LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Texas meet Friday in Rupp Arena (ESPN/WatchESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET), it will be the only Sweet 16 encounter that is a rematch of a regular-season game, a 71-59 Cardinal home win in the season's opening days.
Yet Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has precious little familiarity with the images that appear on screen when she watches video of more recent Texas games. She saw Longhorns 6-foot-3 freshman Joyner Holmes with her own eyes in November. She didn't see what she does now.
"Sometimes, honestly, she's a woman with girls," VanDerveer said. "She is so physically strong, and her rebounding is off the charts. They really rebound well. She gets on that glass. She's versatile. I saw her knocking down 3s, handling the ball. She's just a terrific player."
It is a glowing assessment of a player who totaled three points and three rebounds in 17 minutes against the Cardinal in her first college game. It makes more sense attached to someone who is averaging 13 points and 9.1 rebounds over the past 21 games, including 14 points and nine rebounds in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Texas, with this version of Holmes, is not the team that arrived in the Bay Area four months ago. But Stanford is not the same team it was. Back then, sophomore Alanna Smith was still just an outsider in a strange land searching for her own and her coach's confidence, not the player who has demoralized her opponents.
Players and coaches love to speak in the postseason about being different teams by spring than they were in the fall. As often as not, it is a convenient way to evade no-win questions about previous results like those the Cardinal and Longhorns share. But rarely is the sentiment as relevant as Smith and Holmes make it for Stanford and Texas, respectively. Neither spent much time on the court in November. Either could be the best player on the court this weekend in Lexington.
And while both teams flirted with disaster a week ago, Stanford against New Mexico State and Texas against NC State, both are here in a regional thrown open by the injury to Notre Dame's Brianna Turner. To the winner could go a trip to Dallas.
Big enough to dominate the boards but skilled enough to handle the ball and play on the perimeter (if not yet as prolific a 3-point shooter as VanDerveer suggested), Holmes was the nation's top-rated recruit by some estimates. It nonetheless took her barely two minutes in the game at Stanford to pick up two fouls and return to the bench. With little offensive support for Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins, the Longhorns lost.
"Going into the first game, I was real nervous," Holmes said. "It was my first college game. So I think, like when I got on the floor, I wasn't really comfortable with myself like I am now."
Two days after the opener, she moved into the starting lineup, scored 22 points and took 17 shots, albeit against Houston Baptist instead of a former Division I national champion. She had a 13-rebound game shortly before Christmas. But it wasn't until conference play that she began to reach double digits, whether in points or rebounds, regularly. She totaled 18 points and 10 rebounds in a win at Baylor and 14 points and 14 rebounds in a win at Florida State.
"As the season has gone along, she's ramped up her play," Longhorns assistant coach and recruiting guru George Washington said. "There are some natural things she put on herself, just because she's a high-level player. But I think that our team has done a really good job of nurturing her along and saying 'Boom, OK, now it's your turn. This is what we expected.'"
Texas is still a team that leans on McCarty, the Big 12 Player of the Year, to steer. It is still a team with depth, able to escape NC State in part because of reserves Lashann Higgs, Washington's daughter, and highly touted freshman Alecia Sutton. It is Holmes who could make a good team great.
"The special thing about her is not necessarily that she is, I think, a woman yet -- and I think she would definitely admit that she's not -- but her kind of unique ability to be able to learn from her mistakes pretty quickly," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "Sometimes freshmen -- and I would say even as they become sophomores -- it still takes them quite a long time to adjust to things and get over failures and move on."
A convincing example, as well as proof it is worth the wait, will check in for Stanford at some point in the first quarter of Friday's game. When the Cardinal and Longhorns met last, Smith played nine minutes. While the spotlight shone that day on classmate Brittany McPhee, who scored 28 points in the win, Smith was an afterthought. She scored five points, which was about what she averaged as a freshman and about what she would average through the first half of this season, a total sample size of 57 games.
In her past 12 games, she is averaging 14.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line, numbers reminiscent of former All-American Kayla Pedersen. Stanford never had an international player before. It has had lots of All-Americans.
"That is probably the most significant change in them from a personnel perspective, is Alanna," said Aston, who also recruited the Australian. "She has definitely grown as a basketball player, and that just speaks to the evolution of kids. As they get into, I think, that second semester of their sophomore year, second round of conference play, is usually when those lights start to shine bright if they're really talented. And she is."
While Holmes traveled about three hours from her home in the Dallas area to attend college in Austin, Smith almost needs to do higher math just to figure out what time it is at home. (For the record, Friday's game will tip at 12:38 p.m. on Saturday in her hometown.)
The idea to play college basketball in the United States was hers all along, the seed planted by an uncle who did the same. Schools didn't come knocking on her door; she introduced herself to them. She thought she was doing well with independence after living away from home for nearly a year at the Australian Institute of Sport following high school graduation. But a long drive from home is different than having the Pacific Ocean in the way, not to mention the international date line. Throw in a case of the flu that lingered, and her freshman year was an ordeal.
"The main thing for me wasn't so much culture -- because it is, it's pretty similar -- but distance," Smith said. "And time difference and everything, just being so far away from home and not being able to go home when you have a week break or something like that. I call home and it's like 3 a.m. there. They're 17 hours ahead, so it's a little bit difficult to work that out. But once I got more into the flow of things, it became a little bit easier for me."
She still can't tell you where in the Bay Area to find a good cup of coffee, or at least a cup like they brew back in Melbourne, because she hasn't found it. But comfort off the court makes it easier to find comfort on the court, which makes it easier to satisfy a demanding judge.
"I think my confidence has grown, and I think Tara's confidence has grown in me, too," Smith said. "Which is something you definitely need from a coach. That has helped me really just be aggressive on court and know when to make the right decisions."
For both Holmes and Smith, Friday is a second chance to make a first impression.
"I call it kind of a heavyweight fight," VanDerveer said. "We know what to expect, and they know what to expect. We just have to get it done. But I do think it's helpful for us to have played them and to know their style and to have played against a lot of their players, obviously."