Is Stanford favorite in wide-open Indy?
Guard play between Cardinal's Pohlen and Texas A&M Sydneys tandem is key matchup
This one is about the old guard versus the new. While Stanford is making its fourth straight trip (and 10th overall) to the game's showcase event (no truth to the rumor that the Cardinal's Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen have squatters' rights to the Final Four), Texas A&M is here for the first time in school history. The Aggies got to Indianapolis by avenging three losses earlier this season to Baylor with an upset of the Lady Bears in the Elite Eight. Baylor was the only team Texas A&M had lost to since early December. Stanford, meanwhile, has the nation's longest winning streak at 27 games and is the only team in three years to beat Connecticut.
From the coaches on the sidelines to the style of play to the amount of experience of the players, these are two distinctly different teams.
The first half of the Elite Eight game against Gonzaga was Stanford offense at its best. And Stanford offense at its best is as good as basketball can be. The Cardinal space the floor nicely, make cuts with near-perfect timing and look for one another. They get the ball inside where Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike can take a steady stream of shots in the paint. What results is room for Jeanette Pohlen to get off a few open 3-point looks and for Kayla Pedersen to roam the high post freely. But it can also work in reverse, the perimeter setting up the interior. It's team-oriented in every way, rhythmic and pleasing to the basketball eye.
Still, Stanford's big advantage in Indianapolis is that Tara VanDerveer's team has more true offensive weapons than anyone else and the system in place to use them all.
But if styles make fights, then this should be a good one. A&M will get a completely different look from Stanford than it received from Baylor, but a constant for Texas A&M against any opponent is a toughness with an intent to disrupt. A quick look at their season stats is proof that the Aggies can also score in bunches, especially when the transition game is in full effect.
But their biggest games were won on the defensive end. No one in the tournament has scored 50 against them yet. Gary Blair isn't afraid to play 94 feet with his guards to put pressure on the other backcourt or to merely chew up some shot clock. None of the Aggies back away from physical play. It's not that Stanford can't and won't play that same way (see how it beat Connecticut), but this has an Ali-Frazier or Lakers-Celtics (mid-'80s version) kind of feel. Both teams like to run, but have little else in common.
Pohlen versus the Sydneys (Carter and Colson). While Danielle Adams versus the Ogwumike sisters is intriguing and will play a huge role, the guards should determine the game's pace and flow. Specifically, how well Carter and Colson can make nuisances of themselves might be the game's biggest determining factor. The victory over Baylor illustrated like no other game this season the kind of impact they can have. From their defense to Carter's shooting, the pair made that win happen. Pohlen is a first-team All-American, however, with tremendous experience in this very situation who plays the game above the shoulders very well.
Advantage: Stanford. The Stanford frontcourt of Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike and Pedersen is easily the best all-around collection of talent in the country and should have a distinct advantage here. Just the fact all three are legitimate frontcourt players gives Stanford an advantage. While most teams really play three guards, the Cardinal run out three players that are 6-foot-3, 6-2 and 6-4, respectively. It also doesn't hurt that one is the reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year (Chiney), one is last year's Pac-10 Player of the Year and a second-team All-American this season (Nneka) and the third is a two-time honorable mention All-American (Pedersen).
Nneka finishes cleanly from different angles around the basket like no one else. Chiney has become a rebounding force. Pedersen's versatility and unselfishness couldn't possibly fit the Stanford system any better. All of which gives A&M plenty with which to contend. It's a much different look than Baylor, which gets most of its interior scoring from one player.
That brings us to Adams, Texas A&M's first-team All-American. She can be dominant with her ability to score in multiple ways, but she's also only a 6-1 post player with shooting numbers that have been down lately. Texas A&M surprisingly got away with it against Baylor, but Adams can't spend the majority of the game on the bench in foul trouble again.
Adaora Elonu, a 6-1 junior forward, can be sneaky good but can't afford to be quiet. Also, expect Gary Blair to use the size of 6-5 freshman Karla Gilbert again -- but Texas A&M's veteran coach has to be hoping she doesn't use up her five fouls in 11 minutes like she did trying to check Brittney Griner.
Advantage: Texas A&M. In recent years, the Final Four has given a needed showcase to some of the dynamic personalities of the women's game. Stanford's Candice Wiggins stole the show in Tampa in 2008. UConn's Renee Montgomery had her national moment in St. Louis two years ago.
This weekend very well could be the national unveiling of Colson. Her enthusiasm and leadership have been nearly as instrumental in Texas A&M reaching its first Final Four as her defense and playmaking. Carter is the better shooter and scorer, but their defense together will be key. Tyra White is the wild card. The 6-foot junior is the Aggies' best 3-point shooter and really the perimeter player most capable of having a big-time breakout scoring night.
At Stanford, the plan wasn't necessarily for Pohlen to be the team's point guard when she became a senior -- especially after freshman and sophomore seasons largely spent at the 2-guard in more of a supporting role. But Pohlen's transition (and four Final Four trips later) to become an All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year as Stanford's lead guard is remarkable. The 6-foot senior is now the Cardinal's most important piece.
Pohlen's help in the backcourt comes from junior Lindy La Rocque (38.6 percent shooter from 3-point range) and freshman Toni Kokenis. The latter has been outstanding at times, particularly in the Pac-10 tournament championship game against UCLA when she rescued Stanford with a season-best 17 points in a game that was otherwise a struggle. She'll assume Pohlen's role next season, but for now she's still a freshman. And Kokenis' lack of overall game experience gives the Aggies a slight advantage in this category.
Pohlen. Players like Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike are so unique that they always have the chance to be major difference-makers, but it has been the play of Pohlen that seems to dictate how Stanford goes. The senior point guard doesn't have to be spectacular for the Cardinal to win, but she is the player on the team carrying the most responsibility. She gets Stanford into its offense. She's making most of the decisions in the transition game. She's the club's best deep shooter (41.2 percent from 3-point range, 93 treys this season). That's an area of her game that hasn't been at its best in the tournament (she was 5-for-20 from downtown through three games until a 5-of-8 effort last time out), but shots started to drop more frequently against Gonzaga and, not surprisingly, Stanford's offense looked unstoppable that night. Gary Blair and the Sydneys will make sure Pohlen has plenty to contend with, making her poise and decisions that much more vital.
Stanford. In the most wide-open Final Four since probably 2006, the Cardinal might have to be listed as the favorite. They have the most weapons and that's what this game likely will come down to. Texas A&M can score, but in their biggest games the Aggies have struggled to find enough reliable places to turn for big buckets. Even in Tuesday's big victory over Baylor, Texas A&M put only 58 points on the board. Stanford has no such problem. Teams that can put the ball in the basket the best and most efficiently win the big games. The Aggies won't make it easy, but in this matchup the Cardinal are that team.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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