Heading into Selection Sunday, there was more debate than usual about the identity of the four No. 1 seeds in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Two spots were essentially up for grabs, and even Indiana — a team that was assured of landing on the top line — appeared a little shaky with two defeats in its last three games.
One week later, the confusion around those top teams has turned the typically chalky women’s tournament into pure chaos. Stanford and Indiana were bounced from the second round — the first time two No. 1 seeds have been ousted before the Sweet 16 since 1998. And though the Cardinal and the Hoosiers each had their own specific challenges in those defeats, a few similarities at play brought down those titans.
In much of the women’s tournament history, No. 1 seeds have treated the first weekend as a bye into the Sweet 16, particularly a program with Stanford’s pedigree. The Cardinal won their first two games every year since 2007, which included nine Final Four appearances and a championship in 2021. Indiana isn’t a historical powerhouse but has been on the upswing, making the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 in the last two years before winning the most games in team history this season.
According to the New York Times, only four top seeds had failed to make it to the Sweet 16 since 1994, when the women’s field expanded to 64 teams — that’s compared to 20 on the men’s side in that span. A majority of top seeds — 56.3 percent, according to the NCAA — have reached the Final Four, and since 2012, three of the total four all-No. 1 seed Final Fours have occurred: 2012, 2015 and 2018. But March has traditionally been beloved for its madness; parity and unpredictability have been necessary ingredients for the growth of the women’s game. And this season’s tournament is providing plenty.
Neither the Cardinal nor the Hoosiers expected to be the poster children for this tournament’s embrace of anarchy. Each team had a spectacular start to the regular season, picking up multiple quality nonconference wins — Stanford defeated Tennessee, Gonzaga, and FGCU, and Indiana knocked off the Lady Vols and North Carolina before Big Ten play. Both shot to the top of their conference standings. Both eventually peaked at No. 2 in the AP poll. But each suffered a loss in its regular-season finale and then in the semifinal round of their conference tournaments. Neither team was playing its best basketball heading into March.
Beyond a shifting women’s college basketball landscape, perhaps contributing to No. 8 Ole Miss’ upset of Stanford and No. 9 Miami’s shocker against Indiana, where did these top seeds go wrong?
Stanford becomes the first women’s No. 1 seed to fail to reach the Sweet 16 since 2009.
The Lady Rebels will take on the winner of No. 5 Louisville and No. 4 Texas on Friday.https://t.co/cJrjGsw56B
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 20, 2023
For those paying close attention, the Cardinal started to show cracks earlier in the season. Stanford boasted elite marks in offensive and defensive rating (nationally ranked fifth and fourth, respectively, per Her Hoop Stats), but it had a fixed formula for winning that presented little room for error. Cameron Brink and Haley Jones dominated the interior, the duo combined for 13.3 shot attempts in the paint per game along with 9.2 free throws. Beyond that relentless paint pressure, however, the Cardinal had minimal sources of shot creation.
Kiki Iriafen had eight double-digit scoring outings between Nov. 17 and Dec. 20, but just one after the calendar turned. Lauren Betts only averaged four field-goal attempts despite a significant size advantage, at 6-foot-7, in the post. Her fellow freshman Talana Lepolo rarely even looked to shoot, allowing defenses to sag off her even as she canned 37.3 of her 3-pointers on the season. Defenses learned they could pack the paint, liberally help off of Stanford’s shooters, and show multiple bodies on Brink and Jones, as Ole Miss did to a tee.
The dichotomy between the aggression of Stanford’s frontcourt and backcourt was jarring. A Pac-12 coach told The Athletic during conference play that this season’s Cardinal lacked the ceiling of their predecessors because the guard play simply wasn’t good enough.
“Talana’s gonna be great, but she just needs some time, so I think they’re just working through that lack of guard play,” the coach said under the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “I think Talana and Haley are doing the best job that they can — Haley being kind of out of position, and Talana being a freshman. And then after that, there’s really no one else that can handle the ball, handle pressure, or things like that. So it makes it really challenging. College basketball is all about guard play, so Tara’s best teams have been when she’s had a really good guard play.”
