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Women Steal NCAA Spotlight; NC State Surprises; Stanford Women Slip; Kyle Smith Impresses

This year's NCAA Tournament is the most-watched women's basketball tourney of all time, in terms of both game attendance and TV viewership.

That's not surprising considering the many compelling storylines in this year's field. There are some truly great players--including Iowa's Caitlin Clark, the best player in college basketball--male or female. Clark is the sport's all-time leading scorer and a brilliant passer. She had 15 assists on Saturday against Colorado.

Other marquee players: USC's remarkable freshman Juju Watkins, who scored 51 against Stanford earlier this year; Stanford's Cameron Brink, one of the best shot blockers in NCAA history; LSU's trash talking "Angel" Reese; Notre Dame's ballhawking freshman Hannah Hidalgo; South Carolina's mammoth 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso; and Connecticut's Paige Bueckers, the best player in the nation not named Caitlin Clark, returning after missing almost two years with injuries.

Compare that group to the AP All-America men's team of 7-4 Purdue center Zach Edey, who busted in last year's tourney and was totally outplayed during the season by current Warriors' 6-9 rookie star Tracye Jackson-Davis, and a bunch of guys you never heard of--Tennessee's Dalton Knecht, North Carolina's JD Davis. Houston's Jamal Shead and UConn's Tristen Newton.

Then there are the interesting teams and coaches: undefeated South Carolina, led by the combative, yet relatable Dawn Staley; defending champ LSU, led by Kim Mulkey, the cringe-worthy dresser, lightning rod for controversy; USC, led by the easygoing, steady-as-she-goes former Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb; and Cinderella Oregon State, picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, led by the under-appreciated Scott Rueck.

Tonight's Elite Eight matchups will showcase four of the top players in the game: Iowa's Clark vs. LSU's Reese in a rematch of last year's NCAA championship game, followed by USC's JuJu versus Connecticut's Bueckers.

As they say, "must see TV."

Wolfpack Wonders: North Carolina State completed a rare double, sending teams to the Final Four in both the Men's and Women's Tournament. 

The NC State men are the big story on the men's side.

The Wolfpack lost their last four games and finished the regular season at 17-14, but have won nine straight, including five in the ACC Tournament, where they were the No. 10 seed but upset No. 3 Virginia, No. 2 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina en route to the conference title. 

Now, as a No. 11 seed, they've won four straight in the NCAA Tourney over Texas Tech, Oakland (which had just upset Kentucky), No. 2 Marquette and No. 4 Duke.

The main difference the last nine games has been fifth year senior post DJ Burns, Jr. who averaged 12.6 points for the season, but has caught fire in the tournament and bullied his way to 29 points against Duke.

Another key has been the play of point guard Michael O'Connell, the transfer from Stanford. O'Connell averaged 4.4 points per game during the regular season but is at 10.2 during the nine-game streak. O'Connell led his team against Duke with 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and 39 minutes played. He also buried a three pointer with five minutes to go to extend a 6-point lead to 51-42.

Can't wait for Saturday's semi-final matchup between Burns, the 6-9, 275 pound "Dancing Bear" against Purdue's 7-4 Edey.

Stanford Slips: The Stanford women had a 10-point lead at halftime but fell apart in the third quarter and lost to North Carolina State, 77-67, in the Sweet Sixteen matchup in Portland.

The same problems that plagued the Cardinal all season--lack of perimeter scoring and Cameron Brink's foul trouble--reared their ugly head again. Brink played only 23 minutes, fouling out with eight minutes to go. The team's three starting guards--Hannah Jump (13), Elena Bosgana (8) and Talana Lepolo (0) combined for only 21 points.

Kiki Iriafen, who had 41 to single-handedly beat Iowa State, was also in foul trouble and played only 22 minutes, but was very productive with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

We saw this defeat coming, as forecast in our posts of March 11 and 25. When all your offense comes from two posts--one of whom is often in foul trouble--and your guards provide almost no outside scoring, you're not going to reach the Final Four.

After the game, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, in a classic understatement, said, "We need more help offensively from the perimeter."

One might argue that VanDerveer did her best coaching job this year, leading this flawed assemblage to the regular season title in the very tough Pac-12 (five teams in the Sweet Sixteen) and a No. 2 national ranking for much of the season.

Next year VanDerveer will have one of the best players in the country in Iriafen, but will need a lot of help on the perimeter.

I hope she brings in a great point guard, because Stanford will never win a national title with Lepolo. She missed all six shots she took against NC State and went scoreless for the third time in the last five games. She rarely penetrates and often shoots airballs. For the season, Lepolo averaged 4.8 points and 4.1 assists, shooting 37% from the floor and 62% from the foul line.

That ain't going to get it done.

More NCAA Absurdity: Notre Dame freshman star Hannah Hidalgo missed almost five minutes in the second quarter Saturday against Oregon State when game officials asked her to remove her nose ring.

Hidalgo has played with the ring all season, yet the zebras waited until a critical Sweet 16 matchup to remove it.

After the game, the NCAA pointed to a rule prohibiting jewelry. 

You can understand officials not wanting players to wear earrings, watches on wrists and rings on fingers, but a tiny diamond stud in her nose? Please...

Smith's Debut: I went to new Stanford men's coach Kyle Smith's introductory press conference last Wednesday.

He was very impressive. Smith showed a great sense of humor, emotion (cried when talking about his family, my kind of guy) and passion for Stanford. Some of the highlights:

- Smith said that Stanford has been his "dream job" for the past 30 years and that he thinks it's the best job in the country.

- He said if Athletic Director Bernard Muir knew him at all, he'd have known there was no way Smith was turning his offer down. "He had me at 'hello'", Smith said.

- Smith looks for 6-tool players--those who can dribble, drive, pass, shoot, defend and rebound.

- He says his mantra is "defend, rebound, and take care of the ball."

- He's known for being an analytical coach who relies on tons of statistical data.

 - His system is often referred to as "Nerd Ball." Asked if it fits at Stanford, he said "like a glove."

- He and his assistants evaluate each practice and each player has an HPPP score--hustle points per practice.

- He has no doubt he can win at Stanford. Believes there are plenty of good players out there who want what Stanford has to offer in terms of academics, athletics, relationships, and preparing them for their future.

 - He's talking to the three Stanford players in the transfer portal (Maxime Renaud, Kanaan Carlyle and Andrej Stojakovic) and hopes they might change their mind. He said they all told him they love Stanford, and he said, "Really? Then what are you doing?"

Excellent question.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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