Something Old, Something New

The Bootleg's Women's Hoops Columnist Sue Bair gives us a comprehensive breakdown of the 2007-08 Stanford Cardinal, the defending Pac-10 Conference Champions. With returning talent, a strong incoming class, and a bolstered coaching staff of former Cardinal players, the sky is the limit for Stanford in this, the senior season of the incomparable, about-to-be four-time All-American Candice Wiggins.

Something Old, Something New

Something borrowed, something…no, we know that color has no part in this discussion. We are here to preview the Cardinal! Cherry-reddish hues fill our eyes. If we define college basketball "old" as experienced upperclassmen and college basketball "new" as freshmen and sophomores, the 2007/2008 Stanford Women's Basketball Team might be better labeled A Little Old, A Lot New. This year's Cardinal is an intriguing blend of promising youth in quantity with perhaps just enough experience to make a beautiful marriage. Although Stanford returns relatively few players who have played significant minutes in multiple seasons (senior guard Candice Wiggins, junior forward Jillian Harmon and perhaps senior guard Cissy Pierce fit that description.), there is an abundance of talent in the sophomore and freshman classes, and Wiggins is not your ordinary senior, unless you consider a three-time All-American and national player of the year candidate who plays with uncommon verve to be "ordinary".

The presence of Wiggins outside, 6'4" Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Jayne Appel inside, and steady, do-it-all two-year starter Jillian Harmon inside, outside and all around, makes the Cardinal a clear threat to win right away. All the young talent means that tremendous growth is possible during the upcoming season. The non-conference schedule is loaded with difficulty, so patience might be required of Cardinal fans, but that patience could be rewarded come March when the combination of one of Stanford's best-ever players, a young post who might elevate herself into that same lofty stratosphere, and a passel of "now-we-get-it" underclassmen hits stride. Greatness is not guaranteed, however the possibility of magic is there, along with delicious uncertainty. Don't hesitate to take a bite, Cardinal fans. Uncertainty can be tasty.

We might as well start with what is gone, what is missing, and what slack must be picked up, because slack is indeed heaped in loops on the Cardinal carpet. Stanford lost two starters but it feels like more, perhaps because All-American F/C Brooke Smith did so many things so well and 6'5" F/C Kristen Newlin was such a calm, steady workhorse in the post. Together they averaged approximately 21 points and 15.5 rebounds per game and contributed 80 blocks along with consistently strong post defense. Smith was the team leader in assists with 120, and was one measly steal off the team lead of 44 (by Candice Wiggins). The 2006/2007 Stanford Cardinal was a glorious Age of Trees (VanDerveer Era, Wiggins Period, Post Epoch). A wayward comet did not kill them off (just the equally horrible graduation), in fact their lineage looks to be blossoming into the new Age of Appel, but undoubtedly the 2007/2008 Stanford Cardinal will be thinner and much less experienced inside.

The best possible news for Stanford fans is that summer basketball proved that the incandescently glorious Candice Wiggins has fully recovered from the ailments that turned last season into a painful one-legged slog for long stretches. She won gold medals with the USA U21 team and the USA Pan Am team, and impressed enough to come within the sheen of liniment on an aching Simone Augustus shoulder of making the USA Senior National Team for their winning trip to the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Barring undue misfortune, Wiggins should easily finish her career owning Stanford records for points (current record holder is 1997 Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Kate Starbird.), points per game (Wiggins is already the all-time leader), and three-pointers (Vanessa Nygaard is only two ahead.). She will almost certainly become the only four-time All-American in the Cardinal program's illustrious history.

Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer is cherishing every moment with her star guard. "Candice knows it's her last go-around and she really wants to maximize it. She is a really special person and a really special player," says VanDerveer. "I tease about the fact that I have to play the lottery, because it will be hard to coach without Candice. Bring the fans out - we have to enjoy every game we have with her." Stanford needs more from Wiggins than simple basketball brilliance; her ability to lead the team such that her younger teammates look to her but don't "defer" to her will be key. Like Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders, her task will be to bear the weight while her young teammates gradually take on more of the load. Unlike Atlas, her task should not last an eternity - until early April would be perfect.

