The Best-Ever Tara VanDerveer

Stanford women's basketball is immensely fortunate to have a Hall-of-Fame coach who this season joined the 700-win club. Contributing Correspondent Warren Grimes thinks this season may have been Tara VanDerveer's finest yet.

This has been Tara VanDerveer's finest hour. Not to belittle Tara's past accomplishments – they are quite remarkable. Prior to this season, Tara had led her Stanford team to five Final Fours. In two of those years, her teams put on national championship rings (1990 and 1992). Tara has also coached USA women's basketball to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1996. But in terms of the degree of difficulty factor, none of these past achievements compare with getting Stanford to the end game of the 2008 edition of the NCAA Tournament.

To be sure, Tara had not a little help in getting there. Most prominently, all-everything Candice Wiggins is the best player ever to put on a Stanford uniform. And sophomore center Jayne Appel is the most dominating post to play at Stanford. The list does not end here – there were quite a number of other players who made major contributions to the team's 35-4 season. And there is the extremely capable staff of assistants, led by Associate Head Coach Amy Tucker, who were a part of the success.

So what's the big deal about this season? To begin with, the opponents that this year's Stanford team played and dispatched (with 4 exceptions) were, as a group, substantially better than opponents the 1990 and 1992 championship teams played. The pool of talent for women's college basketball has grown, and with it the quality of the competition. Coaching has also become more competitive. Geno Auriemma, for one, was not a marquee name in the early 1990s.

The 1990s teams never had to play the likes of this year's back-to-back games against the University of Maryland, Connecticut, and Tennessee, all number one regional seeds in the tournament (Connecticut was the overall number one seed). These teams, each of them favored over Stanford, had bigger, quicker players with more refined basketball skills than most of the top teams two decades ago. This year's Stanford edition had a 2-1 tournament record (and a 3-2 overall record) against these formidable opponents.

Then there's the refined triangle offense that Coach VanDerveer fine-tuned over the course of this season. By the time of the tournament, the team's spread out offensive set, with accurate and well-timed passing, was the best I've ever seen from a Stanford team. It was a pleasure to watch, and brought lop-sided victories to the very end. Tennessee proved that the team's coordinated offense could be disrupted by a group of impassioned and athletic players (five of Tennessee's players have just been selected in the WNBA draft) – but that disappointing finale in no way undermines the remarkable team-oriented offense that this year's Stanford team featured. Tara's team consisted of only one senior and one junior in the seven-person rotation, and it is doubtful that, even with additional experience and improved skills, five of them will end up as high selections in the WNBA draft.

Team chemistry was a part of the 2008 success. VanDerveer had a special affinity with star player Candice Wiggins and, together with the team, they weathered the dark January weekend in Los Angeles when Stanford dropped successive games to mid-tier Pac-10 opponents UCLA and USC. The team's ability to bounce back from that weekend to a late season peak may be attributed in part to the coach's ability to relate to her players and draw out the best in them. As a people person, the Tara VanDerveer of 2008 is well ahead of the 1992 version.

There are a lot of negatives associated with coaching high profile college athletics. The money can be very good, but the pressure very substantial. There are know-it-all critics who second-guess your decisions, petty fans who tolerate nothing short of "total victory," and the never-ceasing competition of recruiting prize high school athletes. To survive in this environment, one has to have a dedication and single-mindedness. It can't hurt to love teaching, to care about your players and your staff, and to love the game. Tara VanDerveer has all of those qualities.

Next year will bring new challenges. In the Post-Wiggins era, there will be no single player who can do what the four-time All-American has done. But there are new players and veterans coming back from injury to offer a variety of choices that can be blended into a fine perimeter team. In the post positions, with McDonald's All American Nneka Ogwumike joining the team, Stanford could well have the best post rotation in the country. There's no telling what the team's record will be. But they will be coached by the best Tara VanDerveer ever.


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