Stanford has accomplished something only three other programs have done, reaching five consecutive Final Fours. Baylor is trying to put the finishing touches on something no team has ever done, going 40-0.
The Cardinal and Lady Bears are the two winningest programs this season, reaching Denver a combined 73-1. They are the only two teams in the country with unanimous first-team All-Americans (Baylor's Brittney Griner and Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike). Although Baylor enters the Final Four as the clear favorite, this is an epic matchup. The Lady Bears haven't been tested much this season, but the Cardinal appear to at least have the ingredients to push them. And though Baylor beat Notre Dame and Connecticut this season, Stanford is the one elite team that remains a mystery.
Perhaps as long as coach Tara VanDerveer paces the sideline and Stanford continues to recruit players at the level of Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen and the Ogwumike sisters, precision offense will define Cardinal basketball. They run their version of the triangle as well as any team has run an offense in the last half-decade. Spacing, positioning and execution, especially with a finisher like Nneka Ogwumike leading the way, top the list of reasons Stanford has arrived in Denver with just one loss and riding a school-record 31-game winning streak. When it's working right, few things are more fun to watch in the game than the Stanford offense.
Besides the undeniable talents of Ogwumike, the most striking part of the Cardinal attack is an ability to adapt or exploit. In Fresno, the Cardinal ignored the 3-point shot against the smaller South Carolina Gamecocks. Two nights later against a taller Duke team, Stanford used perimeter shooting as a weapon, one that helped propel the Cardinal to an early lead they never lost.
As pretty as Stanford can play, and virtually has all season, looking that good will be almost impossible against the nation's top team. As a 38-0 record would indicate, opponents have had moments, not games, where they haven't been less than overwhelmed against the Lady Bears.
Baylor's greatest strength might just be that it doesn't have any discernible weakness. What is there to exploit? Despite the fact that the Lady Bears lead the country in field goal percentage, their dominance really begins on the defensive end, specifically on the back end of that defense, with Griner. With the rim so well protected and layups so infrequent, offense becomes a real chore against Baylor. Working so hard to score leaves opponents vulnerable in other areas. With a focus born from losing in a regional final last year, the Lady Bears always seem to take advantage.
Odyssey Sims vs. Amber Orrange: Of course, Nneka vs. Brittney has more star power, but it's unlikely the two will be matched up all that much. On the other hand, the point guards should be one-on-one for every minute they're on the floor together. Neither has Final Four experience. However, Sims is already an All-American as a sophomore. Orrange broke into the Stanford starting lineup on Jan. 7. The Stanford freshman has played some of her best basketball of the season in the NCAA tournament (18 points versus West Virginia and 13 points with a solid floor game against Duke), but Orrange might need to play the best basketball of her life for Stanford to pull the upset. If she gets swallowed up by the moment and flustered when she can't get all the way to the rim, the Cardinal won't have much of a chance. Orrange has to at least stand up to Sims, who has become a super-charged version of Robin to Griner's Batman.
It seems almost insane that a frontcourt which includes Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, who combine to average 38 points and 20 rebounds per game, could take second place to anyone. But this isn't just anyone. It's Griner -- and she's just that good. She is the greatest game-changer the sport has ever seen.
What makes this close is that the Ogwumike sisters present something Griner has yet to see in her three seasons -- two skilled, highly athletic All-Americans on the floor together. If one of them has some success pulling Griner away from the basket, even a little, the other could have the room to complete plays. Room is something the Ogwumikes don't need much of.
Of course, that is where Baylor's Destiny Williams comes in. Not to be forgotten, the 6-foot-1 junior averages nearly a double-double. While not as tall or gifted as either Ogwumike sister, Williams, with the help of Brooklyn Pope off the bench, can be physical enough with the Ogwumikes to push them just enough out of their comfort zone.
Chiney's ability to defend without getting into foul trouble will be another key. She was voted the Pac-12's best defender, and -- like Griner and another Final Four participant, Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters -- is a finalist for WBCA defensive player of the year. Chiney faces her biggest challenge yet. Making Griner simply put in some extra effort on the offensive end or chase Chiney end line to end line could go a long way.
