Stanford’s women’s basketball team is ranked No. 2, is 16-1, losing only to No. 1 Connecticut on the road, is unbeaten in the Pac-10 and is riding a seven-game winning streak heading into Saturday game at Oregon.
So what’s the problem? Every other Pac-10 team would love to be in the Cardinal’s position.
The difference is, Stanford will consider anything less than a national championship a disappointment, and setting the bar that high makes every little shortcoming or slump more worrisome.
And since halftime of the December 23 game against UConn, Stanford has not played like a national championship team.
As Kayla Pedersen told Associated Press after Thursday’s less-than-impressive 16-point victory at Oregon State, “I think our standards need to be a lot higher if we want to be a national championship team.”
Injuries to three prominent guards — Jeanette Pohlen (ankle), JJ Hones (knee) and Melanie Murphy (knee) — have made things difficult for the Cardinal lately, but that’s not the only concern.
The Cardinal was playing at a high level through the first eight games, blowing out Rutgers on the road and Duke and Tennessee at home, making it seem like Stanford was ready for its showdown with UConn. And the Cardinal did well against the Huskies for a half, leading by two at halftime and still holding a two-point lead in the second half before going through a disatrous 12-minute stretch in which the Huskies overhwelmed the Cardinal with their speed. In those 12 minutes, UConn turned a two-point deficit into a 22-point lead, and the Cardinal has not been quite the same since.
Stanford led Fresno State by just a point early in the second half before taking command, and coach Tara VanDerveer was not at all pleased with her team’s play in the conference-opening win against Cal. The Cardinal had a solid game against USC, but nearly blew a big lead down the stretch against UCLA. VanDerveer was again disappointed with her team’s play against Washington last Saturday, and then came Thursday’s game against a 1-4 Oregon State team. The Beavers led the Cardinal with 26 seconds left in the first half and trailed by just three points with 10:47 left in the game before fading.
Stanford’s four guards scored just seven points in that game, and although Pohlen, Hones and Murphy are all expected to be available for Saturday’s game at Oregon, none is 100 percent healthy. That could make the game a struggle for Stanford, which needs ballhandlers to combat the Ducks’ press and uptempo style.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a particuar problem, except to say that the team seems to be out of rhythm and not flowing freely like it did at the start of the season. The players seem to be accutely aware that they are not playing as well as they should, and that kind of mindset can be paralyzing.
Nneka Ogwumike is still first in the conference in scoring and second in rebounding, and Pedersen is third and fifth in those categories, respectively. And although Jayne Appel has not been as productive as she was last season, her averages of 12.6 points and 9.2 rebounds are still all-conference caliber.
Stanford’s defensive numbers are still pretty good, but its offensive production has been down during Pac-10 play, especially its field-goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. The Cardinal needs to hit its outside shots to keep the pressure off its talented frontcourt.
None of this is to suggest Stanford is headed for disaster. Quite the opposite. Teams with so much talent and such high expectations often go through a midseason phase in which it struggles a bit, and it is much better to have that phase now instead of late February. You will recall that Florida’s men’s team, which was heavily fovored to win a second straight national championship after returning all five starters from its 2006 NCAA title team, struggled at about this stage of the 2007 season before putting it back together and winning it all again.
And sometimes too much is made of lackluster play during victories when expectations are so high. Many forget that Stanford had much the same result against Oregon State in Corvallis last season, when the Beavers led by three points three minutes into the second half before Stanford won by 15. That Cardinal team eventually got to the Final Four as it gathered momentum in February.
Last year’s Oregon State team was probably better than this season’s Beavers, but the point still holds.
If the Cardinal’s injury problems don’t mount, Stanford should find its groove again at some point in the next few weeks and be a strong contender for the national title. Of course, there’s still Connecticut out there.
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