Stanford Women's Basketball: The Buffalo Bills of Women's Basketball?

That's the implication that Sports Illustrated columnist and former Mercury News writer Ann Killion wrote in her pre-game column on  For four straight years, Stanford went to the Final Four and for four straight years, they went away empty handed.  Like the '90s Bills, Stanford couldn't find a way to get that final win.

Two of those years, Stanford made it to that elusive final game only to be downed by a Tennessee team that it had beat just four months earlier in a thrilling OT win at Maples, and a Connecticut team in the throes of an unbelievable win streak that found a way to come back after scoring just 12 first-half points.  The other two years, Stanford couldn't close out against a Connecticut team that was on its way to an undefeated season, and then this year, when poor decisions and turnovers doomed Stanford to an early exit in a tournament that it was finally supposed to win.

While none of these games were blowouts (ahem, Super Bowl XXVII), there are definitely similarities between the Bills and the Stanford women.  Both teams lost a heartbreaker by a point against a team they were supposed to beat.  Both reached the big stage on last minute heroics, either by their own team or their opponent (Xavier, Maimi Dolphins).  Both reached that big stage four consecutive times.  Both teams always came out short of the ultimate prize, all four times.

While Stanford retains its phenomenal sister tandem of Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, it must be noted that the two biggest people outside of the coaching staff that made those four consecutive Final Four appearances possible have, in fact, played their final Stanford games Sunday night.  Both Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen are lost to graduation, and a question now remains as to who will fill the roles they took.

Now this isn't uncharted territory for Stanford women.  Everyone wondered what would happen to Stanford after the loss of Candice Wiggins to the WNBA.  Those same questions circled Stanford after Jayne Appel went on to become one of the top picks in the WNBA draft.  Each time, Stanford answered with a Final Four appearance that, even though it seemed unlikely in the preseason each year, seemed so natural for everyone, both at Stanford and in the national media.

But is this time different?  One of the keys to Stanford's success after both Wiggins and Appel left was that there were very competent underclassmen to take up the reigns.  Most of these underclassmen were able to make an immediate impact on the court for Stanford, making the transitions easier to stomach.  Can Stanford say that anyone, beyond the Ogwumikes, are the difference makers that Pohlen, Pedersen, Appel, JJ Hones, and others stepped up to become after the upperclassmen left?  You look at players like Tinkle, Kokenis, Boothe, and La Rocque and you see great basketball players, but when you think about them, do you think any of them will be able to step into the shoes of those leaving this year?  Tinkle and Booth have been phenomenal (bench) players, but Tara's never really been confident to put them as starters in Pac-10 play on a consistent basis.  Kokenis, despite being a highly touted freshman, was pulled by VanDerveer early in the season for inconsistent and, to put it bluntly, bad play.  La Rocque is a great distance shooter, but Stanford's strengths have never been to have players fill simple roles.

Of that group, I'd say that Kokenis has the most potential of the underclassmen that we saw this year.  But it remains clear that the reason why everyone picked Stanford to win this NCAA tournament this year was because it just had so many pieces in place.  Two of the biggest pieces are gone starting next fall, leaving what some will claim as to be two of the most disappointing Stanford careers in any sport (and that's including the infamous debacle of the men's '04 tournament).  There's no clear path back to Denver next year, and Stanford will enter 2011-2012 with questions about who will step up to fill the shoes of Pedersen and Pohlen, much in the same way those very same questions were asked after Wiggins and Appel left.

Regardless of how they do it, with the Ogwumikes coming back and Tara seeming to be at the top of her game coaching-wise, smart money says Stanford will do just fine.  Perhaps going through this season with expectations of a national championship were just too big of a burden in the end for this Stanford team.  Maybe entering next season with more tempered expectations will be just what this team needs to shed that comparison to a little team from upstate New York that was always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

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