Stanford's Best Team?

Women's Basketball Contributing Correspondent Warren Grimes takes an assessment of the current Cardinal squad by Stanford basketball great Jennifer Azzi as his jumping off point for a look back and a look forward.

During the Pac-10 Tournament final against California, Stanford Hall of Famer Jennifer Azzi told a Fox Sports interviewer that this was Stanford's "best team in years." I agree, but I immediately thought to myself – how many years?

I'd say, at least 11 years. That was the year Stanford went 34-2, losing a heartbreaking overtime game in the NCAA semifinals to Old Dominion. Despite the bitter ending to a wonderful season (in which Stanford beat Tennessee by 17 points in Knoxville), and despite the lack of National Championship rings for those players, the 1996-97 team may have been the best ever. There are some interesting parallels and differences between the 1997 team and this year's version. But first, let me reintroduce the 1997 team.

At least 8 players from the 1997 team went on to play professional basketball, either in the US or abroad. And 6 or more of these players would be likely picks for a list of the fifteen best players to play for Tara-VanDerveer-led Stanford teams. First there's All-American Kate Starbird, the most efficient perimeter scorer ever to attend Stanford. In her final season, Starbird averaged 20.9 points per game (note this is a slightly higher average than Candice Wiggins had this year). Starbird's success was linked to her three point shooting (for the year, her 42.5% and 74 three-pointers put her at the top of the Pac-10 in both categories). Equally impressive, Starbird's overall field goal percentage in her last year (51.1%) is in a range usually associated with post players. Many of Starbird's conversions came off fast breaks led by Jamila Wideman. Starbird also led the league with her 82.2% free throw conversion rate and holds the Stanford record for most points per game (44 against USC).

In 1997, Jamila Wideman's senior point-guard leadership brought 5 assists and 8.4 points per game. Wideman was a natural leader who took to the point guard position in her freshman year, and never relinquished it. She was fast, great in transition, a fine passer, a great defender, and hit many a clutch perimeter shot. She was joined on the perimeter by the incomparable Vanessa Nygaard, another fine three-point shooter (at 36.7% that year) and a strong, tenacious rebounder and defender.

At the post positions, Stanford in 1997 had extraordinary depth. Led by Olympia Scott and Kristin Folkl, both excellent rebounders and fine interior scorers, Stanford terrorized many an opponent with its post play. Folkl, a volleyball leaper with a nose for the ball, played only the last 10 games of the season, but chalked up four double-doubles in those games. Over the course of the season, Olympia Scott was the second leading scorer on the team (16.2 points per game) and the leading rebounder (7.8 per game). Those post statistics sound relatively modest, but Stanford had two other outstanding post players who shared ample time on the floor: Naomi Mulitauaopele and Heather Owen. All four of these post players played somewhere after graduation, with Olympia Scott having the longest WNBA tenure.

Finally, there was the number one off-the-bench perimeter player: Charmin Smith. Charmin was not a prolific scorer, but she did just about everything else. She played back up point guard, she garnered many an assist, she defended, and she rebounded. In a critical mid-season Los Angeles game against a Tina Thompson-led USC, Wideman sat most of the game with a sprained ankle – Smith stepped up with 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists -- not bad for a substitute point guard. Smith's substantial WNBA career after graduation shows what kind of a player she was.

What I remember most about the 1997 team was its tenacious defense, its remarkable transition offense, and its steamrolling victories in the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament. Stanford ousted Howard in the first round, rolling up a 52-point margin. In the Sweet Sixteen game against Virginia, Stanford managed a mere 22-point margin – but then went on to win the regional final against powerhouse Georgia by a 35-point margin. Very impressive indeed.

The passionate defense and impressive margins of the 1997 team remind me of this year's Stanford team in the Pac-10 tournament. Tenacious defense, along with a developing balanced offense, have marked the 2007-2008 team as special. The defense produces stops and turnovers and really sparks a team in crucial games. If this year's team is to make it to the Final Four or beyond, the defense will be key.

There are some very encouraging parallels between Stanford 1997 and Stanford 2008, but there are also differences. Juniors and seniors dominated the 1997 team. This year, Candice Wiggins is the only senior in the end-of-season rotation. Two freshman and three sophomores are a part of that rotation. The 1997 team had more depth at the post, but none of the 1997 posts could play the dominating defense or offer the passing skills of Jayne Appel. This year's "paint girls" take a back seat to nobody, with Kayla Pedersen offering a variety of offensive skills. On the perimeter, the 1997 group had great diversity in offense with Starbird, Wideman, and Nygaard. At the start of this season, there was no comparable offensive diversity on Stanford's perimeter, but JJ Hones and Roz Gold-Onwude have developed their games to make the perimeter offensive threat more balanced. And then there is Candice Wiggins -- unique, gifted, motivated, and invaluable – simply the best ever.

But comparisons of two teams playing 11 years apart under different conditions and against quite different opponents are not all that meaningful. Basketball, it is said ad nauseum, is a game of matchups. Still, I hope the 2008 team will be inspired by the great teams that have gone before them, including the incomparable 1997 team. If Roz Gold Onwude and her mates play defense like Vanessa Nygaard and Charmin Smith . . . well maybe Jennifer Azzi was on to something.

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