Cardinal talented enough for another deep March run

Updated: November 12, 2006, 10:07 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It's not enough to be on a pretty campus … where the weather's almost always great … and everybody is smart … and you're not far from one of the most interesting cities in the entire world, San Francisco.

Brooke Smith
AP PhotoStanford and Brooke Smith, left, snapped OU's 19-game win streak to reach the Elite Eight last season. But then the Cardinal lost in the regional final for the third straight season.

Nah, that's just not enough. Stanford athletes also want to keep piling up the trophies. Never mind that the school could probably lose half of them now and not even be able to tell. This is a place for the high achievers, the perfectionists, the "I'll kept doing it until it's exactly right" crowd.

So, obviously, it bugs the Stanford women's hoops team that for the past three seasons, the Cardinal have been good enough … to just miss the Final Four.

Three consecutive Elite Eight losses. It's like being in three events at the Olympics, and coming in fourth … fourth … and fourth.

It's like being nominated for three consecutive Oscars, and having to fake-clap for somebody else each time. It's slightly worse than going to three consecutive Final Fours and not winning a title in any of them. Of course, Stanford has done that, too (1995-97).

The last three regional finals have each been a little different kind of agony for the Cardinal. In 2004, Nicole Powell's senior season, her 3-point heave at the buzzer missed and Stanford lost 62-60 to Tennessee in Norman, Okla. (The Cardinal's last win over the Orange Crush, incidentally, was in 1996.)

In 2005, Stanford fell 76-69 to Michigan State in Kansas City -- this after the Cardinal had knocked defending national champion Connecticut out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.

In 2006 in San Antonio, Stanford played a brilliant game in beating Oklahoma in the regional semis, stopping the Sooners' 19-game winning streak. Then against LSU with a trip to Boston on the line, Stanford had the ball with 12 seconds left, trailing by one point. Candice Wiggins found Krista Rappahahn in the corner for a 3-pointer. It swished … but Wiggins had been called for a charge on Seimone Augustus. The Cardinal then lost 62-59.

Each of those three regional-final losses was to a team seeded No. 1, while Stanford was seeded No. 6, No. 2 and No. 3. So Stanford lived up to or exceeded its seeding all three times. Though that doesn't really help the Cardinal feel any better.

However, I know what the real culprit, the true hobgoblin, the undeniable karmic killer has been for the Cardinal. And it could strike again, so coach Tara VanDerveer might want to get out some voodoo dolls or something in March in hopes of swaying the selection committee.

Not in terms of seeding, because that doesn't matter. The Cardinal have proven that. All that matters is this: Stay out of the Dallas Regional at all costs.

Why? Norman, Kansas City, San Antonio. What connects them?

You got it: Interstate 35, aka "Death Highway" for Stanford. And it also runs through Dallas. (If I wanted to take my theory to the next level, I could make the case that this "jinx" goes back to the 1995 Final Four in another I-35 city, Minneapolis.)

Actually, though, voodoo probably won't be necessary for VanDerveer's team. There is a 2007 regional located much closer to Stanford: Fresno. It seems a pretty good bet -- even four months before the selection show -- to predict that the Cardinal will be placed there. And Stanford has the edge of being a host site for the first and second rounds.

Not that the Cardinal really would appear to need any extra advantage beyond their own talent. The superstar Wiggins is back for her junior year, and the 5-foot-11 guard is still smarting from how last season ended.

Which is too bad, because she needs to remind herself that if she hadn't hit a huge 3-pointer just before that, Stanford wouldn't have been in position to win anyway. VanDerveer wants her team to remember the disappointment but not dwell on it, a practical coaching strategy.

As much as Wiggins remains Stanford's centerpiece player and sure All-American, the Cardinal are going to be very strong in the paint. VanDerveer expects her team will "go big" much of the time, certainly a strategy that has worked very well for her before. Stanford has seven players 6-1 or taller. The 6-3 Brooke Smith and 6-5 Kristen Newlin, both seniors, start and form an imposing front line.

Stanford should be better at rebounding and defense this season and thus likely will be pretty successful in dictating tempo and making opponents play at a pace that's comfortable for the Cardinal.

It's a deep team that will utilize that depth effectively, helping Stanford be as ready for the postseason as possible.

None of this is to say, though, that Stanford won't get dinged up at all in Pac-10 play. There are five other teams from the league ranked in the preseason coaches' poll. The Pac-10 does not often start a season so well-regarded.

Arizona State is picked to finish second in the league and mixes senior leadership from players like Emily Westerberg and Aubree Johnson with young emerging talent.

Cal had a breakthrough last season, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993 and just the fourth time overall. The Bears are led by a young nucleus including guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, who was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season.

USC (Shay Murphy), Washington (Cameo Hicks) and UCLA (Noelle Quinn) all have a senior guard to lead the team. Provided she has the kind of season expected from her, Quinn may well be in the running to be the No.1 WNBA draft pick next April.

Nonetheless, Stanford is still expected to be the Pac-10's biggest threat to make the Final Four. And if that does indeed happen, there's some good news for the Cardinal.

Cleveland isn't anywhere near I-35.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.