Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Nov. 21, 2006
How great is it that the Pac-10 championship is still up for grabs heading into the final weekend of conference play? Washington visits Stanford on Thursday night in the clash of first place teams, with Washington looking for its third straight conference crown while Stanford tries to get its first since 2001. And don't overlook the incredibly important match in Arizona. Although the winner will not be the Pac-10 champ, Arizona State needs a win over Arizona to keep its tournament hopes alive. Both Stanford and Washington know the NCAA tournament awaits regardless of who wins, but ASU has no room for error - a win and it is 15-14 and has a chance to go to the NCAA tournament but a loss puts the Sun Devils at 14-15 and not eligible for the tournament due to their losing overall record. The match in Palo Alto will be fun and a great reward for the team that wins, but there is more at stake for ASU in its match Friday night.
The Huskies have had an incredible year and find themselves playing for another Pac-10 championship. Although they are the defending conference and national champion, they were not picked to win the Pac-10 this year - Stanford was the preseason favorite - and most thought they would take a small step backward. It seems the Huskies have quickly become a team that reloads rather than rebuilds, and with four new starters in the lineup they quickly picked up where they left off a year ago. After going 18 years without a Pac-10 championship they are vying to become only the third team in Pac-10 history to win three in a row - joining UCLA and Stanford. Can the Huskies win at Stanford? A couple of weeks ago I may have said 'no', that Stanford would be too tough to beat at home. That may prove to be true, but after the Cardinal lost so convincingly at home to USC last weekend some of their swagger at Maples may be gone. Or, after they beat UCLA the next night, they treated it as a bad night and will be as confident as ever. Washington did beat Stanford on the road last season, handing the Cardinal one of three home losses of the 2005 season. That win was only the second time Washington had defeated Stanford in Palo Alto and the first time since 1989. So the Huskies have experienced success in Maples pavilion and have played in plenty of big matches the past few years. They will be ready.
Stanford, however, has a lot to play for. The four-year span without a Pac-10 championship is the longest ever for the Cardinal and a drought they dearly want to end. They were the favorite to win the Pac-10 this year and they have terrific talent all over the floor. However, at times this Cardinal team is less than stellar. They get error prone occasionally - in their three losses this year they have lost the battle at the net, being out hit and out blocked each time. In fact, in Stanford's three losses it has been out hit by at least .100 points each time and committed a total of 35 more hitting errors than its opponents. As I have said all season, the outside hitter combination of Cynthia Barboza and Kristen Richards is as good as there is in the conference, and maybe in the nation, but as they go so do the Cardinal. When Stanford has lost, Barboza has had a disproportionate amount of swings. And, when she gets too many swings her production has generally gone down. With the exception of the match at Washington, when Barboza had a season high 25 kills on her 55 swings (in only three games), she has struggled most when she has been forced to swing the most. The fewest number of swings Barboza has had in a loss is 46, and against BYU and Washington she had over 50. And when a team relies on one player so much it generally goes back to serve receive. Stanford has had much more success when it has more balance in its offense, and to have balance it must pass well. The Cardinal did not pass well, nor play well, against Washington in Seattle on the opening weekend of Pac-10 play. They want to prove they can beat the Huskies in what has become a terrific rivalry, but more importantly they want to reclaim the title of the Pac-10's best team.
Arizona State has been hovering around .500 for the better part of the year and is not out of the NCAA picture yet. If it can beat Arizona in its regular season finale on Friday night it will have that winning record and a shot at a NCAA invite. And keep in mind that every Pac-10 team with an overall winning record has been invited to the NCAA tournament since 1997. Arizona State's RPI is very solid as well which should help them in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee.
The season was saved on Thursday night in Pullman when the Sun Devils pulled out a five-game win over the Cougars. A loss there and they are done, but that win has kept hope alive for a team that has not been to the NCAA tournament the past three seasons. They showed a lot of toughness to win that match when statistically they were out played. Washington State out hit, out blocked and out dug ASU. But, the Sun Devils fought the hardest when it mattered most and came out on the winning end of a 15-13 game five. And talk about some defense. It was the first time all year a Pac-10 team has registered 100 or more digs in a match - and both teams did it with WSU's 117 digs edging out ASU's 109. Junior libero Sydney Donahue once again led the way for ASU with 41 digs and now has 651 for the year, shattering the record she set a year ago for most digs in a season. That is good enough for fourth on the Pac-10 list and only trailing third place by 15 digs - which the defensive phenom should easily reach against Arizona. Sophomore Margie Giordano had a career high 23 kills to go along with her 21 digs against the Cougs.
Now only the rivalry match with Arizona stands between the Sun Devils and a chance at the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have had a tough year and know that they will not go to the NCAA tournament after 10 straight appearances. But they can play the spoiler and knock ASU out of it, and isn't that what rivalry matches are all about? The Sun Devils took the first match of the series at Arizona, starting the Pac-10 season on the wrong note for the Wildcats who were never able to get on track. And that win, it turns out, was critically important for ASU. But not as important as their match on Friday night which will determine Arizona State's fate with the NCAA tournament.
Nervous in Eugene?
A couple of weeks ago the Ducks seemed to be a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament. With a 17-3 record and a top 25 ranking the Ducks were playing well and a threat to win every time they stepped on the floor. With that 17th win, over Washington State in Eugene, coach Jim Moore felt they had assured themselves a NCAA tournament bid. However, since that time a couple of things have happened that that may have the Ducks nervous about their NCAA fate. First, Oregon has gone on a five-game skid, losing three times at home and twice on the road. Those road losses - to Arizona and Arizona State - were especially costly since Arizona won't make the NCAA Tournament and Arizona State is on the bubble. These are teams the Ducks handled in Eugene earlier in the year. Those losses put the Ducks on the wrong end of a losing streak as well, and with losses last weekend at the hands of Stanford and Cal and upcoming matches in LA it is likely Oregon will end their conference season on a seven match losing streak. That is not the way any team hopes to finish their regular season - now the biggest hope for Oregon is that their poor late season performance does not hurt their post season chances.
The other thing that might have Oregon on edge heading into the selection show on Sunday is the disappointment felt by the Ducks women's soccer team that finished second in the Pac-10 but were left out of the NCAA tournament. They were so sure they had done everything needed to be in the tournament that they no longer asked 'will we be in' but 'where will we be going?' When their name was not announced they were shocked, and you can bet the other teams in the Casanova Center took notice. Unless you are the conference champion there is no sure thing when it comes to the NCAA tournament. The soccer team had a terrific end to their season, beating both UCLA and USC on the final weekend, but their final push was not enough. If late season performance is indeed a factor for the NCAA committee the Ducks could need to match the efforts of their soccer team and get wins over the Bruins and Women of Troy to secure their invitation. The odds are against the Ducks to win in LA - they are a combined 6-76 against the LA schools - but the Ducks have defied odds all year long.
One thing working for Oregon is the strength of the Pac-10. This conference has had at least six teams make the NCAA tournament since 2000, including a league-high eight teams in 2002. Even the fact that the Ducks may have only seven conference wins won't exclude them - California has twice been to the NCAA tournament with a 7-11 conference record. And the strength of the Pac-10 has given Oregon a strong RPI which is a tool used by the selection committee when determining tournament berths. The latest RPI ranking has the Ducks in the mid 20's, ahead of ranked teams like Ohio State, Pepperdine and Santa Clara. So, despite some reasons to be a little worried, all signs point to Oregon being in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1989.