Stanford has won or shared 14 consecutive conference titles in women’s basketball, and when the Cardinal beat No. 1 Connecticut in its second game on Nov. 17 this season, it seemed to erase any doubt that the Cardinal would make it 15 in a row.
However, a few things occurred since then to change the look of the Pac-12, which begins conference play this week.
First of all, Stanford has looked vulnerable. Three days after pulling off the upset of UConn, Stanford lost at home to Texas. The Cardinal also lost to North Carolina in Hawaii and suffered consecutive road losses to Chattanooga and Tennessee. Losing to the Vols in Knoxville is no reason to panic, even if the loss was by 19 points. But the loss to Chattanooga raised some red flags. The Mocs are not a bad team and have an 11-3 record. But they are still unranked and are not the caliber of team Stanford’s powerhouse teams would lose to.
It has become evident that the Cardinal relies heavily on its backcourt, which means the Cardinal will be inconsistent. Past Stanford teams had inside players like Jayne Appel, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike who could dominate the paint. When things weren’t going well, they simply grabbed every rebound, made a bunch of high-percentage shots and shot a lot of free throws, while getting opponents in foul trouble.
The Cardinal is still capable of beating any team in the country, but the Cardinal now depends on guards Lili Thompson and Amer Orrange having big nights. If those perimeter players provide anything less that an outstanding game, Stanford no longer has the safety net of a strong inside presence to complement them.
The other factor of significance is the rise of Oregon State. The Beavers return all five starters from a squad that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, and they are currently ranked No. 13, two spots ahead of Stanford. The Beavers beat North Carolina, then ranked No. 6, by 15 points on the Tar Heels’ home floor. Their only loss came on the road against Tennessee, which is hardly a bad loss. So the Beavers have tested themselves against the best, and come into conference play as the favorites.
And there are other challenges this season. Cal, considered the Pac-12 co-favorite with Stanford before the season began, is a disappointing 8-3, but still have enough talent to be a contender. Arizona State is ranked No. 22 and has lost only one game.
But the surprise of the conference may be Washington. A season-opening loss to Oklahoma took the Huskies off the radar screen for a while, but what they have done lately makes them a title contender in the Pac-12.
Washington is 11-1, and on Dec. 29, the Huskies took apart No. 5-ranked Texas A&M 70-49. The game was in Seattle, which gave the Huskies a bit of an edge, but beating the the No. 5 team by 21 points is impressive at any venue. Plus, Washington has a star in Kelsey Plum, the nation’s leading scorer at 26.1 points a game. She scored 32 in the win over Texas A&M, and looks ready to keep putting up big numbers in conference play.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has her hands full. Could the Cardinal finish second? Or third? Or Fourth? Or . . . .