Yes, they are the No. 2 team in the nation. And they currently are projected to be a No. 1 seed in the 2022 NCAA tournament.
But the Stanford Cardinal—the defending national champions!—seem to be flying under the radar.
Tara VanDerveer’s team has given no reason to believe that they are not capable of claiming back-to-back titles. However, the squad that nearly stole that championship from them last April — the No. 8 Arizona Wildcats — intends to raise concerns about the Cardinal’s repeat credentials.
Stanford (15-3, 6-0 Pac-12) will host a Top 10 Pac-12 showdown, welcoming Arizona (15-2, 5-2 Pac-12) to the Farm, on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
The Wildcats’ trip to Palo Alto was slated to be their fourth games in eight days. Last Sunday, they defeated No. 21 Colorado at home before heading out for a trio of California contests. On Wednesday, the Wildcats engineered an inspiring comeback against UCLA in Los Angeles. Scheduled then to take on Cal in Berkeley on Friday night, the game was postponed.
Although rescheduling this game will compact the Wildcats’ schedule in the future, having more than one day off before meeting the No. 2 team in the nation is a good thing.
Even if they are being overlooked, Stanford’s consistent carry over from last season is not surprising. In contrast, Arizona again proving themselves to be a Top 10 caliber team is a pleasantly unexpected development. In the absence of last season’s irrepressible, do-it-all engine in Aari McDonald, head coach Adia Barnes has further flexed her coaching chops, as her Cats currently claim the stingiest defense in the Pac-12.
Arizona’s prospects in the Pac-12 also should remain rosy because of the recent pop shown by Shaina Pellington. Thrust into the starting lineup after serving as reserve last season, the senior guard has found a scoring groove. After lighting up Colorado for 28 points, she dropped 12 of her 20 points against UCLA in the fourth quarter.
While Arizona received a schedule reprieve ahead of the Sunday’s national championship rematch, the Cardinal are coming off a Friday night contest. Although they cruised against the Arizona State Sun Devils, being anything less than their freshest against a spunky Wildcats squad could result in the Cardinal’s first stumble in Pac-12 play.
If Pellington again begins to cook, look for VanDerveer to deploy Anna Wilson, Stanford’s signature defensive menace, on her.
VanDerveer also can call on her team’s diverse depth to combat any other challenges Arizona might present. While Cameron Brink’s shot-blocking prowess should help the Cardinal contain Cate Reese, Brink is prone to quickly accumulating fouls. After posting 12 points in 10 minutes against Arizona State, 6-foot-3 freshman Kiki Iriafen could see extended run. Six-foot-five junior Ashten Prechtel also has a proven penchant for momentum-swinging plays, grabbing timely boards or draining key threes. And then there’s the 6-foot-1 Fran Belibi, who represents an athletic threat.
No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (15-3, 6-0 Pac-12) vs. No. 8 Arizona Wildcats (15-2, 5-2 Pac-12)
When: Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Maples Pavillion in Palo Alto, CA
How to watch: ESPN2
Key to the matchup: Helena Pueyo has been essential to Arizona’s team-wide effort to replace the production of Aari McDonald. Although she primarily comes off the bench, the junior guard consistently has played big minutes, serving as a calm, steady conductor of the Wildcat offense. Her assist to turnover ratio is tops in the Pac-12. If Pueyo can dime up Sam Thomas when she is stationed behind the arc, the Wildcats should be in good position to knock off the Cardinal. Thomas has been on fire from deep, converting 48.5 percent of her triples. Against UCLA on Wednesday, she was a scorching 5-for-6 from three.