2014 NCAA Tournament - Stanford Regional Preview: Throw out the seedings; any of these four teams could make it to the Final Four

March 30, 2014 - 4:55pm
South Carolina may be the narrow favorite, and other teams may have players who are more explosive or "big-moment" stars, but the best all-around player on the floor when the Stanford Regional's Sweet 16 tips off Sunday will be the Cardinal's own Chiney Ogwumike. (Photo Courtesy Stanford Athletics Communications)

South Carolina may be the narrow favorite, and other teams may have players who are more explosive or "big-moment" stars, but the best all-around player on the floor when the Stanford Regional's Sweet 16 tips off Sunday will be the Cardinal's own Chiney Ogwumike. (Photo Courtesy Stanford Athletics Communications)

The Stanford Regional may not be anyone’s pick to produce this year's national champion, but it maintains intrigue because all four teams are fully capable of winning twice and advancing to the next week’s Final Four in Nashville. 

The hottest player?  Probably North Carolina’s Diamond DeShields, who showed Michigan State her well-rounded game in the Tar Heels' 62-53 victory in the Round of 32.  DeShields had 24 points and 12 rebounds as UNC built a 26-point lead early in the second half before cruising the rest of the way. 

The narrow favorite?  Has to be top-seeded South Carolina, who were proficient and business-like in winning their first two tournament games in Seattle.  A week in hotels completely across the country from campus might not be most coaches' preferred path to a Final Four, but USC coach Dawn Staley has embraced it.

“I kind of like how it’s set up,” Staley said.  “Because we are far away from home, they can’t get involved with people that could distract them.”

Best big-moment player?  Penn State’s Maggie Lucas big-shot acumen is well-known, but this weekend she combines that ability with the urgency of having her college career end with the next loss.  The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year has finally gained familiarity with her younger teammates meaning she’s a lot more patient and less predictable about when she’s decides to take the game into her own hands.  In PSU’s narrow win over Wichita State, Lucas scored just two points over the final 13 minutes as her teammates benefited from the attention she garnered from the Shockers’ defense. 

And the most influential player, best equipped to decide who wins the regional?  Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike, of course.  The All-American and the PAC-12’s career leader in scoring and rebounding is all things Cardinal and White.  If she plays well, Stanford likely advances to its sixth Final Four in the last seven seasons.  If not, Stanford doesn’t have anyone or combination of players who can replace Ogwumike’s production. 

Game One: (2) Stanford (31-3) v. (3) Penn State (27-4)

Where: Maples Pavilion, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

When: Sunday, March 30, 4:30 p.m. EDT (1:30 p.m. PDT).

Coaches: Tara VanDerveer (Stanford); Coquese Washington (Penn State).

Broadcast: ESPN

How they got there: Stanford – Defeated 14th-seed Wichita State, 62-56, in the opening round; defeated eleventh-seeded Florida, 83-61.

                                Penn State – Defeated 14th-seed Wright State, 106-60, in Round One; defeated sixth-seed Syracuse, 64-59, in Round Two.

All-time series: Tied 1-1.

Last meeting: Stanford defeated Penn State, 90-68, on November 25, 2001, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Points per game: Stanford: 77.3 ppg, 59.7 opp. ppg.  Penn State: 75.7 ppg., 66.5 opp. ppg.

Probable starting lineups:

       Stanford – Mikaela Ruef, forward (9.4 ppg, 6.7 rbg)

                         Chiney Ogwumike, center (26.6 ppg, 12.1 rbg)

                         Sara James, guard (2.5 ppg, 1.2 rbg)

                         Amber Orrange, guard (9.8 ppg, 4.6 rbg)

                         Lili Thompson, guard (8.1 ppg, 2.7 rbg)

  Penn State – Tori Waldner, forward (4.9 ppg, 5.6 rbg)

                       Ariel Edwards, forward (15.5 ppg, 5.8 rbg)

                       Talia East, center (8.1 ppg, 7.5 rbg)

                       Dara Taylor, guard (11.7 ppg, 4.9 apg)

                       Maggie Lucas, guard (21.5 ppg, 4.2 rbg, 2.1 apg)

Key Stat:: .82 - .83 - .92 Coach Tara VanDerveer has won 82 percent of the games in her 35-year coaching career, 83 percent of her games at Stanford, and 92 percent of her games the last six seasons.  This may not be VanDerveer’s best team, not because the players themselves aren't good, very good, in fact, but rather, because the 2013-14 edition is built around one star, Chiney Ogwumike, playing alongside multiple sound, but unsensational, utility players. It lacks the multiple WNBA-quality players the Cardinal have fielded in years past.

Regardless, they don’t get beat that often.  Not only are VanDerveer’s teams talented, discplined and smart, they’re also great front runners.  So if Penn State or South Carolina/North Carolina have designs on beating the Cardinal, they better start early.

Analysis: The Cardinal and VanDerveer do a great job of featuring their best player constantly.  The schemes are set for Ogwumike, the players around her know how to get her the ball, even as she’s being double-teamed.  And the Stanford senior is marvelously conditioned and used to playing 35 minutes-plus. 

Still, this is not a great Stanford team offensively. The Cardinal's greatest vulnerability is that its biggest star gets so little reliable help from her friends. In Stanford’s most recent loss -- to USC in the PAC-12 semifinals -- Stanford fell to the Women of Troy, 72-68, even though Ogwumike shot 46 percent (11 of 24). The reason: Her teammates shot just 25 percent (12 of 48). 

