Commentary

Fresno Elite Eight breakdown

Originally Published: March 24, 2012
By Michelle Smith | espnW

FRESNO, Calif. -- For all of the success of Duke and Stanford, it's odd that they have never met in an NCAA tournament game.

The series stands at an even 2-2. The two teams played a home-and-home series in 2008 and 2009, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie's first two seasons in Durham, N.C. The Blue Devils won at home in '08 and lost at Stanford in '09.

Monday (ESPN/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET), they will duel for a trip to Denver and the Final Four. Duke hasn't been to the national semifinals since 2006, when it lost the championship game to Maryland. Stanford has been to four in a row, but has gone home without a title each time.

The battle of the two top seeds in the Fresno Regional is again going to be defined by defense. Can Duke, which has been dishing good defense all season long, hold down Stanford? Or are the Cardinal becoming immune after enduring bruising defensive teams in back-to-back games?

After the Blue Devils' easier-than-expected victory over St. John's, McCallie had time to sit and watch South Carolina trouble the Cardinal by hounding them on the defensive end, extending the defense to shut down the perimeter and playing aggressively in the paint with the Ogwumike sisters. Then again, she might like the look her team showed against St. John's, a matchup zone that closed the spigot on the Red Storm offense almost immediately and allowed her team to find a great offensive flow.

But Stanford has literally and figuratively taken the best shot of two of the toughest defensive teams in the field -- West Virginia and South Carolina -- and come out a winner, so the Cardinal feel as if they are pretty much ready for anything.

"The teams that we had to play to get to this point really helped us," Stanford guard Toni Kokenis said. "People said, 'Oh they can't pressure' or 'That's one of their weaknesses,' but I think we've proven that we can. We have definitely made big strides and we are getting a lot better at setting the court out and attacking pressure."

Three keys to the game

1. Got Nneka? Nneka Ogwumike's 39-point performance was a showcase for not only her skills, but her will. Ogwumike is playing with an intense but controlled motivation to get her team another shot at the national championship. And she looks almost unguardable. Duke might want to do what South Carolina did and cut off the Cardinal's perimeter game, but the Blue Devils will do that at their own risk, because leaving space open in the paint for Nneka, and even hobbled sister Chiney, spells trouble as it has for almost every other Stanford opponent this season.

2. Who do you guard? The Blue Devils have suddenly found a balanced, well-rounded scoring offense with everybody contributing. Against St. John's, Duke received double-figure scoring from four starters in the lineup. And the Blue Devils are moving the ball around and finding each other with a total of 45 assists in the past two games. That makes life tough for the opposition.

3. The benches: The only bench scoring that Stanford got against South Carolina were two free throws by Bonnie Samuelson, who came in when Chiney Ogwumike went down hard and needed a break before heading back on to the floor. Duke, meanwhile, has not been a deep team all year, and maxed out against St. John's, playing nine people and getting scoring from seven. The Cardinal hope they can bring some size off the bench in Taylor Greenfield and Sarah Boothe, and some defensive help in Lindy La Rocque. Duke is going to need to keep moving posts in and out to deal with the Ogwumike sisters. Whoever gets the best bench help might be the team that wins this game.

Pick: Stanford.

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com