Pac-10 preview: The Northern California schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today, the final installment in the Pac-10 previews: the California Bears and the Stanford Cardinal.

Those looking for new blood at the top of the Pac-10 conference this year are out of luck.

That’s because both the California Bears and the Stanford Cardinal return virtually the same powerhouse teams that went to the NCAA second round and finished National runner-up, respectively, in 2007-08.

Cal, under fourth-year coach Joanne Boyle, return all five starters, including All-Pac-10 first team choices Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton. Only bench player Krista Foster is lost from last year.

Of course Stanford graduated All-American Candice Wiggins in 2008, and bench player Cissy Pierce is also gone. But four starters return, and one promising newcomer arrived with world-class credentials already in her pocket.

Pac-10 coaches picked Stanford to win its ninth consecutive conference title this year, but Cal was picked to finish second in the NCAA in Athlon’s pre-season poll and third by USA Today.
It’s going to be a fierce battle in Northern California for the top spot.

Boyle, who came to Cal from Richmond, wasted no time in taking a once-obscure program to the top of the list. She was named Pac-10 coach of the year in 2006-07, and that spring hired Stanford assistant coach Charmin Smith away from her alma mater and Tara VanDerveer, who has headed that program for 22 years.

Walker and Hampton, both forwards/centers, last year averaged 15.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg and 13.5 ppg and 8 rpg, respectively. Senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, an all Pac-10 second team selection, averaged 11.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg. Joining them in the back court are junior guards Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif.

New Bears this year are two guards: Angelei Aguirre of White Plains, NY and Casey Morris of Piedmont, CA. called Morris, who played with Ashley and Courtney Paris at Piedmont High School, “a shifty point guard with the ability to create shots for herself and for her teammates. Considered by most the top ’08 point guard in California.” As a junior, she averaged 21 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals per game, which sounds like a complete player to me. I look forward to seeing her on the court.

Stanford will see the return of formidable forwards Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen, who as underclasswomen last year, lead their team to the Big Dance with teammate Wiggins. Appel averaged 15 ppg and 8.8 rpg and Pedersen, 12.6 and 8.8.

Junior guard JJ Hones, senior forward Jillian Harmon and sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen are other top returning players. Junior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude is redshirting again this season, after redshirting the 2006-07 season with a knee injury. Melanie Murphy and Michelle Harrison are both also redshirting a second consecutive year this year with knee injuries.

The Cardinal have four freshmen this year, but perhaps most intriguing is Nneka Ogwumike of Cypress-Fairbanks High School in Cypress, TX. She lead her team to a state 5A championship last year. Then in July, Ogwumike lead the USA’s under-18 team to a gold medal at the FIBA world championships in Argentina, and was named tournament MVP. characterized Ogwumike as having great hands and great athleticism. “Her leaping ability, hang time and balance along with her great hands make her impossible to front without committing two players to her defensively. She can receive the ball in so many places and finish in a single, fluid motion. She is a handful inside. She can step out and shoot the three as well, and block shots and rebounds very well. Her next step is more with her back to the basket when people stop fronting her,” Scout wrote.

I sincerely hope that Cal-Stanford matchups are televised this season.