Pac-12 preview: Stanford University

This is the third in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Stanford fans are used to seeing their team on top. Coach Tara VanDerveer, who enters her 27th year this season, has produced a dynasty of sorts, leading the Cardinal to the Final Four each of the last five years.

This season may take a sharp departure from that pattern, however, as Stanford struggles to reload. Gone are four graduates – the most notable being three-time All-American Nneka Ogwumike, who is worth at least three players for all that she did for the team.

Last year Ogwumike was her team’s top scorer (20.5 ppg) and leading rebounder (10.2 rpg). She was also the motivator; the one who inspired her team to work hard by her example; the one who encouraged and provided positive reinforcement. Not to mention all the little things she did on the court besides score and grab boards.

Filling the shoes of such a complete player is the tallest of orders, and the Cardinal may not have the remedy just yet.

Nneka’s sister, junior Chiney Ogwumike, (15 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is a good start. Stanford also returns junior guard Toni Kokenis (9.5 ppg), who emerged at the end of her freshman year and continues to grow as a player. Senior forward Joslyn Tinkle (8.7 ppg) is back, as is the fourth starter, sophomore point guard Amber Orrange, who seems to have much potential.

VanDerveer changed the offense last year when it became obvious that the young Orrange had a knack at the point. She ended up starting the last two-thirds of the season, and made an impression at the Pac-12 Tournament.

But after the starting five, the Cardinal ranks are thin.

Gone are key reserves Lindy La Rocque and Sarah Boothe. Sophomore forwards Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield return, as does junior guard Sara James and sophomore forward Erica Payne. But none of the four averaged over 4.6 points per game last year. They had their chances, but Nneka Ogwumike played most of every game because she had to. She was the only reason the Cardinal were at last year’s Final Four. It was one of the best-kept secrets of the tournament.

The rest of the Stanford squad is young. Two redshirt freshmen are ready to play: Jasmine Camp, a 5-foot-7 guard and Alex Green, a 5-foot-9 guard. Redshirt junior Mikaela Ruef, a 6-foot-3 forward, also returns.

There are also four true freshmen: 6-foot-3 forward Alyson Beebe; 5-foot-6 guard Denia Ebersole; 5-foot-10 guard Kiran Lakhiam; and 6-foot-5 forward/center Tess Picknell. Only Beebe was ranked in high school, yet she won’t play this season due to a knee injury sustained over the summer.

Besides the youth of the team, another challenge for the Cardinal may be lack of a true center. Ogwumike, Tinkle, Samuelson and Payne are the only players over six feet tall with experience, and none is a center. Picknell is the tallest on the team, but won’t likely be ready to step into the center role her first year.

Another issue will be finding someone to rebound. Tinkle averaged 5.4 last year and Samuelson, an anemic 1.2. