There might have been legitimate reason to wonder whether the Stanford Cardinal even had what it took to return to the Final Four for the fifth straight time earlier this season.
As Jessica Lantz described back in December, Stanford had gotten so little consistent production outside of Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike that it was hard to imagine them making a deep run against the nation's best teams. After their early loss to the Connecticut Huskies - not to mention the lingering memory of what occurred in last season's Final Four against the Texas A&M Aggies - they seemed extremely vulnerable to full court pressure against more athletic teams with underclassmen handling the ball and still working to come into their own.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer hasn't been under any illusion about the need for someone to step up in order for the Cardinal to win games this season. And as described on Wednesday, both Amber Orrange and Joslyn Tinkle have picked up their games since that point and both will need to play well in order for Stanford to beat the Baylor Lady Bears in the Final Four.
The fact that Orrange and Tinkle have stepped up hasn't changed the fact that Stanford - similar to Baylor - is still a team heavily reliant on two players. However, their particular improvement is noteworthy heading into this game.
Breakdown of season statistics for Amber Orrange & Joslyn Tinkle.
"Conference" is a time-period that includes a game vs. Seattle University. "Postseason" includes the Pac-12 & NCAA Tournaments.
Key player: Amber Orrange
One significant difference for Stanford over the latter half of the season is the play of Amber Orrange (also described at some length here on Wednesday).
Tara VanDerveer has said Orrange is the closest thing she's ever had to Dawn Staley and, regardless of whether you agree, that's just one way of saying that it's been a long time since the Cardinal have had anything resembling a "true point guard" running the offense (that's not a slight to Pohlen at all - you can see my thoughts on her here).
What that means is two things: 1) they're better against the full court pressure that did them in last season's Final Four and 2) they have a player who can actually penetrate and kick in half court situations. Let's sit with the latter point for a moment.
When Stanford traveled to Seattle to play the Washington Huskies in 2010, I actually counted the number of times their point guards penetrated inside the arc. The answer (before things got out of hand): Pohlen 0, every other guard 4.
Now it's not like they struggled with the then-downtrodden Huskies; if you were a guard who had Appel and Nneka Ogwumike to pass to, you'd probably want to just wait for them to post up and pass to them too. But let's not kid ourselves: that just wasn't a strength of Stanford's guards. The Cardinal, therefore, had to rely on precision execution.
Not that execution is any less important now, but Orrange is the type of player who is starting to do the point guard things that can take a team from very good to elite. To put the numbers above in perspective, she went from being an inefficient distributor that was not putting up numbers worthy of starting to a starter capable of efficiently making plays.
Pure point ratings for Amber Orrange over the 2011-12 season, with the same breakdown as above.
Over just the four games in the NCAA tournament, Orrange's pure point rating has skyrocketed to 8.53, which is the mark of an elite point guard in terms of her ability to balance the risk of turnovers with the value of creating assists.
And with sophomore Toni Kokenis also visibly more confident this season, Stanford has a much more potent perimeter threat to any defense than they did last season.
Going up against Baylor's Odysseey Sims will certainly be a test, but not a test that Stanford is unfamiliar with: Cal's Brittany Boyd is no slouch defensively and a very similar style of player to Sims as a defender. There are probably two ways to take Orrange's performances against Boyd this year: either the results were mixed or she got better. When considering the order that Stanford played Cal - home, away, neutral - it's fair to favor the latter; Orrange and Stanford is as prepared as anyone for the kind of perimeter pressure they'll face against Baylor.
X-Factor: Joslyn Tinkle
With Baylor's obvious power on the interior, the rebounding battle could figure prominently in this game and, if so, Tinkle's play could make a difference.
Tinkle's numbers don't suggest a player that got that much better, but she's shooting 11-for-20 (55%) from the 3-point line in that postseason period - and better when just taking the NCAA tournament into account - which probably needless to say is her best stretch of the season. With her ability to help draw interior defenders out of the key to guard her and then playing much better defensively overall this year, a good game from Tinkle - especially around the basket, but also as a shooter - could help Stanford significantly in overcoming the undefeated Baylor Lady Bears.
For a look at the Baylor Lady Bears, Stanford's Final Four opponent, check out this morning's preview. For more on the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament, check out our "NCAA Tournament 2012" section.