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Preview: Stanford welcomes Team USA to Palo Alto as they prepare for Pac-12 title defense, and possibly more

On Saturday, Team USA opens its college exhibition tour against the third-ranked Stanford Cardinal. With a respectable effort, the Cardinal can establish themselves as bona fide national title contenders.  

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Washington State Cougars versus Stanford Cardinal
Head coach Tara VanDerveer, junior shooting guard Kiana Williams and the Stanford Cardinal welcome Team USA to the Farm on Saturday for an exhibition contest.
Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Team USA’s much-anticipated series of exhibition games begins Saturday, when they head to Palo Alto to take on the No. 3 Stanford Cardinal.

Although the 2019 Pac-12 champions welcome four top-50 recruits to their already-talented team, it is unlikely that the current Cardinal can top a national team that claims the services of former Cardinal Nneka Ogwumike and other WNBA All-Stars, MVPs and champions.

Nevertheless, one can expect that Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer will ready her team to test Team USA. Although the various iterations of the national team have lost only one game in the history of their collegiate exhibitions — against a 1999-2000 Tennessee Lady Vols team led by a fiery freshman named Kara Lawson — VanDerveer, a former Team USA head coach, appreciates the importance of these games.

With a strong performance, the Cardinal can prove that they belong in the very top tier of 2020 title contenders, on par with preseason No. 1 Oregon and defending national champion Baylor.

So, is Fran Belibi the real deal? How will Stanford take advantage of Haley Jones’ versatility? Which returnee will establish herself as the team’s leader? And can the Cardinal take down the Ducks and defend their Pac-12 title?

Saturday’s contest may offer some early clues.

Meet Stanford’s top freshmen

In the Cardinal’s exhibition game against Beijing Normal on Tuesday, Fran Belibi balled out. While she thrilled those assembled in Maples Pavilion by throwing one down in warmups, Belibi then showed that her style is matched by substance. In 19 minutes of action, she scored a team-high 17 points, going 8-10 from the floor to lead to Stanford to an easy 100-58 victory.

VanDerveer has expressed that she expects Belibi to help the Cardinal address their rebounding weakness, one exacerbated by the departure of Alanna Smith, last season’s leading rebounder. Against Beijing Normal, Belibi only grabbed three boards. She also allowed her Chinese counterpart, the very sturdy Liu Yitong, to score a game-high 21 points and claim a team-high five rebounds.

Meanwhile, Haley Jones’s combination of size and skill suggests she could be women’s basketball’s next great star.

Jones did not play against Beijing Normal, held out for precautionary reasons after a practice collision. It is possible that she will be eased into action on Saturday.

As with Belibi, it may be unwise to expect too much of Jones. Yet, both freshmen appear to be next-generational talents who possess a combination of athleticism, style and intelligence that can advance, and maybe even fundamentally alter, the women’s game. It thus is impossible not to want to see a tease of this against Team USA.

Returnees on the rise

Although fresh faces excite and intrigue, Stanford’s returnees will have much to say about their team’s ultimate success.

Seniors DiJonai Carrington and Nadia Fingall are returning from surgery and injury, respectively, indicating they may not see extensive action on Saturday. Last season, Carrington established herself as a stalwart for Stanford from the small forward position, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game on her way to All-Pac-12 honors. For the coming season, Carrington has been named to the Cheryl Miller Award preseason watchlist.

On Saturday, and through the season, VanDerveer likewise will look to the team’s most talented junior. During her sophomore season, Kiana Williams not only showed consistent shooting and scoring ability (averaging 14.3 points per game) but also established herself as a playmaker, averaging an impressive 4.7 assists per game from the shooting guard spot. This past summer, Williams also demonstrated this solid skill set when she suited up for Team USA for the 2019 Pan American Games. She also has been named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award preseason watchlist.

In order for Stanford to fulfill their potential, VanDerveer and the Cardinal fan base also will be hoping that junior Maya Dodson or sophomore sisters Lexie and Lacie Hull pop. Dodson has been named to the Lisa Leslie Award preseason watchlist, an indication of her recognized potential. With their solid size at the guard position, the Hull twins can make an impact on both ends of the floor, even against Team USA.

The battle for Pac-12 (and national) supremacy

Fair or not, the success of Stanford’s season likely will be determined how they play against Oregon. A pair of Pac-12 battles likely is to be followed by a matchup in the Pac-12 Tournament title game and, quite possibly, a Final Four showdown in New Orleans.

Last season, during the only regular-season contest between the two teams, the Ducks destroyed the Cardinal on their home court. The Cardinal got revenge in the Pac-12 Tournament, defeating the Ducks in the championship game.

Nonetheless, Oregon widely is considered the conference’s, and the country’s, best team. With a strong showing against Team USA, Stanford can prove that Oregon’s Pac-12 supremacy should not be so foreordained.

If the Cardinal can, at least in stretches, set the terms of engagement against Team USA, it will show that they have the potential to interrupt Sabrina Ionescu’s seductive offensive symphony when they face Oregon in Eugene on Jan. 16, and then run the Ducks out of Maples Pavilion when they meet in Palo Alto on Feb. 24.

Game information

No. 3 Stanford Cardinal vs. Team USA

When: Saturday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, CA

How to watch: Pac-12 Bay Area, free livestream

USA roster updates: While core player Elena Delle Donne will not be in action, as she has been ruled out for the slate of November games and replaced by Allisha Gray, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum also will be absent from the opening game against Stanford.