Young Stanford gears up for another deep March run
Tara VanDerveer is largely in observation mode right now.
She is teaching and coaching fundamentals, and more so than ever. That's just how it goes with six freshmen on the roster. The Hall of Fame Stanford coach has spent her share of time during the early days of practice simply watching to gauge what each of them brings to the 11-time reigning Pac-10 champions, who will be the favorites to capture the inaugural Pac-12 crown.
''It's fun. I'm enjoying every day in practice,'' VanDerveer said Tuesday. ''We'll go to do drills and I'll get blank looks and say, 'You don't know this drill,' and I tell the freshmen to go to the back of the line.''
What a difference from recent seasons, when the Cardinal were experienced and game-ready from the start of fall workouts. This young bunch must get up to speed in a hurry with the season opener at Texas only 3 1/2 weeks away.
A fifth straight Final Four is the mission in star Nnemkadi Ogwumike's senior season - with one more big step still to take. The Cardinal have fallen short of that elusive NCAA championship in their past four trips and the program hasn't won a title since 1992.
''It's always on our minds because it's all we know,'' Ogwumike said.
Stanford, which heads into this season riding a school-record 63-game home winning streak at Maples Pavilion, lost 63-62 to Texas A&M in the national semifinals last spring.
VanDerveer, who in August was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, does all she can this time of year to prepare her players for the pressures of late March.
She has set up another NCAA tournament-like preseason schedule: 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.
Forget a traditional Stanford model with this year's team. VanDerveer plans an up-tempo, run-the-floor style - and has the backcourt talent and depth to do it.
''This is a different mold. We're not fitting in that mold,'' VanDerveer said of past teams. ''It's really a different team to look at than almost any team I can think of. We're looking at our team, like, 'Wow, these guards are quick.' We can break people down, we can do more pick-and-roll, they can handle the ball in traffic differently and better than other point guards.''
Several freshmen could play regular minutes.
There are big holes to fill after the Cardinal lost Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen.
Ogwumike has been reminding her teammates they must outwork people this season while dealing with any growing pains that come with new faces finding their way once the ball is tipped.
There's been some much-needed nurturing from VanDerveer, too. These newcomers tend to become emotional at times, nothing out of the ordinary if you ask VanDerveer but there are six of them adjusting to the demands of college life.
''Every day somebody's eyes are watering up,'' she said. ''It's really, really different. I was talking to Nneka and she said, 'It's overwhelming.'''
VanDerveer said she gained some perspective by watching the documentary, ''Buck.'' It's the story of a hard-to-do horse whisperer named Buck Brannaman, who compares his successful approach to horses with a dance.
''I just tell them, 'You've got to get tough,''' VanDerveer said. ''That movie has helped me. I'm like: 'OK, I've got to do the kid gloves a little bit. I've got six freshmen. Don't have the vein popping out the first day.'''
But VanDerveer does have the job of determining who is going to play - and those are key questions at this stage.
''Who's our point guard, who's our 2, who's our 3?'' VanDerveer said. ''Who's our first one off the bench? A lot of things, they haven't shaken down.''
VanDerveer has some help from Ogwumike.
''I just have a motherly kind of characteristic,'' said Ogwumike, the oldest of four girls, including sophomore sister and teammate, Chiney. ''It's my personality. I think these little six freshmen it's almost like, 'Oooh, yay!' I get so excited because it's like they're my six little babies. I love helping them out. It's a lot of fun.''