Could the Stanford Cardinal be better this 2022 women's NCAA tournament than the team that went 31-2 to win the national championship last season?
That question seemed laughable in early November, when Texas spoiled the Cardinal's celebration of the title with a 61-56 come-from-behind win at Maples Pavilion. Stanford would lose a neutral-site game to South Florida later in the month, matching the number of losses during the championship season in just six games.
As the Cardinal and Longhorns prepare for a rematch Sunday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Spokane, Washington, with a spot in the Final Four on the line, Stanford stands 31-3, having completed an undefeated trip through Pac-12 play and cruising to the Elite Eight. The Cardinal's only loss in that time was 65-61 at No. 1 South Carolina.
After losing to Stanford for a second time this season in Friday's Sweet 16 match, Maryland coach Brenda Frese -- whose team lost to three of the four No. 1 seeds in this year's tournament (South Carolina and NC State) -- didn't hesitate when asked if the Cardinal were the best team in the country.
"No question," Frese said. "I have been fortunate with the No. 1 seeds we've played. Their length, the way they pass, the way they can score the basketball, and obviously that length gives you fits on the defensive end with their size.
"We really struggled on the offensive end. I've said it all year, I don't think they probably get even enough credit on the West Coast nationally for what they've done all year. That's their 23rd straight win in a row. The deepest, most talented team I've faced."
Although ESPN's Basketball Power Index still has South Carolina as the favorite to win the title, Friday's performance lifted Stanford's BPI rating to 29.1 -- slightly better than last season's nation-leading 28.9 mark.
Because of the additional year of eligibility granted to players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cardinal returned eight of the nine players who saw at least 10 minutes per game in 2020-21. Only point guard Kiana Williams, the team's leading scorer at 14.0 PPG, departed for the WNBA.
Certainly, Stanford struggled with replacing Williams early in the season. Her absence was keenly felt in the fourth quarter on Nov. 14 as Texas outscored the Cardinal 26-16 after trailing by five. Stanford went scoreless for more than four and a half minutes. Its seven assists were the only time all season it failed to reach double figures in that category.
The Cardinal remain prone to scoring droughts. They had a pair of them Friday, making just one field goal in the opening six minutes of the second quarter and none in the final 6:51 of regulation, as the Terrapins turned a 21-point deficit into a tight-looking 72-66 final margin. VanDerveer later declared that her thoughts on the fourth quarter were unsuitable for print.
Yet between those stretches, Stanford reached a level unseen during last year's tournament run that won VanDerveer her first national championship since 1992. The Cardinal made an underseeded Maryland team that ranked No. 3 in HerHoopsStats.com's adjusted offensive rating look out of its depth as it led by as many as 26 points late in the third quarter.
The strongest argument, however, is the development of sophomore center Cameron Brink, who was just coming into her own during last year's tournament. Brink's shot-blocking (4.0 per game) was a key factor in that run, but she averaged just 9.0 PPG as a true freshman.
Now Brink is the Cardinal's leading scorer and has scored double figures in all three tournament games -- including 15 points to go along with eight boards and five blocks in just 19 minutes before fouling out Friday. If Brink can avoid foul trouble and stay on the court, she could also make a difference from the first meeting against Texas, when she scored just seven points on 2-of-3 shooting.
"I think we have improved a lot [since November]," VanDerveer said after Friday's game, "although the fourth quarter was a good reminder [that] hey, you've got to play four quarters. I think it's running our offense and doing things you need to do to win basketball games."
No matter the BPI rating, this year's Stanford team will ultimately be judged on its ability to match the championship standard set last March in San Antonio. And before this version of the Cardinal can prove its mettle in Minneapolis next week, it must first overcome the Texas test it failed back in November.