The differences between Missouri and Stanford, its opponent in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament, are striking.
The Tigers are thrilled to be a No. 11 seed and in the tournament for the third time in the past 17 years; the Cardinal are an NCAA Tournament institution making their 17th straight tournament appearance.
Stanford is the four-time defending Pac-10 Conference regular-season champion and two-time defending Pac 10 Tournament champion. Missouri’s best finish in the eight-year history of the Big 12 Conference is fifth and the Tigers have never advanced past the second round of the Big 12 Tournament.
Legendary coach Tara VanDerveer leads the Cardinal. VanDerveer has 447 wins, five Final Four appearances and two national championships in her 17 years at Stanford. Missouri coach Cindy Stein has 101 wins and no Final Four appearances in her six seasons at MU.
Considering the contrast between the programs, it is no surprise Stein realizes her team faces a tough task at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
“Stanford is an elite program and has always been an elite team in women’s basketball,” Stein said. “I know they are extremely well coached and we face a great challenge.”
Stanford comes into the game with a chip the size of California on its shoulder, which does not improve the Tigers’ chances for an upset.
After Stanford went 24-6 and was ranked from No. 6 to No. 12 in the Associated Press poll all season, VanDerveer said her team was stunned when it learned it was the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region.
“I think we play a tough schedule and we beat teams that are higher seeded than us,” VanDerveer said. “It seems that good things don’t help you enough and bad things are really used against you. I just don’t think the committee’s message is consistent.”
VanDeveer said she believes the selection committee not only slighted Stanford, but also the Pac 10. Despite having the third-highest conference RPI, three Pac 10 teams earned NCAA Tournament bids. In contrast, the Big 12 has the second-highest conference RPI and seven Big 12 teams earned NCAA Tournament bids.
VanDerveer said she assumes the slight is a result of a combination of the Pac 10’s poor performance in last year’s NCAA Tournament and a West Coast bias that stems from the conference’s lack of media exposure in the Midwest and on the East Coast, but she also said her team won’t dwell on the snub.
“I’m not going to whine about a seed because honestly I don’t care,” VanDerveer said. “We are playing the best basketball of our season and that is what I am concerned about.”
The latter half of VanDerveer’s quote should be the most worrying for Missouri (17-12). Stanford has won seven of its past eight and is playing well behind the strong play of senior standout Nicole Powell.
The player to watch
Powell, a versatile 6-foot-2 forward, leads the Cardinal in almost every statistical category with 20 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Stein said though Powell will be Missouri’s defensive priority, the Tigers will also need to be cognizant of Stanford’s other players, namely junior guard Kelly Suminski, who averages 9.9 points and 3.3 assists.
“Nicole Powell is obviously one of the best players in the country and we’ll definitely have to have a good handle on where she is on the court,” Stein said. “But I think what’s made Stanford so good is the people they have around her. They have great shooters on the perimeter and they have very good size inside.”Despite Stanford’s tradition of success, it is in somewhat of an NCAA Tournament slump. The Cardinal advanced to the Final Four three straight years from 1995-97, but since then have advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament once.
Although VanDerveer said she hopes her team can end its trend of early exits, she said she also hopes her team can live up to the expectation of success that surrounds Stanford’s athletic programs.
Stanford’s men’s team is No. 1 heading into the NCAA Tournament, and this season marks the ninth straight year Stanford’s men’s and women’s teams earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
VanDerveer said Stanford’s basketball success is no surprise considering the Cardinal’s dominance in nearly every one of its 33 athletic programs. Stanford’s 45 national championships since 1990 are the most of any school and VanDerveer said Stanford athletics are built around a culture of success.
“At any given time we may have three or four No. 1 teams on our campus,” VanDerveer said. “The atmosphere here is upbeat and positive but the bar is kind of high.”