Pac-12 preview: Stanford University

This is the seventh of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Fans said of last year’s Cardinal team that, after so many years of “almosts,” that the 2010-2011 team was the one that could finally win a championship. They were so deep and so finely-attuned to each other, and what was more, they were peaking at season’s end. Sure they could do it. They could beat UConn, like they had in December when they snapped their 90-game winning streak, and win a title.

But Texas A&M shocked Stanford and the rest of the country by upsetting them at the Final Four, in the semifinals. Once again, the Cardinal returned home from the tournament empty-handed.

How soon they will be able to bounce back to contender form depends upon the ability of the returners and the six incoming freshmen to step up.

The loss of the team’s second and third-leading scorers in Jeannette Pohlen (14.5 ppg) and Kayla Pedersen (12.6 ppg) is huge. Both took turns anchoring Stanford during crisis times over the years, and it was Pohlen’s performance last season that propelled the Cardinal in their dominating, streak-busting win over the Huskies.

Stanford still has two huge things going for them, though, in the form of the Ogwumike sisters, who are arguably the head and heart of the team.

Nnemkadi, the quieter of the two, is the type to just lower her shoulder and get it done – and then help analyze the game afterward. Last year as a junior she averaged 17.5 points and pulled down 7.6 rebounds per game.

Chiney, a sophomore this season, is the wide-eyed, animated Ogwumike who tends to be verbal during games. When the Cardinal won the Pac-10 Tournament last year, she walked out of Staples Center with teammates to get lunch wearing the net around her neck. She was Stanford’s fourth-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game for the season, and she was the team-high rebounder with eight per contest.

With Nnemkadi headed into her senior year, the two sisters are poised to go off. Their tendency to play off one another, and for one to step up when the other is slowed, will only be amplified. And hopefully their leadership will help bring along their young teammates.

The Cardinal have a trio of bench players who could become formidable starters this year. Possibly the brightest is Tony Kokenis, a sophomore who blossomed at the end of last season enough to start two games. In the Pac-10 Championship game, she put up a career-high 17 points. If Kokenis has put in work in the off-season, she could be a force this year.

Junior forward Joslyn Tinkle (5.5 ppg) could step from under the Pedersen shadow and make the flashes of brilliance she showed at the 2009 WBCA All-Star game a continuous thing. Sarah Boothe, a redshirt junior forward/center, could take over under the basket for a team that has been without a permanent center since Jayne Appel graduated.

Lindy La Rocque will likely run the point again this year, but the senior will have to step up her game (3.9 ppg) if she wants to keep Kokenis (5.3 ppg) from stealing her spot. Guard Sara James (2.2) also needs to become of a scoring threat.

Newcomers include 6-foot-2 Southern California forward Bonnie Samuelson, who was a McDonald’s All-American last spring; Northern California stand out Erica Payne, a 6-foot-2 forward; 5-foot-7 guard Amber Orrange of Texas – another McDonald’s All-American selection; 6-foot-3 forward Taylor Greenfield of Iowa; 5-foot-9 guard Alex Green of Texas; and Jasmine Camp, a 5-foot-7 guard from Georgia.

It’s not quite rebuilding, but it’s close. And of course Coach Tara VanDerveer has a great game plan, including partnering players together for skill development. There’s no doubt that when the season starts, we will see Stanford basketball on the court.

But the Cardinal have their work cut out for them this year.