This is not to imply that Wiggins will not have help. While one might not exactly call her vastly experienced, budding superstar and 2006/2007 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year sophomore F/C Jayne Appel will be the "Tree" around which Stanford's inside game will revolve. Appel averaged less than 20 minutes a game her freshman season and still managed 13.2 ppg on 53.8% shooting, 7.5 rpg, plus a school-record 61 blocked shots. Her 2007/2008 minutes will increase dramatically and so should her production. The scary thing, for her opponents), is that Appel could and should increase her shooting percentage. Gaudy numbers like 60% shooting, 20 ppg and 10 rpg are not at all out of Appel's impressive reach. Simply put, she has the chance to be one of the best (if not the very best) posts ever to play at Stanford. It will not be as easy as were the carefree days when helpful senior posts were available to lend a sisterly hand. Appel's new role will necessitate some adjustment. As The Woman in the middle, she cannot afford frosh-style lapses in concentration that can lead to unnecessary fouls, the bane of young posts everywhere. Declares VanDerveer, "She's just got to stay out there and [opponents] have got to deal with her." Dealing with Appel won't generally be a one-person job. Her strong passing skills will be challenged by opponents who will undoubtedly double- and triple-team her. If Appel can do as her predecessor Brooke Smith did and find her open teammates, it will be a huge boon to the team's fortunes and a big help towards keeping her relatively footloose and fancy free in the paint.

Appel and Wiggins may be wonderful, but they will need experienced help, which brings us to a player who seems to fit in wherever she is needed, junior F Jillian Harmon. "Our team in a lot of ways is built around Candice, Jillian, and Jayne - a guard, a forward and a center - those are your most experienced players," explains Tara VanDerveer. "That's kind of the backbone of the team. The good thing is anyone can fill in with them. If you put those three together with any others, you have a really nice team." It would not be a surprise to find Harmon, a player who has excelled at doing "the little things", with a more eye-opening role. Last season Harmon averaged 7.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 2.4 apg in about 29 minutes, stats fairly similar to her freshman campaign. Harmon is a tough and savvy player, capable of scoring baskets in bunches from almost everywhere on the court, but her outside shooting, while improved, has not been her forte…up to now. Happily, a summer of hard work has paid dividends. VanDerveer says of Harmon, "She runs the floor, she can defend, she's tough, she rebounds, she's really worked hard on her three. That is what separates her from greatness. I think she's been doing it. She's developing confidence in it and I'm developing confidence in her three." Harmon is a very good player who can do almost everything well. With a three-point shot to complete the package, she could be a star. A player like Jillian Harmon can also make a coach's life much easier. Roof leaking? Drain clogged? Freshmen confused on D? You know who to call.

We turn now to a player who made big strides last season. It may not quite have been "The Year of Cissy" as a Bootleg story once posited, but her growth as a player was one of the important stories of 2006/2007. Can senior G Cissy Pierce make that final leap (of course it will be a leap, and a fluid, athletic leap at that) that will elevate her play from solid role-player and sometime starter to force with which  to be reckoned? Pierce played sparingly during her first two seasons, partly due to injury issues. Last season she stayed healthy and was able to channel her exceptional athletic abilities into a larger role for the Cardinal, ultimately starting 17 games, averaging 4.9 ppg, and providing solid perimeter defense. She also wowed fans several times with offensive fireworks that included fine outside shooting. Pierce upped the ante impressively last season. Can she now keep up the level of play she exhibited in her best performances? "Cissy looks a little stronger to me," says Tara VanDerveer. "She knows what we are doing and she can really help. She is super athletic." We can't say that Stanford has one particular "X factor", but a confident Pierce able to threaten on offense and disrupt on defense might be a big one.

And now we leave the realm of the known Cardinal universe and venture boldly towards an issue that has bedeviled Stanford on and off for years, including the last two seasons. Who, we ask yet again, will be the Cardinal point guard? By now this yearly lament has become a plaintive wail. Stanford point guards are overdue for some luck on the health front. We can cautiously forecast good news for 2007/2008. Unlike the last two seasons, when freshmen were pressed into service and options were limited, this time Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer has a wealth of choices. She might not have all those choices available right away, since the incumbents from the previous two seasons are both returning from serious knee injuries, but there are at least four legitimate candidates, each bringing different strengths to the mix.

The freshman starter at point guard for most of the 2005/2006 season was junior G Ros Gold-Onwude, who racked up 117 assists (seventh in the Pac-10). Her per game averages were 5.1 ppg, 3.4 apg and 3.6 rpg (strong rebounding numbers for a point guard). She was a very good three-point shooter (39.1%), and proved to be an aggressive defender with quick hands. Her 1.6 assist/turnover ratio ranked third in the conference. Gold-Onwude missed all of the 2006/2007 season while rehabbing the second serious injury to the same knee she first injured in high school. Despite the temporary setback of a hamstring problem, she is reportedly ready to play and has been practicing very well. "Ros is going to be very interesting to watch, how she comes back. She looks really good," maintains VanDerveer. Her shot looks fabulous, her knee seems to be healed, and Cardinal fans eagerly await her return, whether as a point guard or an off- guard, since she could ably fill either role.

In 2006/2007, sophomore G JJ Hones was the (drum roll please) freshman starter at point guard until tearing her ACL in the first moments of a sad, painful, and generally icky home loss to California. Before the injury ended her season, she had been averaging 4.5 ppg and 3.9 apg (seventh in the Pac-10). Her superlative assist to turnover ratio of 2.81 led the conference. She never found a consistent shooting stroke, but did add several timely three-pointers. What she did best was run the team efficiently, getting the ball where it needed to go and keeping the Cardinal clicking. Her leadership was critical for the Cardinal during the stretches when Candice Wiggins was nursing injuries on the bench. Despite missing half of the Pac-10 season, Hones was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. Since the surgery to repair her torn ACL occurred in the spring and usually requires at least six to nine months of rehab time, the likelihood of Hones being 100% ready for the start of the season appears slim. She is progressing well in her rehab and might be able to begin practicing in a few weeks.

Once Hones was lost, sophomore G Melanie Murphy found vastly increased minutes at the point guard position, starting six games and playing well, especially considering her lack of experience to that point. Stats are not very useful because they commingle the games where she played a few mop-up minutes with those in which she started. Murphy exhibited a knack for finding seams to the basket, a nice pull-up jumper, and excellent passing skills. She only took one three-point shot, so the jury is out on how well she can shoot from long range. "Mel's been working hard on her three-point shot. She shot a lot of them over the summer," says VanDerveer. Expect Murphy to take and make, many more than one three this season.

So, those are the candidates for the job. The heretofore-unmentioned fourth candidate is obvious to anyone who has been following the Cardinal; Candice Wiggins has played point guard frequently over the past several years and undoubtedly will again, with the only question being how much or how little she is needed there. While it is still not ideal when Wiggins has to run the offense rather than run the other team ragged with her varied offensive attack, it does give Stanford a stable option that also frees up minutes for other line-up combinations. For instance, with Wiggins at the point the Cardinal could go big with Harmon and her improved three-point shooting at the "two", sophomore F Michelle Harrison at the "three", freshman F Kayla Pedersen at the "four", and Appel at the "five".

