This year's team, however, is hardly the first to be pegged as a favorite. Stanford's 1996-97 edition included three-time Kodak All-American Kate Starbird, not to mention Jamila Wideman, Olympia Scott, Vanessa Nygaard and a bunch of other talented post players. That team beat Tennessee in Knoxville and finished pre-tournament play with only a single loss – to Old Dominion in a December game back in Virginia. Toward the end of the Pac-10 season, Stanford's status as a favorite was cemented when Coach Van Derveer convinced the exceptional Kristin Folkl to rejoin the team. With Starbird, Folkl and friends leading the way, that team steamrolled through the first four tournament games, winning by domineering margins. In the Final Four semi-final game, Stanford was upended in a hard-fought overtime loss to Old Dominion, the only team it lost to all season. It was a frustrating end, but this was a truly memorable team that left its mark as one of the best ever.
There are striking parallels between the two Stanford teams, but also some notable differences. Both teams had depth at the post, only to see that depth limited by injuries (to Naomi Mulitauaopele in ‘97 and to Joslyn Tinkle on this year's team). Both had excellent guard play. The ‘97 edition was led by Wideman, Starbird, and Charmin Smith: Kate Starbird led the conference with 42.5% from beyond the arc, and Nygaard finished sixth with 36.75%. This year's team is on pace to exceed the ‘97 squad in perimeter shooting. After six games, the team is collectively shooting 35.2% on three-pointers, with Pohlen at 46.9%, Pedersen at 44.4% and Hones at 37.5%. Free throw shooting was another strength for the ‘97 team – Starbird was again the conference leader with 82.2%. This was a weakness for last year's team, but the first six games suggest substantial improvement. Pohlen has shot 100% so far (11-of-11) and Pedersen is hitting at an 82.6% clip (19-of-23), slightly above Starbird's pace.
Now to the differences – the combination of Starbird and Wideman was hard to beat at guard. Wideman had speed, leadership, and great ball-handling and assist-making skills. And Starbird finished the year as the team's top scorer, averaging 20.9 points per game, second in the conference. This year's guards have the assist and three point shooting skills to compete, but they are still less proven than the Starbird/Wideman duo (reinforced by Charmin Smith). I'm not betting against the Pohlen/Hones/Gold-Onwude group – just waiting to see.
The ‘97 wing was Vanessa Nygaard, a superlative player who went on to make a career in the WNBA, but I'd still take Kayla Pedersen for her versatility, basketball smarts, and ability to do just about everything, playing just about every position, extremely well. After six games, Pedersen is in the running for Most Improved Player, leading the team in scoring and minutes played, and substantially improving her three-point and free-throw percentages.
At the post, there are superlatives all around, with Olympia Scott playing for many years in the WNBA and Kristin Folkl leaving her own indelible mark on the program. As good as Scott, Folkl and supporting cast were, how could anyone bet against Jayne Appel and Nneka Ogwumike? Appel, slowed a bit by illness and her recovery from off-season surgery, is still leading the team in blocks and rebounds (and even more so when rebounds per minute played are calculated). And she is third in assists, after Pohlen and Hones. Appel is our point-center extraordinaire, and a strong candidate for National POY. Right now, she's third in scoring, but that could change. She can dominate the post like no other player in Stanford's history.
Then there's Ogwumike, the second nominee for Most Improved Player. Ogwumike is so much fun to watch, it's almost as if the statistics don't matter. But for what it's worth, Ogwumike is averaging 19.5 points per game, just behind Pedersen, and 9.1 boards per game, just behind Appel. Ogwumike's 62.9% field goal percentage is the best on the team. And she is now an outside shooting threat.
So is all of the press attention to Stanford warranted? Absolutely. This year's Stanford edition is better overall than the great team of 1996-97 and, notwithstanding the loss of Jillian Harmon, better than last year's team. That improvement is, pending the recovery of freshman Joslyn Tinkle, due solely to improvements in the veteran players. This year's team is, after six games, shooting threes better (35.2% versus 32.5%), shooting free throws better (72.3% versus 67.1%), getting more assists per minute (.098 versus .094) and even getting more boards per minute (.24 versus .22). So let's get on with the season, and play each game like it matters – like it did against Old Dominion back in the spring of 1997.
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