If the Pac-12/WCC Challenge existed, an in-state rival wouldn’t do for either of these teams: Stanford vs. Gonzaga would be the game to watch. After all, it already takes place just about every year.
The possibility for an upset is always there, even though Stanford has the 8-1 series advantage and a list of double-digit victories. And Gonzaga might only have 14 wins against ranked opponents all-time — Stanford had four last season alone — but the Zags’ most recent was against this Cardinal team, and a big one, handing Stanford just its eighth loss at Maples Pavilion since 2007. And if any program has the kind of mid-major magic necessary for a big win over a perennial national title contender, it’s the Zags.
All this said, Stanford has the clear advantage in today’s matchup, as they normally do. Despite the Cardinal’s loss the last time these teams met in the regular season, the two were fortuitously matched up in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament and Stanford easily avenged its home loss from the prior season, beating the Zags 82-68. Gonzaga’s leading scorer and rebounder both in that game and for the season, Jill Barta, has since graduated, and while the Bulldogs still have strength down low in Zykera Rice — the new team leader in scoring and rebounds — it’s still going to be an uphill battle in all areas.
The Cardinal, meanwhile, are off to their best start since the 2012-13 season, which consisted of an 11-0 stretch where they took down defending-champion and No. 1 Baylor and No. 11 Tennessee (and beat Gonzaga by 28), but as an NCAA one-seed they could only make it to the Sweet Sixteen before being knocked out of the tournament by Georgia. Of course, they’ll hope to improve upon that performance as they find themselves in the midst of another dominant start.
Stanford is led by Alanna Smith, who leads the Cardinal in scoring at 19 points per game, represented Australia at this summer’s FIBA World Cup and is on four national award watch lists. Kiana Williams, Nadia Fingall and Lexie Hull are also averaging double figures in scoring for the Cardinal.
Cardinal in action
No. 8 Stanford Cardinal (6-0) vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-1)
When: Sunday, Dec. 2 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, WA
Notes: Stanford is setting up to be trouble from beyond the arc this season, making 10.8 threes per game (8th in the country) at a 38.9 percent rate (28th in the country). Last month, the Cardinal tied a program record when they sunk 16 such shots against Idaho. But the Zags so far have held their opponents to just four 3-pointers per game on 25 percent shooting, including only allowing No. 1 Notre Dame to make one shot from beyond the arc.
This game will also pit two sets of twins against each other: Leeanne and Jenn Wirth for Gonzaga and Lexie and Lacie Hull for Stanford. The Hull twins are from Spokane Valley, making this an early homecoming game for the freshmen.
Elsewhere in the Pac-12:
- The conference as a whole is off to a remarkable start, with six undefeated teams remaining and only one school — UCLA — with a losing record.
- Stanford made waves when they announced the signing of the nation’s top recruit, Haley Jones, on Wednesday. Jones is the first No. 1 recruit to sign with the Cardinal since Chiney Ogwumike and will join the team next season.
- No. 3 Oregon swept the Saint Mary’s Thanksgiving Classic with a 50-point win over UC Riverside and a 24-point win over host Saint Mary’s. Next up, the Ducks host Long Beach State this afternoon (5 p.m. ET, Oregon Live Stream).
- The Beavers of No. 9 Oregon State hit the century mark yesterday against La Salle, winning at home 100-45. Their next game is against Santa Clara a week from today (5 p.m. ET, listen here).
- No. 15 California had a tournament sweep of its own at the San Diego Thanksgiving Tournament, beating Tulane and host San Diego. The Golden Bears host CSUN this afternoon (5 p.m. ET, Cal Live Stream).
- In this weekend’s ASU Classic, host No. 19 Arizona State opened yesterday with an 80-44 win over Louisiana Tech. The Sun Devils continue the tournament today against Tulsa (4 p.m. ET, ASU Live Stream).
- In this week’s Pac-12 awards, California’s Kristine Anigwe was named Player of the Week for the second time this season after achieving back-to-back double-doubles (not to mention a double-double in every game this season) and tying her career-high in threes in a game; while Cate Reese of Arizona was named Freshman of the Week, the Wildcats’ first-ever winner in this category, after recording her second career double-double and leading all Pac-12 freshmen in rebounds to start the season.
- Utah forward Megan Huff reached the 1,000-point milestone Monday. A transfer from Hawaii, Huff needed 445 points at Utah to reach the mark and did so in 36 games.
- Let’s talk about a hypothetical “Pac 12/WCC Challenge” just a little more. Although the Pac-12 has a 10-3 advantage over the WCC so far this season with five games still to play (including today’s), the story of the season early in the WCC was Loyola Marymount’s wins over UCLA and Arizona. The WCC is getting better every year: five teams have played in the conference tournament championship game and three have received an automatic bid the the NCAA Tournament in the past ten years, when once upon a time it was all Gonzaga. Plus, organizing and incentivizing matchups that tend to take place anyway would only serve to bolster the WCC and provide some, at the very worst, mid-range competition for the stronger Pac-12 teams. (As for which two Pac-12 teams to leave out, since the WCC only has 10 teams? Arizona State and Washington don’t have any games scheduled against WCC competition this season, so one could simply start there.)