The Stanford Cardinal face the California Golden Bears tonight at 7 p.m. PST at Haas Pavilion for the first of two games in five days between two of the top 10 teams in the nation that could end up determining the Pac-12's regular season champion, or at least having a significant bearing on the race for the title.
7 p.m. PST
TV: Pac-12 Network | Online: Pac-12.com
It was really hard not to think ahead to this game after seeing how the Connecticut Huskies did the Stanford Cardinal at the end of non-conference play.
It wasn't just that the Cardinal finally lost after beating the Baylor Lady Bears and sitting at #1 in the nation, but how UConn beat them: in addition to the fact that the Geno Auriemma's team made things tough on Chiney Ogwumike and forced other players to do things that they're simply not comfortable with, which took Stanford entirely out of their normally outstanding offensive execution, they sort of laid out a blueprint for beating Stanford that goes beyond just being UConn.
And the defensive game plan is something that Cal is capable of executing:
- Use full court pressure to take Stanford out of their methodical offense.
- Force Ogwumike to take contested shots going left.
- Closeout hard on shooters and force them to drive rather than giving up jumpers.
To be clear, none of this is to say that Cal will blowout Stanford as UConn did or that they can unlock Stanford's defense - Stanford actually defended UConn relatively well, but was so flustered offensively that they simply could not score.
The point is that Cal has the personnel to execute a very similar game plan on the defensive end based on what they've shown so far this season.
Cal player to watch: Gennifer Brandon, F, 6'2"
The reality is that UConn's 6'5" center Stefanie Dolson played an outstanding defensive game and her size was a large part of what disrupted Chiney Ogwumike early on when Stanford got down quickly. But what Brandon lacks in height, she can make up for with speed and quickness. If Cal's wings can do their part to pressure Stanford's guards, they could very well use a similar approach to containing Ogwumike.
Stanford player to watch: Joslyn Tinkle, F, 6'3"
Surely Cal fans remember what Joslyn Tinkle did last year in Berkeley: she had 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting - including 2-for-3 from 3-point land - hit 4 of 5 free throw attempts and had 5 blocks. Though she wasn't really needed to dominate the boards that game with Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike doing that, she went to work in the paint on both ends in ways unlike people had become accustomed to.
This season, Tinkle is averaging 16.6 points and is shooting 37% from 3. With Cal's post depth, Tinkle's play tonight will be significant, whether it be spacing the court or fighting to keep Cal off the boards. And with most of their post rotation scoring from efficiently to extremely efficiently this season, they have the ability to rotate players in and out to keep people fresh.
Key matchup: Brittany Boyd vs. Amber Orrange
If Cal pressures Stanford's guards with Toni Kokenis unavailable due to unspecified health issues, the point guard matchup will take on additional significance.
Stanford is notorious for struggling with pressure and Orrange's first game in Berkeley last season was not good, despite the fact that the Cardinal won big: she was 1-for-7 with 1 assist and 1 turnover. In fact, Orrange only played 24 minutes in two games against Cal last season due to struggling in one way or another.
With Kokenis out, Stanford could really struggle if Orrange struggles and taking away her minutes won't be the immediately obvious best case scenario: reserve Jasmine Camp is a promising talent, but is still struggling to find her comfort zone with the Cardinal.
Orrange has to play well in order for Stanford to take control of this game and, if not, it could turn into the Brittany Boyd show. Then again, Stanford adjusted well to Boyd after she scored a team-high 19 at Maples last season: she was just 3-for-15 in Berkeley as Stanford keyed in on her, forced her into difficult shots, and minimized her impact.
Both of these players - and Camp too - are sophomore guards who are susceptible to the types of mistakes that young point guards make. While rebounding is obviously the primary focus for this game statistically, guard play could end up being a significant storyline in defining the outcome.
Key statistic: offensive rebounding
Duke proved that beating Cal can be simple: keep them off the boards, force them into poor decisions, and they might unravel. It's just not entirely that easy to pull off.
Cal is very difficult team to compete with on the boards, but a promising sign for the Cardinal is that they dominated the boards against a very good rebounding Colorado team. The difference between the two situations is that Colorado is strong on the boards because they have multiple players who hit the boards whereas Cal has dominant forces in the post leading the way in Brandon and senior Talia Caldwell. Stanford typically rebounds well and it's fair to say that Cal will struggle to win this game if they can't gain an advantage on the boards.
Prediction: A Cal win shouldn't be considered an upset
It's hard to call this game, even though Cal is very impressive in person, especially at home, and Kokenis' status in doubt (at best). Stanford is still an outstanding team that will make opponents pay for impatience or mistakes in execution. If there's a difference between the Cal team of this year and last it's that they're much more patient on offense and know what it takes to win a big game like this one.
But these two teams are so close that a Cal win shouldn't be considered an upset: they have the personnel and talent to go toe to toe with Stanford this year and entering this game at home in the midst of their best start in program history should give them plenty of confidence to beat this team.
Stanford, on the other hand, is coming into this pair of games with an opportunity to really give themselves some breathing room within the conference and separate themselves as a tier above Cal on the national landscape. In a game that will be televised and will have the eyes of the women's basketball world nationwide on it (for those that are still awake), this should be a fun game to watch and a particularly interesting coaching battle between a promising young coach and a seasoned veteran tactician.