Commentary

Fresno Sweet 16 breakdown

Originally Published: March 21, 2012
By Michelle Smith | espnW

Stanford made a 3,000-mile trek for its tournament openers, crossing the country to Norfolk, Va., to get dominant wins in the first two rounds.

All the travel didn't do a thing to hold Stanford back offensively, and the Cardinal proved that they can deal with defense as well after tamping down West Virginia in the second round.

[+] EnlargeEugeneia McPherson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiEugeneia McPherson and St. John's have won 11 of their past 12 games.

Now the top seed will get to experience something of the comforts of home in its fifth straight Sweet 16.

Fresno is a little less than a four-hour bus ride from the Stanford campus, in the same time zone and just a short drive for what is sure to be a large group of fans coming to support the rolling Cardinal, who have won 30 in a row and are getting strong performances all over the floor.

In the meantime, every other team heading to Fresno -- Duke, St. John's and South Carolina -- will be coming a long way and making the quick time-zone adjustment, including some late-night East Coast tipoff times.

Does that give the top-seeded Cardinal the advantage?

Dawn Staley will bring her South Carolina team, which hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 2002, out west looking to knock off the coach who led her to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games. Staley has never taken a team this far in the tournament as a head coach.

Duke comes to California with two strong performances under its belt, but also with lingering questions about how freshman post Elizabeth Williams will hold up playing on a stress fracture in her lower right leg.

St. John's, making its first trip to the Sweet 16, is one of the hottest teams in the nation and can hurt opponents from almost every spot on the floor.

Will a long flight drain the Red Storm of any of the mojo gained from a character-molding weekend in Oklahoma in which they beat Creighton on a last-second shot and then dispatched the home team in the second round?

We look at three X factors for each matchup.

(3) St. John's vs. (2) Duke

ESPN/ESPN3: 9 p.m. ET Saturday

1. Chelsea Gray comes home: The Duke sophomore, who had 12 points and a school-record 12 assists in the win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, grew up in Stockton -- about 80 miles down Highway 99 from Fresno -- and almost surely will be playing in front of a lot of family and friends with a lot on the line. The game might depend on whether Gray feels the pressure or rises to the occasion in the biggest game in her young career.

2. Everybody scores: The Red Storm have a multitude of scoring sources in Shenneika Smith, Eugeneia McPherson, Nadirah McKenith and Da'Shena Stevens. No longer do they have to rely on lock-down defense to win. St. John's was 1-8 when giving up more than 60 points heading into the tournament, but won both of its NCAA games so far despite allowing 67 to Creighton and 70 to Oklahoma. The offense is getting it done.

3. Williams hurting? Elizabeth Williams, the Blue Devils' sensational freshman, is playing through a stress fracture. So far, it has been mostly good, including a 13-point, six-rebound performance against Vanderbilt. But her scoring and rebounding numbers were less than her season averages in the opening weekend, and the Blue Devils are going to need her more, not less, in Fresno.

Pick: St. John's will win because the Red Storm are healthier, more balanced and have all kinds of momentum. They have 11 wins in their past 12 games, including Connecticut, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville and Oklahoma since the end of January. That's a pretty good stretch.

(5) South Carolina vs. (1) Stanford

ESPN2/ESPN3, 11:30 p.m. ET Saturday

1. Sister, sister: Yep, Stanford's Ogwumike sisters are the key to the Cardinal's success at every stage of this tournament. Nneka will take a game over at will, while Chiney needs some rest for her sore right knee this week. She didn't quite have her usual lift off the floor against West Virginia. Chiney played 30 minutes Monday but just 13 in Stanford's first-round victory. It was a testament to the Cardinal's other players, including the 3-point shooting of Joslyn Tinkle, that Stanford didn't need her more.

2. Defense from Dawn Staley's team: The Gamecocks forced 20 turnovers in Monday night's second-round win over Purdue and have allowed their first two NCAA opponents an average of 54.5 points. How much pressure can the Gamecocks put on Stanford's backcourt and how much damage can guards Markeshia Grant and Ieasia Walker do on the offensive end?

3. Amber Orrange blossoms: Stanford's freshman point guard is one of the most introverted players to come through Palo Alto in a long time. But suddenly her game is speaking for her after a great weekend in Norfolk. Career highs in assists, points and rebounds, all in two games.

Pick: Stanford will win because the Cardinal have suddenly found a groove in the backcourt with Orrange and Toni Kokenis providing important offensive punch, and because experience is king at this stage of the tournament. South Carolina doesn't have enough yet to upset a team of Stanford's caliber.

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com