But given that life is generally sweeter with Wiggins at the other guard spot, who gets the gig at the point? The rehabbing Hones appears to be out of the running for the time being. Gold-Onwude has the edge in experience and could provide some sorely needed three-point shooting. The answer will depend on Gold-Onwude's health vs. how well Murphy can build on her late-season experience as she makes the always hoped for freshman to sophomore improvement. It may also depend on how well the rest of the team shoots from three-point range. If outside shooting is at a premium, Gold-Onwude may be favored. The ultimate answer is that there is no set answer. It will depend on the opponent, how the rest of the lineup shapes up, and how well players come back from injury. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, however, because the options for this season are numerous and good.

Our next big question mark follows from the inexperience of the Cardinal posts; who will back up Jayne Appel at center? The only other player on the roster with a C next to her name is junior F/C Morgan Clyburn. Because she was sitting behind all that post depth last season, Clyburn's few opportunities for meaningful minutes came when foul trouble blighted the Stanford post landscape. Her success in those moments (For example, she held her own in critical minutes to help the Cardinal win down at UCLA when Wiggins was out and the other posts were in foul trouble.) indicates that she might be ready for increased responsibilities). On offense, Clyburn has generally been set free to roam outside, where her shooting ability could be utilized, but she will be playing more on the block this season. If she can hold down the fort on defense and knock in the occasional shot, it would be a major contribution. The player most likely to back up Appel at center is acclaimed freshman F Kayla Pedersen, who is not destined to be a center, but who has the size and ability to fill in there if needed. No matter who is called upon, this is the least-experienced spot on the floor, and one where players may be asked to play out of position. How the Cardinal posts respond to the challenge will be critical to team success.

And now we meet another possible "X factor", Michelle Harrison, the sophomore forward with the exceptional hops and the pretty shot. Harrison played in every game in 2006/2007, averaging 11 mpg. She showed more than a few flashes of potential that made the Cardinal faithful sit up and take notice (or maybe they were just hoping for a dunk, who knows?). She skyed for rebounds, could to get to the rim, looked able to shoot from anywhere, and by the end of the season had improved her defense significantly. Her coach has noticed her efforts. "Michelle has had some real good spurts and just has to be more consistent," assesses Tara VanDerveer. "She has improved the most on the track of the returning players in terms of her conditioning. She knows what we are doing this year more and she is working really hard to do the right thing." Harrison is versatile enough to help on the wing or in the paint and should see big minutes at the "three" or "four" spots. How Michelle Harrison builds on her tantalizing frosh start could be one big "X factor" for Stanford.

Stanford's freshman class was very ranked highly by all the services that do such rankings. Scout.com and Hoopgurlz.com rankings (which were the same for the 2007 high school class) had F Kayla Pedersen a lofty #4, G Jeanette Pohlen #22, G Hannah Donaghe #45 and F Ashley Cimino #74. Blue Star ranked Pedersen #12, Cimino #16, and Pohlen #98, and all three participated in the McDonald's All-American game. Unfortunately Cimino, a tall, versatile forward who shoots exceptionally well and can play the "three", "four" or "five", is out of action for a while with a back injury. Her return date is uncertain.

Based on team needs and her skill-set, F Kayla Pedersen has the greatest chance of big minutes. In fact, according to Coach VanDerveer, Pedersen "will be playing and playing a lot". "Kayla is a player. She is big and strong, moves well, can play any different spot on the floor, and finishes inside," says VanDerveer, who calls Pedersen the best rebounder on the team. VanDerveer continues, "She might start or she would be a great sixth player because she could come in at the post or anywhere else-she could sub in at the three, four or five."

Freshman guard Jeanette Pohlen, who could play the "two", "three" or even a little "one", has impressed as well. VanDerveer cites Pohlen's physical play, toughness, and ability to hit shots. "She'll work both ends of the floor. She has a really good sense of the game, passes the ball well, defends-just a tough basketball player." Pohlen has been playing exceptional defense, and that, combined with her versatility (notice a trend here?), will help the Cardinal create the match-ups they want. "Jeanette helps us match up small. Jeanette can guard people. She could be a three, Jillian Harmon could be the four," Tara VanDerveer states. "Our freshmen give us versatility."

