Oct. 20, 2011
STANFORD, Calif.- Only three games remain in the regular season for No. 9 Stanford (12-2, 5-0 NorPac), which hosts UC Davis on Friday night before next weekend's road swing with stops at Michigan State and Michigan.
Of course, Stanford will also host this year's NorPac Championship, scheduled for Nov. 3-5 at the Varsity Turf. That gives the Cardinal three more opportunities to pad its record heading into the postseason.
So, with just two weeks left in the regular season, it's an ideal time to examine Stanford's postseason chances. As usual, the winner of the NorPac Championship must also prevail in an NCAA Play-In game to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, as the conference does not own an automatic bid. During the past four years, Stanford has been that team, winning four straight conference tournament titles and three NCAA Play-In games.
However, Stanford finds itself in an even better position this year. The Cardinal has performed so well that an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament is very much in play. That's very much unchartered territory for Stanford, which in past years has qualified for the NCAA Tournament by having to win a Play-In game (and in most cases, do so on the road).
Sixteen teams are selected for the NCAA Tournament. Five conferences (ACC, America East, Big East, Big Ten, Colonial) receive automatic qualification into the postseason. There are three Play-In games slated to take place on the morning of Nov. 8, hours before the NCAA Tournament field is announced. That leaves only eight spots remaining for at-large teams, with primary criteria such as RPI, head-to-head competition, strength of schedule, results against common opponents and win-loss record utilized in the decision-making process.
If Stanford continues on its current path, the NCAA selection committee will be hard-pressed not to include the Cardinal in the postseason party. The following is an in-depth look at Stanford's postseason resumé, which at the moment, shows the Cardinal to be deserving of consideration for an at-large bid.
| What does the overall record look like?
Very strong, with Stanford checking in at 12-2 overall. The Cardinal is one of eight teams in Division I with two losses or less. In addition to notching three shutouts to date, Stanford owns a 6-0 record in games decided by one goal. A nine-game winning streak that spanned from Aug. 31-Oct. 8 matched a school record. That being said, another school record is also within reach. Sitting on 12 victories with potentially seven games left to play, the program-best total of 17 wins established by the 2009 squad remains in sight. Meanwhile, Stanford has already wrapped up the NorPac regular season title thanks to a sweep of Cal.
| What's up with the two losses?
Stanford only has tasted defeat twice, and both blemishes can be filed under the "good losses" category. Both have come against top-20 teams. Both occurred on the road. Stanford dropped a 4-2 decision at then-No. 4 Connecticut back on Aug. 28 at the Husky Invitational, in a game that saw the Cardinal statistically win the second half. The Huskies are one of the nation's top squads though, owning a 13-1 record and ranked No. 4 in the poll and the RPI. Stanford's other defeat was a 6-3 loss at then-No. 12 New Hampshire on Oct. 9. Another upstart program, the Wildcats entered this week at 12-3 while ranked No. 10 in the poll and No. 21 in the RPI. The combined gaudy record of 25-4 for those two teams shouldn't hurt Stanford.
| Most NCAA Tournament teams can win games at home. Any success on the road?
Check. Stanford is 6-2 this year in true road games. Throw in a neutral site victory over Hofstra in the season opener and the Cardinal is actually 7-2 in games played away from the Varsity Turf. Next weekend's road swing is simply crucial. Up first is a contest at Michigan State (7-9), which has handled Stanford easily in past years. Two days later, the challenge gets even tougher, with Stanford facing Big Ten co-leader Michigan (11-3). The Wolverines are currently ranked No. 7 in the nation and No. 8 in the RPI. Should Stanford split or sweep that trip, the Cardinal figure to be in very good shape.
| Got any top-20 wins?
Absolutely. Credit second-year head coach Tara Danielson for putting together a strong schedule that has not only challenged her young team but also presented opportunities to knock off the big dogs. Stanford owns a solid 5-2 mark against top-20 opponents so far, with next week's game against Michigan and a potential third matchup against California in the NorPac Tournament remaining. The two losses have already been covered in Connecticut and New Hampshire. The five top-20 victims include: a 3-2 road win at No. 17 Albany, a 3-2 home win against No. 19 Indiana, a 4-2 home win against No. 18 Northeastern, a 3-2 home win against No. 12 California and a 3-2 road win at No. 12 California.
| The national rankings have no bearing on selection to the NCAA Tournament field.
True, the Kookaburra/NFHCA National Coaches poll is not factored into the selection criteria. However, it does remain a useful benchmark in how a team has progressed throughout the season, taking into account key victories and the entire body of work. In this case, Stanford looks good. A mainstay in the national poll over the last four seasons, Stanford has maintained a top-10 ranking ever since the first week of the season when the Cardinal debuted at No. 20. Currently ranked No. 9 in the poll, Stanford has actually been ranked as high as No. 6 this year, matching the program's highest previous ranking first achieved back on Sept. 22, 1987.
| A lofty national ranking looks great, but the NCAA selection committee values the RPI.
That's good news. The latest edition of the RPI has Stanford ranked No. 4 in the country, trailing only No. 1 Old Dominion (15-1), No. 2 Maryland (12-2) and No. 3 North Carolina (15-1). Next up after Stanford at No. 5 is Connecticut, which of course has already defeated Stanford, so no harm there. The Cardinal has maintained a top-10 position in the RPI since the first edition of the rankings. The RPI is released bi-weekly during the season, with the final edition coming out during the first week of November. Simply having Michigan (No. 8 in the RPI) on the schedule next week should help, regardless of the outcome.
| The ACC, Big East and Big Ten will likely be well-represented in the postseason. The NorPac is traditionally on the outside looking in.
True, but that's not the case this year. 2011 has indeed been a banner season for the NorPac, which blends four West and East Coast schools. Stanford and California have been ranked among the top-20 for essentially the entire year. Stanford's body of work is well-documented. But it would be foolish to dismiss California, currently ranked No. 14 in the rankings and No. 14 in the RPI. Not to mention, the Golden Bears are 12-3 and have knocked off five top-20 opponents. In fact, Cal's only losses have come against No. 11 Northwestern and (drumroll, please...) Stanford twice.
by Brian Risso, Stanford Athletics Communications/Media Relations