Why Stanford looks even better than expected for 2019-20

Junior guard Kiana Williams, No. 14 on espnW's top 25 player rankings, helps give the Cardinal one of their deepest teams since the late 1990s. AP Photo/John Hefti

STANFORD, Calif. -- We shouldn't get too carried away the first week of November, right? Yet Stanford's performance Saturday against the U.S. women's national team was invigorating. The Cardinal set the bar high in a 95-80 loss, and now we'll soon get to see how the other two Pac-12 favorites do against the pros.

Oregon State hosts the U.S. squad Monday night, and Oregon will do so on Saturday. If those schools don't play as well against the U.S. women, that doesn't mean Stanford leaps to the top of the Pac-12 in everyone's esteem. We can expect the national team to get better as it jells together this week, which also includes a trip to Texas A&M on Thursday.

And even if the Beavers and Ducks play as well -- or maybe even better -- against the U.S. women than Stanford, it still won't cool the excitement about the Cardinal, who appear to have one of their deepest teams since the late 1990s.

USA Basketball's games against the Cardinal, Beavers and Ducks only serve to add a little more fuel to the Pac-12's fire.

Oregon is the preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25. Stanford ranks third, Oregon State seventh, UCLA 11th, and Arizona State 20th. Five different Pac-12 schools -- Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington -- have reached the Final Four in the past seven seasons. And, of course, it's notable that this USA Basketball tour tipped off on the West Coast.

Are we finally past the familiar left coast lament that Pac-12 women's hoops doesn't get any respect because everyone in the Eastern and Central time zones supposedly goes to bed too early to see their games? Clearly, a lot of women's basketball fans everywhere are paying attention.

"There's been a commitment from different schools to say, 'We're going to get results,' " Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "You cannot go into any Pac-12 game and think you can show up and win. The league always has been good, but now the respect for the league is there. So that's great."

Saturday's game was a terrific advertisement for the Pac-12 in general, as former league player and Stanford grad Nneka Ogwumike led the United States in scoring (23) and rebounds (12).

Stanford led 20-15 after one quarter and hung tough throughout. Ten of the 13 Cardinal players who saw action scored. Senior guard DiJonai Carrington and junior guard Kiana Williams each scored 17 points. Forward Fran Belibi of the much-heralded freshman class started. The freshman who saw the most minutes was Ashten Prechtel, a 6-foot-5 forward who had four points and four rebounds in 21 minutes, 22 seconds on court.

The No. 1 overall recruit according to espnW's HoopGurlz -- 6-1 guard Haley Jones -- had five points in 15½ minutes. Sophomore guards Lexie and Lacie Hull combined for 18 points on 8 of 14 shooting.

And even the Stanford players who didn't make much of a statistical mark carried through what seemed to be a team motto for this game. They were respectfully in awe of the pro squad, which they know includes some of the all-time greats of the game. But they didn't play like they were in awe; they displayed confidence.

"We knew the value of playing Stanford," said Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who is filling in, along with the Seattle Storm's Dan Hughes, in leading Team USA while head coach Dawn Staley is busy with her South Carolina team in the college season.

"What I enjoyed was the style of play. The situations they put you in, their movement, their ability to know they're open and shoot without hesitation. I like that we were challenged."

That's what Pac-12 observers will be looking for when Destiny Slocum and Mikayla Pivec lead Oregon State against the U.S. squad, and when Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard do the same at Oregon. But few teams in the country look to have the kind of depth Stanford appears to have.

Depth itself doesn't necessarily mean a long NCAA tournament run. Talent is by far the most important thing. We've seen teams coping with multiple injuries and little depth still be able to win the NCAA championship, such as Notre Dame in 2018.

But if Stanford's depth is such that there won't be much, if any, drop-off when players are subbed in and out -- if the overall level is high -- that's the type of team that can go a long way.

"I'm excited to see how this team cohesively grows through the season," proud alum Ogwumike said. "Especially in the Pac-12. I'm so happy it's the strongest conference ... it's really exciting to see."

The other power conferences will take exception to this, but it's OK if the Pac-12 and its alums crow a bit. The Women's Final Four has not been on the West Coast since 1999 in San Jose, California. And no team from this league has won the NCAA women's basketball title since Stanford in 1992. Pac-12 women's basketball programs and fans have felt rather left out too much.

In recent years, that has changed. And the Pac-12 will demand a lot of attention the rest of this season.