Sacramento Primer: Chemistry, leadership will carry Stanford
UConn has dominated headlines, but Stanford has been nearly as unstoppable
Frontline play, leadership, chemistry will carry the Cardinal to San Antonio
If region produces an upset, it's likely to come from 13-seed Chattanooga
STATE OF THE NO. 1: Stanford
Behind the most formidable front line in the country -- 6-foot-4 senior All-America center Jayne Appel, 6-4 junior small forward Kayla Pedersen and 6-2 sophomore power forward Nneka Ogwumike, who combine for 47.6 points and nearly 30 rebounds per game -- the Cardinal has been nearly as unstoppable as Connecticut. Except for a 12-point loss to the Huskies in December and a five-point win at UCLA on Jan 10, Stanford has beaten every opponent by at least 15 points, including Duke and Tennessee.
Among other things, coach Tara VanDerveer should be commended for a first-rate job of injury management: Appel, who eased into the season while recovering from knee surgery, sprained her right ankle in early March, causing her to miss the season finale against Cal and play limited minutes in the first two games of the Pac-10 tournament. (Reportedly the ankle is still sore, but Appel is penciled in to start in the first-round game against UC-Riverside.)
Senior point guard JJ Hones, who tweaked her twice-repaired left knee in the game at Connecticut, has sat out of practice ever since to minimize swelling and allow her to give the team a crucial 19 minutes per game. Junior reserve guard Melanie Murphy, who was limited by knee and wrist problems earlier this season, had a good Pac-10 tournament, scoring 10 points in 18 minutes against UCLA in the title game. More depth in the backcourt, Stanford's biggest weakness, could be critical if the Cardinal faces 2-seed, guard-oriented Texas A&M in the Elite Eight.
BRACKET BUSTER: Chattanooga
If 13-seed Chattanooga can take advantage of Oklahoma State's missing star in the first round game (see below), the Sacramento region might have an upset. But that's a big if.
SUSPECT TEAM: Georgia
The Bulldogs are a bit like Texas on the men's side: They have a strong senior leader (point guard Ashley Houts) are loaded with freshmen and are somewhat enigmatic. After going 14-0 in non-conference play and beating Tennessee 53-50 on Jan. 21, the Bulldogs rose to No. 6 in the national rankings. But then, with Houts struggling with a sprained ankle, they lost six of their next eight games and fell to No. 24 before clawing back to No. 23. They went on a three-game win streak to finish the season before losing to Mississippi State in the second-round of the SEC tournament. Which Georgia will show up at Maples Pavilion for Round One?
JUICIEST MATCHUP: 10 UNC vs. 7 Gonzaga
The Tar Heels pit their hell-bent, we-don't-care-about-turnovers style against a team that is very good at taking care of the ball. The Zags turn over the ball just 15.6 times per game, while the Tar Heels lose it more than 20 times per. (Gonzaga's assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.23; the Tar Heels' is .8.)
GAME BREAKER: Nneka Ogwumike, Stanford
Peeved that she was passed over for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season, the acrobatic 6-2 power forward left no doubt about her value this year, notching 9.4 rebounds and a league-leading 18.3 points per game (on 63.8 shooting, fourth in the nation) on her way to earning the Pac-10 Player of the Year award.
BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga
The junior point guard out of Kent, Wash., doesn't just lead the country is assists with a whopping 9.3 per game (her assists-to-turnover ratio of 2.37 ranks 10th), she is also the Bulldogs' top thief (3.5 steals per game) and second leading scorer with 14.6 points per game.
THE PRESSURE'S ON: Oklahoma State's supporting cast
The fourth-seeded Cowgirls have to play their first-round game against Chattanooga without leading scorer Andrea Riley, who was slapped with a one-game NCAA suspension two years ago for swiping at the head of LSU's Erica White during a Sweet 16 game. Riley, who averages 26.6 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds, takes 38 percent of the Cowgirls' shots. (Then again, she makes just 36 percent of the shots she takes, far below the team average of 41.)
NUMBER TO PONDER: Five
The number of teams in this bracket that commit fewer than 16 turnovers per game: Oklahoma State (12.7); Stanford (14.3); Texas A&M (15.4); Gonzaga (15.7) and Chattanooga (15.8).
The Pick: Stanford
Stanford won't have to get on a plane until the Final Four, thanks to first- and second-round games at Maples Pavilion and second-weekend activities a bus-ride away in Sacramento. But it is the advantages Stanford has enjoyed all year -- great frontline play, leadership and chemistry -- that will carry the Cardinal to San Antonio.
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