VanDerveer's new-look Stanford roster ready to run
When Tara VanDerveer told her players to get on the baseline, Chiney Ogwumike figured the Cardinal were about to run sprints. Instead, the Hall of Fame Stanford coach began teaching the proper technique of a jab step.
It seemed so basic. Yet Ogwumike and her senior sister, Nnemkadi, know that each tiny detail and fundamental could make the difference come March for a young roster featuring six freshmen.
After all, these two both spent the summer working to become better midrange threats by perfecting their 15-foot jump shots. They should be getting their share of lay-ins, too, for what VanDerveer expects to be one of her most up-tempo and talented running teams yet.
She will get to see for the first time Friday night, when the fifth-ranked Cardinal open the season at No. 24 Texas.
Forget that image of the typical Stanford team setting up its half-court offense and pounding the ball inside to the posts. VanDerveer's new-look lineup can run the floor and defend full-court. What a change for the school's 26th-year coach, who last season joined the elite 800 wins club and then in August was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
''Now we're looking at our team and going: `Wow, these guards are quick. We can break people down, we can do more pick and roll, they can handle the ball in traffic,'' VanDerveer said. ''Athletically, it just feels like we're so much at the other end of athleticism, where we're like, `OK, wow, they've got this quickness, how do we deal with quickness?'''
This might be the star sisters' last shot playing together, and they plan to do all they can to bring home that elusive national championship - for VanDerveer, for everybody. Stanford hasn't won it all since capturing the 1992 NCAA title despite reaching the last four Final Fours.
Last spring, the Cardinal fell 63-62 to eventual champion Texas A&M in the national semifinals. That made for the fourth tough flight home from the Final Four in as many years.
''The most important thing to me, although it was a heartbreaking loss, it put a lot of things in perspective,'' Chiney said. ''In basketball, at the end of the year, there's only one team that's going to come out winning. Whatever happens this year, it's going to be a journey. This may be the last time I play with her, this may not be. Nneka and I are experiencing it as the best year we can make it as possible.''
The opener Friday marks the start of yet another daunting non-conference schedule that also includes games with Gonzaga, Old Dominion, Xavier, Tennessee, and, of course, Connecticut. The Cardinal will travel East to take on the Huskies on Nov. 21 after snapping top-ranked UConn's record 90-game winning streak with a thrilling 71-59 victory at Maples on Dec. 30.
''It's going to be tough early but I'm very confident,'' VanDerveer said.
Nneka Ogwumike led the Cardinal in scoring at 17.5 points per game last season, while conference freshman of the year Chiney scored 11.7 per game and shared the Cardinal's rebounding lead with an 8.0 average on the boards.
The Ogwumikes want to make their likely last hurrah together special.
''I cannot believe that,'' Nneka said of being a senior. ''I'm like the last person (still here).''
Stanford went 33-3 last season and 17-0 at home, where the Cardinal are riding a school-record 63-game winning streak. That run will be tested for the first time Sunday against Gonzaga.
The 11-time reigning Pac-10 champion is favored to capture the inaugural Pac-12 crown, with Bay Area neighbor California doing its best to make a push in new coach Lindsay Gottlieb's first season.
''We know that we're capable of it,'' Nneka Ogwumike said of getting back to the Final Four and once again chasing a championship. ''It's a long way away, but every day we think about what we really want and the journey to get there. We work hard every day to make that journey worthwhile.''
With so many new faces, the Cardinal have been working to develop a chemistry during the early weeks - something that never needed much work in recent years. The Ogwumikes, who have two younger sisters back home in Texas, have done their part to help the freshmen along.
Stanford lost Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen from last season's Final Four team.
''It's different from last year, when we had several upperclassmen and things were kind of set in stone,'' Nneka said. ''You don't really know what's going to happen. It also helps me to be able to step up and kind of coach people myself because you have to have people on the court who know what they're doing to be able to get people to know what they're doing.''
That also has meant more teaching and nurturing for VanDerveer, who said there were plenty of tears in practice early on while bringing along all the new players.
''It's been interesting to see two sides of Tara,'' Chiney said, ''which is pretty neat because it shows she's willing to do whatever it takes to make us a team and build a team.''