As the Cardinal searched for more offense and played smaller lineups more frequently as the season wore on, their defense fell off without two bigs. Plus, Stanford became allergic to forcing turnovers this season, putting them in a math bind with the possession battle. Even if their per-100 possession marks were among the best in the country, the fact that they played at a slow pace meant opponents could still keep games close and be certain of getting a shot on every possession because the Cardinal would not take the ball away.
Indiana had similar issues of being top-heavy on offense and lacking some lineup versatility. Beyond Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes, the team’s spacers — Sydney Parrish, Yarden Garzon and Sara Scalia — waxed hot and cold. Defenses couldn’t load up on Berger and Holmes in the same way they did against Stanford because of the Hoosiers shooters’ willingness to launch, but they could pick their spots over the course of a game when it became clear who was feeling it on a given night.
Defensively, coach Teri Moren was up front about running a vanilla scheme. Indiana doesn’t really switch or trap or do anything funky to stop opponents — the Hoosiers are confident in their base defense, but that gives opponents a clear idea of how to attack, as Miami learned by ruthlessly targeting Indiana’s pick-and-roll coverages.
It certainly didn’t help either Stanford or Indiana that Brink and Holmes were dealing with maladies. Both missed their opening-round games. Brink was clearly off her rhythm, which showed in her struggles finishing around the rim, and she appeared fatigued from the effects of a stomach bug. Holmes aggravated a knee issue during the Big Ten Tournament, and her mobility was compromised against the Hurricanes.
That isn’t to say the Cardinal or the Hoosiers simply fell apart in defeat — Ole Miss and Miami earned their wins and came in with targeted game plans to capitalize on the favorites’ weaknesses. The Rebels crowded Brink and sent multiple defenders at Jones, showing little respect for Stanford’s other scorers, even stunting off Hannah Jump on multiple occasions. Despite oodles of space afforded beyond the arc, Stanford attempted only seven 3-pointers, a season low. At times, the Cardinal stubbornly tried to force the ball into the paint and at other times, were unwilling to take what Miami’s defense was giving.
The Hurricanes exploited their matchup advantage on offense, making Berger and Holmes work to defend the pick-and-roll and finding Lola Pendande behind the defense when Holmes came up to contain the ball screen. At 6-foot-4, Pendande is a bigger and more physical post than the players Holmes met in the Big Ten, and Indiana struggled to deal with her paint presence. Destiny Harden is the same size as Berger, and the Miami wing got to her spots against a player who has been a stout defender for the bulk of her five years in Indiana.
ANOTHER NO. 1 SEED FALLS 😱@CanesWBB advances to the Sweet 16 after a last-second game-winner from Destiny Harden upsets Indiana.
🎥 @TSN_Sports | #MarchMadnesspic.twitter.com/7WbQq4c5Xx
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 21, 2023
Like Stanford, the Hoosiers also weren’t able to generate extra offense via 3-pointers. They finished with only five triples, two of which came in the final minute from Garzon.
Even if the Ole Miss and Miami wins seemed stunning at the moment, they shouldn’t be with the benefit of a little hindsight. Yes, Stanford and Indiana had better resumes and a longer sustained stretch of quality play this season. But the Rebels were the fourth-best team in the SEC, which now looks like the best conference in the country. They played Utah, LSU and South Carolina all within single digits, even if they didn’t win. Miami boasted victories over Virginia Tech, North Carolina and a healthy Florida State.
Both underdogs had moments throughout the season when they looked capable of playing at a higher level, even if those were fleeting.
Maybe Stanford and Indiana would have had better outcomes had their star centers been in better health. But they didn’t give away these games; they were taken from them. And if No. 5 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed Villanova aren’t careful, the same thing could happen to them in a few days.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was mocked online for saying the Cardinal men’s program would have loved to play two NCAA Tournament games, but the sentiment is real: It is becoming increasingly harder to survive in March thanks to the depth of talent across the country, and losing in the second round shouldn’t be considered a failure. They’re upsets, but those are no longer surprises in the women’s bracket.
(Top photo of Tara VanDerveer, left, and Angel Baker (15): Josie Lepe / Associated Press)