The Year After Begins

The Cardinal return almost the entire team from the squad that crashed the Final Four party in Tampa in 2008. That "almost" is obviously the big issue. It's not hard to figure out what needs to happen for the team to make a return trip in 2009.

What must the Cardinal do to reach a second straight Final Four? With almost the entire team returning and several highly touted frosh added to what should be a deep and experienced roster, the main issue facing the Cardinal is how they transition to life without their All-Everything Energizer Bunny, Candice Wiggins. What combination of players will provide the punch at guard to balance an inside game that may turn out to be the finest in the country? And who will seize the leadership mantle? The central questions are obvious. There are a few fascinating and important ancillary dilemmas to puzzle out, such as how to integrate the plethora of fine forwards into the line-up and how to deploy the improved depth, but these quandaries pale before the chief concern – how hard will it be to win big without Wiggins?

Few recent seasons have had the forward-reaching impact that last season's exhilarating run to the championship game created. The long wait is past. The days of getting agonizingly close to a Final Four but not quite stepping trough the door are over. As excellent as all those Elite Eight finishes were, the accumulated "almosts" were becoming a bit of a burden. They were more like bashing one's head against a slammed door than cheerfully knocking in hopes of getting in on the party. The 2008 Final Four was both a joy and a relief. So before we look ahead, lets look back a little.

In Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer's mind the 21st century Final Four was not much different than it was the last time Stanford made the trip in 1997. Said VanDerveer, "It feels maybe a little more corporate. There were more television-type interviews. When it's all said and done, it's absolutely just a thrilling experience. I don't think anything beats it. Obviously winning is really the best, but it's absolutely thrilling every time."

Continued VanDerveer, "Last year's team was special. We just enjoyed the whole Final Four experience. I'm really proud of all the teams I've coached at Stanford. There have been so many teams that were so close to going to a Final Four. Three years in a row we were one basket away. Remember Krista Rappahahn's shot (against LSU in the 2006 Regional Final) when they called the charge on Candice (Wiggins)? Against Tennessee (2004 Regional Final) it was one possession. Remember the Michigan State year (2005 Regional Final loss), when T'Nae Thiel broke her foot (near the end of the season)? When you knock on the door enough you're going to get a chance and to get there is so exciting. Our team just thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a great time on the flight coming back from [the win over Maryland in the Regional Final]. We spent almost two hours in security for a charter. We got back at 3:00 in the morning. Ordinarily you'd be grumbling but we were as high as a kite. When people get along with each other and have the camaraderie you could see on the team, that makes it really special. Candice was just in [my office] yesterday talking about, ‘Was that a dream?' I said, ‘Well it was a good one!'"

As anyone who watched the Maryland game may suspect, that game was a special one for the Cardinal coach. When asked for the Final Four moments that stood out most for her, VanDerveer stated, "I guess when we knew we were going at the end of the game when we beat Maryland. To see Candice coming down the court, shaking her head and crying - that and probably just being on the court with the whole team at that moment. Playing that Maryland game, I think that was my favorite game of the whole year. But that's hard to say because beating Tennessee at home was awesome, beating Connecticut was awesome. Maybe it would also be just sitting with the players while we were waiting to go to the media room. There were five of them and they just sat in a circle, just this tight circle and you could see why we were going because of how close they were."

The championship game was less than lovely for the Cardinal. They did not play up to the soaring standard they maintained in their previous NCAA games. In particular the smothering and athletic Tennessee press gave the Stanford guards fits. Some have wondered whether the manner in which the Cardinal lost portends struggles to come, that opponents may all press and squeeze the Card like freshly made orange juice. But not all teams are Tennessee. "We didn't have a little trouble (with that press); we had a lot of trouble. I'm really proud of our team. It's hard because 300 other teams wish they were in that game. We worked really hard to get there. There might have been some things that we could have done. As an example, lets say we bring in guys that are really athletic and we work against a press. But then we're risking Candice (Wiggins) or Jayne (Appel). Sometimes you might do things but there is a downside," explained VanDerveer. "At that point we were playing our third huge game in eight days and we're playing Tennessee. Maybe it was a bad thing that we beat Tennessee in December. Maybe they wrote that date on their shoes or something. We didn't play well. We missed lay-ups. It was an extremely physical game. It had not been that physical all through the tournament but in that particular game it was. You look out there at Tennessee and you see Candace Parker, who just won WNBA MVP; Shannon Bobbitt, who plays for [the LA Sparks]; Alexis Hornbuckle, who's playing (for the Detroit Shock); along with Nicky Anosikie (who starts for the Minnesota Lynx). Jayne was sick for that game. One of the carrots for our team throughout the whole tournament was, ‘Let's play another game!' Well guess what, there is not another game. We'd come over after every timeout and Ros (Gold-Onwude) would say, ‘Tara, we know. We have to take care of the ball.' It was just not our day that day. And credit Tennessee. They were extremely aggressive. They were extremely physical. But it was so affirming for us, just the fact that they're really good kids, they're really good students, they really cared about each other. You get in the locker room after the game and I ask if anyone has anything to say. Candice says, ‘This is the team I want to play on. I'm proud of playing with you. I wouldn't trade it for anything.' What could beat that?"

