2014 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament preview: Stanford region showcases a contrast in styles

What makes the Stanford bracket most exciting isn't the host or surprising top seed, but the young sleeper with an explosive freshman star.

Giving the South Carolina Gamecocks the top seed in the Stanford region was either something of a backhanded compliment, cop-out, or just a cruel joke.

Most people assumed that Stanford's resume and geographic fit made them a natural choice for the top seed, though there was no clear choice after a few of the top candidates stumbled late in the season. To give South Carolina the number 1 seed in the Stanford region with the Cardinal sitting at number two is essentially a token gesture to reward them for a regular season without giving them a substantive prize.

Putting North Carolina on the same side of the bracket only further took away from whatever substance their was to gain from getting the top seed.

Marquee matchup: #1 South Carolina vs. #4 North Carolina

What makes this potential Sweet 16 game most interesting is actually that North Carolina beat South Carolina earlier this season, giving USC plenty of motivation to match whatever edge UNC has from being an underdog.

>Although the game happened back in December, the fact that UNC established a 13-point lead in the second half, withstood a comeback, and still managed to win remains impressive. The fact that they did it while shooting just 25% from the three point line - and made up for that by dominating the offensive boards - shows an underrated strength for this team: they're as balanced as they are athletic.

What North Carolina showed with that 74-66 win is that they're more than capable of matching South Carolina's physical style of play with their own athleticism. And they've grown since December, to say the least.

Lost in all the attention given to DeShields's team-leading 18 points per game is that she has a trio of underclassmen teammates who have played extremely well, if not quite the stars of their leading scorer.

Fellow freshman 6-foot-3 forward Stephanie Mavunga leads the team with a dominant 15.33% offensive rebounding percentage and top-25 block percentage nationally (7%). 6-foot guard Alisha Gray has the team's top scoring efficiency (60.71% true shooting percentage) and the eighth best in the nation among freshmen. 6-foot-2 sophomore Xylina McDaniel does a little bit of everything but is second on the team with 42.4% three point percentage.

They have a wealth of size, athleticism, and skill that can be hard to stop if even two of them get hot the entire unit becomes difficult to defend.

So part of what makes this team so dangerous is that DeShields complements her teammates' efficiency with an explosive dominance.

Player to watch: Diamond DeShields, 6'1", G

The numbers really only tell part of the story of what makes DeShields so special - on paper, she reads as a high volume, inefficient shooter. Her usage rate of 34.1% is 14th in the nation, according to WBB State; her true shooting percentage of 50.5% suggests that she shoots too much. Her 21.64% free throw rate shows that she might settle for jumpers too much, despite an athleticism and height advantage over almost any opponent. She has a pure point rating of -6.27, which is as much a reflection of her low assist rate as it is her tendency to turn the ball over.

But go tell all that to the people who have to guard her.

The fact is that underlying all of that inefficiency, what DeShields' numbers mean when matched with her athleticism is that she has a remarkable ability to create plays for herself. She's not the type of volume shooter who a defense can just leave alone and expect her to shoot herself out of the game - she's going to make something happen because there's never a time when she believes she can't. With the physical tools she has, that's extremely dangerous; with the teammates she has, it forces opponents to make uncomfortable choices - single coverage on DeShields almost guarantees giving up a big game; sending multiple defenders at her leaves someone else open to make plays.

The fact that she craves all that attention, but is equally content to allow her teammates to shine alongside her makes her the most dangerous type of star.

The other day, Dave Zirin asked Queenie who the breakout player of this year's tournament would be - there may be no better candidate than DeShields, who has that unique combination of confidence, talent, and charisma that has drawn comparisons to Diana Taurasi. We need not anoint her as the next Taurasi just yet, but if any player in the field has what it takes to lead a team to a big win in this field it's DeShields.

Sleeper: #4 North Carolina

So that leads to the next question: Just how far can this North Carolina team go?

Should UNC face Michigan State in the second round, their athleticism and pace of play should give them enough of an edge to move forward. Even if South Carolina adjusts to what they saw in the first meeting with UNC, there's the matter of figuring out how to do so while controlling tempo and not falling victim to turnovers to a greater extent than they did the first time around. That leaves UNC to wait and see what will happen on the other end of the bracket, which should result in a rather predictable outcome.

Darkhorse: #11 Florida Gators

It's hard to find a darkhorse in this region - a seed ranked 6th or lower that could advance to the Sweet 16 - but Florida might have a better chance than their seed suggests: with their comfort with playing fast-paced ball and ability to handle the ball better at pace, they have a good shot of keeping games close enough to stay in position for an upset.

Sagarin gives Florida a 0.5 advantage over #6 Dayton, a team that ranks 137th in turnover rate and has only one efficient ball handler (junior Andrea Hoover) with sophomore Kelley Austria out for the season with an ACL injury. But the real key battleground might be the battle of the boards: Dayton was badly out-rebounded on the offensive boards in recent losses to Fordham and George Washington; Florida was out-rebounded on their five losses in the past seven games. But Florida's strength has been their scoring efficiency and they have a group of players who shoot over 33% from the three point line: if they can get hot from deep and negate Dayton's height advantage, they could come away with the win.

Assuming they face Penn State in the second round, they'll have a built-in disadvantage of fighting the Lady Lions' home court advantage. But consider that PSU lost two of their last three games due to extremely poor defense and have proven to be beatable, even at home, if teams can neutralize Maggie Lucas by denying her the ball. A poor shooting night with a number of number of turnovers isn't difficult to imagine for PSU; Florida taking advantage of that in the face of a hostile crowd would be a taller task.

Favorite: #2 Stanford

Regardless of who comes out of the University Park, Stanford will have a major advantage: playing at home and, of course, Chiney Ogwumike. The biggest challenge for Stanford in this region was likely to be facing Iowa State in Ames in the second round - FSU made that fear moot by eliminating the home team in the Ames sub-regional in the first round yesterday.

In other words, independent of seeding surprises or championship expectations, Stanford might end up having the easiest path to the regional final when all is said and done. The biggest challenge is the possibility of facing North Carolina in that Elite Eight game. And North Carolina is exactly the type of team that could give Stanford trouble: athletic, fast-paced, and a star who probably won't be afraid of the moment.

For both teams, the challenge is figuring out how to take away their star player without giving up something else: Stanford is normally the beneficiary of that. Yet even if they slow the game down to a crawl against UNC, they'll be the ones trying to figure out how to contain all of their weapons. Winning at Maples is always difficult, which makes it really hard not to predict a Stanford win, but the game has all the makings of a thriller with a trip to the Final Four on the line - the stuff that legends are made of.

For more on this region, check out our Stanford region storystream.

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