What has freshman guard Hannah Donaghe shown thus far in practice? VanDerveer describes, "Hannah is really quick, knocking down shots, passes the ball well. As she gets stronger, she can knock down shots. Leave her open and she can hit it." It may be hard for Donaghe to break into the line-up with two seniors ahead of her at the "two", but if she knocks down shots in games as she has in practice, she has a good chance of seeing some action.

The freshmen are not the only new faces to earn praise. Stanford has two new assistant coaches, Bobbie Kelsey and Kate Paye, whose names are very familiar to Cardinal fans. Coach VanDerveer is extremely pleased with what her former players bring to the coaching staff. "Some of our rookies that are doing really well are Kate and Bobbie. They make great corrections. Sometimes Bobbie's saying what I am thinking," she explains. "It's just a freshness, a newness, a different energy that's a real positive-a really good energy that I'm excited about. They're very involved in practice and very vocal. They were both part of a national championship team so that their standard is here - they remember."

Stanford will once again employ the Triangle offense (not solely, but frequently), which creates good spacing and isolates a post one-on-one. For the Triangle to work, a team needs a go-to player on the block. The Card certainly have that in Appel and newcomer Pedersen. In the Triangle, the "three" and "four" positions are the same, so the offense can also make good use of the versatility of players like Harmon, Harrison, Pedersen, and Pohlen.

Last year Stanford struggled at times running their Triangle offense because perimeter shooting was not strong. The players are well aware of this, and put forth much effort over the summer working on their shooting. Expect improvement from that labor, and also because last year's frosh are a year older, wiser, and more comfortable. Just having Gold-Onwude back improves Cardinal shooting prospects over last season. Pierce was somewhat streaky but shot a respectable 32.5% from three-point range in 2006/2007. A few percentage points higher and she is in business. Add to that Harmon's improvement and the very good shooting freshmen guards Pohlen and Donaghe have shown, and what has been an area of concern looks much brighter. While it may be unreasonable to expect several 40% three-point shooters to emerge, Stanford should field enough good long-range shooters to diversify the offense. Wiggins will not be the lone bomber again.

The word that keeps coming up regarding the latest incarnation of the Cardinal is versatility. The team will also be deep. All five of the returning guards (Wiggins, Pierce, Gold-Onwude, Hones, and Murphy) have started for the Cardinal. Add in freshmen Pohlen and Donaghe and the competition for playing time at guard will be fierce, especially with Wiggins guaranteed a big chunk. The group who will primarily play the "three" or "four" consists of Harmon, Harrison, Cimino (when she returns) and Pedersen, who will also back up Appel at center. This crew is not as crowded as are the guards, but features an experienced anchor in Harmon and lots of talent-once again, everyone will contribute. On the block, we will see Appel, Pedersen, and Clyburn, who could also play some forward. There will be no relaxing on the bench. Everyone should expect to play at any time. "This year is going to be about a lot of different people contributing and just being ready for when we need them," declares Tara VanDerveer.

So will this blend of established star power and versatile youth ultimately be a match made in heaven (otherwise known as the Final Four in Tampa)? Fans might spend their time taking up a collection to bubble-wrap Wiggins, fuss inordinately over every missed three, or lie awake at night worrying that officials might call an extra foul per half on Appel just to make it fair for the other team. They might look at all the youth and worry that, talented or not, things may not pan out so neatly, or might be slow to come together. That would be looking on the blue side. Do not go there. This season should be fun. It should be interesting. Embrace the uncertainty of youth. If they stick a fork in an electrical outlet or pull the cat's tail, be understanding. They will learn. The season is long. The schedule is hard. Indeed, the difficulty of the schedule is already a motivating force. The players know they have to be ready early. They are excited by the challenges before them. The fans should be too. They are in the wedding party after all, dressed in their best cardinal-colored attire and ready to drink a toast or two. So get ready to pop some bubbly. The Cardinal may take some detours along the way, but Tampa, here they come!


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