"If you said to me last year at this time, ‘You are going to be 35-4 and be in the national championship game, take it or leave it,' I'd have taken it in a heartbeat. I think this year's challenge is to remember in the back of our minds what it felt like, how much fun it was and how hard we worked for it. We need to remember what went into making it so good – that it was hard work, that it was sacrifice and unselfishness, and that it was total team focus. And we had a phenomenal player come on. Candice improved so much. Even though she was a four-time All American, she improved from the beginning of the year when she fouled out at Utah and had a bad game there. But she really believed in herself and took the team with her. The leadership we had on our team was really huge. To learn from the good things that we did is key, but not to have any expectations. It's a zero-zero game. We're starting off from scratch. What I notice already though is the pace of things. People are playing at a faster pace. We just have to do it a different way. I'm hoping we have a bigger rotation. I'm hoping we are able to do some different things, whether it's a press, whether it's play more zone, or maybe we'll be a bigger team sometimes. We're going to be deeper as long as we keep people healthy. Keep the good things and realize we lost a great, great player. The challenge will be, ‘Hey was it Candice or was it Stanford?'"

The guard play will be heavily scrutinized post-Wiggins. "We have a lot returning at guard. First of all, I think the Olympics for Jill (Harmon) was great," noted VanDerveer. "The experience that she had playing in the Olympics, the confidence she got, will help her. We have to keep her off her feet a little because she's been playing so much. Her shot looks great. She understands that in order for her to be a complete player [shooting the ball well] has got to be what she does. We know she can defend. We know she hustles and rebounds. She's improved and her confidence is really a big part. Jeanette (Pohlen) – you can tell she's been working hard. JJ (Hones) looks great. Mel (Murphy) is much better. Mel does the best job against Tennessee's pressure but obviously we didn't have her. And who knows? Hannah (Donaghe) can shoot the ball really well. She didn't have any opportunity last year because Candice was there. Ros (Gold-Onwude) is a little slowed because she was in a car wreck this summer. She's doing well but she's not where she was. When I watch the video of her, how she finished last season – she can D it up. She hit some huge shots for us in the NCAA tournament. Then you have the two freshmen Lindy (La Rocque) and Grace (Mashore). Lindy shoots from way off the [three-point line]. She's a bomber. We're very excited about Lindy and Grace as freshmen. Lindy can really, really shoot. Our fall conditioning has gone really well. You can only go one step at a time."

At point guard, junior JJ Hones (6.6 ppg, 3.2 apg) has cemented herself as the floor general for the Card. By the end of last season one could make a good case for Hones as the best point guard in the Pac-10. Melanie Murphy, who has started several games over the past couple of seasons, comes back from an ACL tear with the potential to see significant minutes backing up Hones. Freshman Grace Mashore rounds out the point guard group. The primary candidates to take over for Wiggins at the "2" would be Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (5.0 ppg, 2.2 apg), a frequent starter and strong defender with a knack for hitting big shots, and Jeanette Pohlen (4.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.9 apg), who contributed in the primary rotation last year and appears to have the ability to increase her scoring output in her second season. Pohlen can also help out at point guard. Freshman Lindy La Rocque is a three-point shooting threat, as is sophomore Hannah Donaghe. Stanford could also go big and play forward Jillian Harmon at guard more.

