The Stanford Cardinal are led by the Ogwumike sisters, but the late-season emergence of Amber Orrange could be a key factor in the Sweet 16. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
With a couple more wins, the Stanford Cardinal could find themselves in their fifth straight Final Four.
However, a challenging field of some of the nation's top defenses await them in Fresno.
#3 St. John's Red Storm vs. #2 Duke Blue Devils
Duke seemingly has advantages over St. John's all over the court, but the Blue Devils a turnover-prone team and in 3 of their 5 losses - including the most recent one to the NC State Wolfpack - turning the ball over has been the most significant factor in their losses. And St. John's has ridden their turnover differential to its first-ever Sweet 16 this season. The weirdest thing about Duke is that they've had two different players - Chelsea Gray and Haley Peters - commit 8 turnovers in separate losses and three other players commit four or more, which means it's a problem that's as widespread as it is severe.
The potential problem for St. John's is that all of those other teams who beat Duke happen to be pretty good rebounding teams, even if they got outrebounded while beating the Blue Devils. And it wouldn't be too hard to argue that the ability to contain Duke on the boards mattered more for a team like NC State than it did for teams like Maryland, Notre Dame, or UConn.
St. John's, on the other hand, is not a particularly strong rebounding team at all - they were about even with their opponents in offensive rebounding percentage and ranked 158th in the nation in rebounding percentage. Even if Duke does squander possessions with turnovers, the question is how well St. John's will be able to prevent them from counteracting that by extending possessions with offensive rebounds and second chance points in the paint.
#5 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. #1 Stanford Cardinal
South Carolina is clearly a strong opponent for Stanford, but one thing stands out as really giving them trouble: they're not a particularly strong shooting team and the Cardinal are a very disciplined defensive on the interior, anchored by the Ogwumike sisters and an improving Joslyn Tinkle.
To be specific, the Gamecocks are a poor 3-point shooting team (27.5%, ranked 285th in the nation) and Stanford has been top 5 in the nation in 3-point defense this year. That could force South Carolina to work the interior to try to score, which is where Stanford's strength lies.
Against the Cardinal, South Carolina's perimeter shooting weakness is only exacerbated by the fact that it will be harder for them to get set defensively to stop the Cardinal from scoring on the other end. And with Amber Orrange really blossoming in the last few games, Stanford is even better at getting up the court and finding either Ogwumike sister scoring opportunities in transition or the early offense.
Even on a bad day for the Cardinal against a strong defensive effort (think Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament), it seems like it would be difficult for the Gamecocks to pull off this upset without someone getting hot from long-range to help at least extend Stanford's defense.
Duke def St. John's
Stanford def South Carolina
Stanford def Duke
A turnover-prone team could beat Stanford: Tennessee did it just last year at home with a combination of 50% 3-point shooting, winning all four of the Four Factors, and Kayla Pedersen recovering from a concussion. In other words, it's not easy to beat a team as efficient as Stanford offensively while squandering possessions one's own possessions.
That's before even getting to the question of how Duke would stop the Ogwumike sisters inside, something that nobody has actually figured out and Nneka is making it even harder on opponents with her ability to hit long jumpers.