never thought I'd see this squad score that many points in a half, and it's no wonder Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said the first half of that game was the Lady Vols' best 20 minutes of the season.
As usual, Tennessee is playing great defense. But the difference might be how well Tennessee's bigs are playing. We've come to expect consistency from Shyra Ely, but Ashley Robinson has really stepped up her game. After notching her first double-double of the season -- 13 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in 22 minutes -- against Colgate, Robinson grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds -- including 12 in the first half, which matched DePaul's total at the break -- against the Blue Demons.
Brittany Jackson and Shanna Zolman also are playing with supreme confidence. Zolman started 7-for-10, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range, to score 18 points in the first half against DePaul.
That overtime game against DePaul earlier this season was a blessing in disguise. After that, the Lady Vols returned home and really worked on their defense and rebounding -- the two things Summitt has always emphasized. She realized Tennessee couldn't continue to keep up with opponents that were going to be able to score 90 points. As a result, Tennessee's defense has done a better job channelling, bumping cutters and boxing out.
Baylor: Just like the way their coach, Kim Mulkey-Robertson used to play, the Lady Bears are tough and feisty. And like most Big 12 teams, they're also very physical.
But the best thing Baylor has done in the tournament so far is show people its not a two-person team. When Steffanie Blackmon went down with a knee injury in the Big 12 tournament, it perhaps cast some doubt over how far Baylor could go in the Big Dance. Instead, Baylor reached its first Sweet 16, something not even Sheila Lambert and Danielle Crockrom were able to do. And that's a credit to Mulkey-Robertson. Good coaches can continue to lift their programs even after their All-Americans leave.
Sophia Young has had an outstanding tournament so far, but she'll have her hands full. Tennessee is good, big and strong, with good penetrators and shooters. This won't be an easy matchup for Baylor. That's not to say beating Tennessee is an insurmountable task for Baylor, but it won't be a Baylor blowout by any means.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.