Jocelyn Tinkle's size -- she has about three inches on Baylor's Jordan Madden and Nae Nae Hayden -- could give Stanford a distinct advantage at the 3, but while the 6-3 junior has elevated her play in the NCAA tournament (11.2 ppg), she tends to play more on the wing.
Much like the frontcourt comparison comes down to the Lady Bears having the best player, Baylor also gets the nod in the backcourt. And while Griner is the game's most dominant player, that advantage is actually bigger on the perimeter.
Orrange is gifted and a potential future star, and Toni Kokenis is a solid combo guard with guts and a bit of swagger.
But Sims is a star already with guts and swagger to burn. She's the best guard in this game by a wide margin, and some nights, Sims is even Baylor's best player.
The fearless lefty, the 2011 Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M notwithstanding, seems to elevate herself in big games.
Sims averaged 20.5 points against Baylor's 11 ranked opponents this season (she's averaging 14.5 ppg on the season). Stanford will be able to collapse on Griner as long as it accounts for where Sims is at all times. To this point, no one has figured out how to get that done.
Juniors Madden, as a defensive stopper, and Hayden, as spot-up deep shooter, fill their roles nicely. That isn't to say those are their only skills, but if Madden and Hayden only execute in those areas, the Lady Bears are still fine.
Even though Baylor has the best reserve of the bunch in Pope, the Cardinal have more options and flexibility. Pope and guard Terran Condrey are all Kim Mulkey will turn to, and neither is a major scoring threat. Pope is there to rebound and defend with toughness. Condrey gives the guard rotation time to rest, but the starters all played more than 30 minutes in the Elite Eight against Tennessee. Barring foul trouble, that is likely to repeat itself Sunday night.
Stanford's depth took a hit early in the season when Mikaela Ruef and Jasmine Camp were lost to injury. The Cardinal get most of their quality minutes from senior guard Lindy La Rocque. She gives VanDerveer another ball handling option. Freshmen Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson are essentially just 3-point threats at this point, but that is an area that could be key.
VanDerveer is a Hall of Famer. Mulkey is on her way to becoming one. Despite distinctly different sideline demeanors, both are great at what they do. Coaching is a wash. What gives the Lady Bears the edge is the sense that this season is about a mission. Losing prior to last year's Final Four stung. While maybe not dwelling on it, Baylor certainly hasn't forgotten it. A killer instinct and focus were born and it doesn't seem they will fully mature until a championship is won.
Three X factors
1. Stanford's 3-point shooting: As good as Nneka and Chiney Ogwumke are around the rim, doing it against Baylor is a different animal. Opportunities to score inside will be fewer, even for Stanford. So much like they did against Duke, the Cardinal are going to have to take some 3-pointers in the normal offensive flow, and earlier enough in the shot clock, to make Baylor think about them. And of course, a few need to go in, like they did against the Blue Devils (Stanford hit seven 3-pointers).
2. How Orrange handles the moment: Sure, Stanford has made five straight Final Fours, but Orrange was not in Tampa, St. Louis, San Antonio or Indianapolis. She was in high school. Orrange isn't going to have time to ease into the game. She's a starter and a point guard. The ball will be in her hands. If the freshman, another Houston product just like Griner and the Ogwumikes, simply lets her talent take over, she should be fine. But if she remembers she's playing in the Final Four, Stanford might have a problem.
3. Baylor's composure: The Lady Bears, on the other hand, might have to watch getting too amped. They are two wins away from fulfilling their season-long goal. Playing one game at a time hasn't been a problem, but Baylor hasn't been this close yet, either. Remembering they can't get to 40 without 39 will be important for the Lady Bears, as will the lesson of what losing your cool, even for a moment, can potentially cost you -- as the incident at the end of the regional final win over Tennessee illustrated.
Baylor. The Ogwumike sisters are unique, great players, but this Cardinal team doesn't quite have the inside-outside balance that it needs to beat a team as good as Baylor. Everything Stanford brings to Denver beats most teams, just not this one. Baylor has played like a team with a singular goal all season and, somewhat remarkably, has never seemed to stray. Credit Mulkey with keeping an uber-talented team focused from day one. Now with just a few more of those days remaining, it's difficult to see the Lady Bears taking their foot off the gas now. Expect Stanford to have its moments, but ultimately, the Griner-Sims pair with a Hayden-Williams kicker will wear down the Cardinal and pull away.