The center position is straightforward, baring any early-season lingering injury issues. Junior Jayne Appel (15.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 84 blocks, 2.8 apg, 58.8 FG%) has deservedly made all the usual pre-season All-American lists and will be the anchor inside. Appel was efficient, powerful and versatile as a sophomore even while containing her aggression to avoid fouls. She has been slowed by pre-season knee surgery but is expected to be back for the first game in mid-November. Frosh Sarah Boothe is starting out well and could provide strong back-up minutes. Senior Morgan Clyburn is out of action for a while as she rehabs from foot surgery. In a pinch, forwards Kayla Pedersen or freshman Nneka Ogwumike could fill in at center.

Forward is a happy but dizzying jumble. Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Kayla Pedersen (12.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg) was the starter at the "4" last season and did a brilliant job. It is inconceivable that she not start and play the "4" a lot. Nneka Ogwumike comes in as the National Gatorade Player of the Year and is best suited to the "4" as well. It is inconceivable that she not start and play the "4" a lot. If the unimaginable occurs, one of those two might have to play the "3." But senior Jillian Harmon (6.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) has been a longtime starter at the "3" and is coming off a summer as a New Zealand Olympian. It is inconceivable that she doesn't start and play the "3" a lot. Throw in talented players coming off injuries such as Michelle Harrison and Ashley Cimino, and the mind boggles. And yes, inconceivable means what I think it means. This is why a team needs four coaches. Even a Hall of Fame member like Tara VanDerveer might need extra brainpower to unravel the rotation at forward. The possibilities certainly have The Bootleg delightedly baffled.

VanDerveer reflected back on last season when thinking about the posts. "Last year credit Jayne. I don't think she fouled out one time. Kayla and Jayne were phenomenal – not just good, but phenomenal. To play those two players basically 39.5 minutes every single game and for them to keep their concentration like they did… I think they are going to get better. Kayla can play some "3." We can bring in Sarah and Nneka. Michelle should be healthy and be in that mix. It will allow Jayne and Kayla to rest. It's going to challenge them to be better. We're going to be able to be a more physical, aggressive team. But when it's all said and done, we'll probably play seven or eight people. In the beginning we can look at more but it's just who is going to really help us. We're never going to have a twelve-player rotation. That's just not going to happen. But it's really open to a lot of different people to get those spots. I see our practices as being more competitive. But at the same time, we can bring in guys and we'll do that too. We're also hiring a new strength and conditioning coach, which could be a real key for us."

"I am really impressed with both Sarah and Nneka right now, like really impressed with them, like wow," offered VanDerveer about her frosh bigs. "Sarah, first of all, is much faster than I thought she was going to be. She has great footwork. She's big and she loves to be on the block. She is going to be the best thing for Jayne and Jayne is going to be the best thing for her. Those two are going to really push each other. And Nneka gives us an athleticism inside that we haven't had since Olympia Scott. She is fast! When we run our sprints, she can be winning them. She is fast and she can jump. Her hands are huge. And she seems so receptive. They are both really smart. Those two are really going to make a difference. Nneka and Sarah change the whole dynamic inside."

Although several players are rehabbing from injuries, including both Jayne Appel and Michelle Harrison from surgery to repair Meniscus tears, VanDerveer does not anticipate that anyone will miss significant time early in the season except perhaps Morgan Clyburn, who is coming along nicely after extensive foot surgery over the spring and summer. Stanford opens the regular season at home against Minnesota on November 14th after two exhibitions at home on November 1st and 7th. The non-conference schedule is very challenging, with home dates against Rutgers and Minnesota and road games against Tennessee, Duke, Purdue and Iowa State, among others.

Proclaimed Tara VanDerveer, "We all know what it felt like and how good it felt. You want it again. We're going to be challenged. Look at the schedule we're playing! Let's just get people to come and bring their friends. Lets get the place rocking! Come check out the freshmen. See how much everyone has improved. Let's see what we've got. It's going to be fun!"

Yes, it will be fun. And the possibility of another Final Four excursion is very, very real. Many of the top teams from last year lost several key players. There are few sure bets, unlike last year when a cadre of six or seven teams seemed to be clearly ahead of the pack. Even after losing Wiggins, Stanford looks to be one of the favorites and the very difficult schedule may again forge the toughness that can carry a team through the NCAA battles. If you did not hop on the train last season, now is a good time to grab your bags and snag that passing caboose.

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