The obvious conclusion from that scouting report is that opponents need to focus their defensive attention on shutting down Ogwumike and dare the rest of the Cardinal to beat them without her. Easier said than done, however. Thus far, in two NCAA games, the Cardinal have been fine as Ogwumike is shooting 63 percent with her teammates at 43 percent.  But those numbers bear watching. 

Penn State will attempt to be physical with the Cardinal, especially against the 6-3 Ruef who figures to be an easier nut to crack than Ogwumike.  But the Lady Lions’ approach better be fiercely determined because Ruef and Ogwumike have seen it all, and won’t be easily affected.

For PSU, Maggie Lucas is the obvious focal point, but she hasn’t shot well in the first two NCAA games. If PSU hopes to pull off the upset, Lucas will need to start fast and have a whale of a game. She’ll probably have a favorable matchup against one of the Cardinals' smaller guards. 

Talia East, Penn State’s best rebounder will be looking to affect play with a few offensive rebounds, but few teams mine the defensive glass better than Stanford.

Bench play is not Penn State’s strong suit, so Coach Coquese Washington will need to control the pace, and have her starters avoid foul trouble.  Stanford’s bench is appreciably better, and VanDerveer has plenty of options for outside shooting with the Samuelson sisters and Taylor Greenfield.

Prediction: Stanford The advantages aren’t vast in keeping with the close seeding of these two teams, but Ogwumike stands as a tremendous x-factor for Stanford. The Nittany Lions lack a player who can successfully contain Ogwumike, and even if the Cardinal don't have a great three-point game themselves, they do a good job of defending the arc which is Lucas' forte.

Game Two: (1) South Carolina (29-4) v. (4) North Carolina (26-9)

Where: Maples Pavilion, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

When: Sunday, March 30, 7 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. PDT).

Coaches: Dawn Staley (South Carolina); Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina).

Broadcast: ESPN

How they got there: South Carolina – Defeated 16th seeded Cal State Northridge, 73-58, in the opening round; defeated ninth-seeded Oregon State, 78-69.

                                  North Carolina – Defeated 13th-seeded Tennessee-Martin, 60-58, in Round One; defeated fifth-seed Michigan State, 62-53, in Round Two.

All-time series: Tar Heels lead 10-7.

Last meeting: North Carolina defeated South Carolina, 74-66, December 18, 2013, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Points per game: South Carolina: 73.3 oppg., 55.5 dppg.  North Carolina: 79.6 oppg., 65.4 dppg.

Probable starting lineups:

     South Carolina – Tiffany Mitchell, guard (15.6 ppg, 5.6 rbg)

                                 Aleigsha Welch, forward (13.8 ppg, 7.6 rbg)

                                 Elem Ibiam, center (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rbg)

                                 Khadijah Sessions, guard (7.4 ppg, 2.3 apg)

                                 Asia Dozier, guard (6.0 ppg, 2.7)

     North Carolina - Diamond DeShields, forward (18.1 ppg, 5.5 rbg)

                                 Stephanie Mavunga, forward (10.7 ppg, 8.2 rbg)

                                 Xylina McDaniel, forward (11.6 ppg, 5.8 rbg)

                                 Allisha Gray, guard (14.0 ppg, 5.5 rbg)

                                 Latifah Coleman, guard (11.7 ppg, 4.9 apg)

Key Stat: .478. The Gamecocks shot 47.8 percent from the field on the season, but they haven’t been close to that percentage in their four losses.  Against North Carolina in December, USC fell behind early, and shot just 41 percent for the game.  They shot 41 percent in an overtime loss to Texas A&M in January.  In losses to Tennessee (38 percent) and Kentucky (44 percent) poor shooting and slow starts were the story as well. 

When a team is as good defensively as South Carolina, poor shooting doesn’t necessarily mean a loss, but along with a slow start against a quality opponent, it could mean everything.  Against UNC in December, Khadijah Sessions and her teammates felt they missed makeable shots.  Sessions was one-of-eight before she injured herself and had to leave the game in December. 

If poor marksmanship is a problem for either team on Sunday, they might want to skip the attempts from beyond the arc.  In December, UNC and South Carolina combined to miss 27 of 32 attempts from distance.

Analysis: The Tar Heels are playing with a world of confidence after sneaking past Tennessee-Martin and blowing past Michigan State.  That confidence looms even larger in this match-up, since they beat South Carolina in December. 

What will Dawn Staley come up with to force North Carolina out of its comfort zone this time around?  For one, the Gamecocks will come after DeShields with a variety of looks and defenders, anything to keep the Tar Heels' emotional leader in check -- or for that matter, to push her beyond the limits of good sense and self-control.  The Gamecocks own an edge in experience and physicality over youthful UNC. South Carolina is deeper as well, so they won’t sweat a few early foul calls, if they’re effective in slowing down the Heels physically and mentally. 

Still, the key to the ballgame may be on the glass where UNC outrebounded South Carolina by 10 in December.  The Gamecocks can’t let the disparity in rebounding repeat itself. 

Prediction: South Carolina. The Tar Heels are playing so well that they probably could have blown South Carolina’s doors off had the NCAA allowed them to play last Tuesday night right after they dispatched Michigan State.  But now it’s five days later, all the way across the country in an unfamiliar environment, 30 minutes after most of the home-standing Stanford crowd will have headed to the exits.  This change in scenery will benefit the more-experienced and business-like Gamecocks.  UNC won’t have an emotional edge or an emotional crowd behind them. That being said, South Carolina needs to play well from the start and avoid the pitfalls that saddled them in all four of their previous losses.  If they can thrive early, South Carolina advances.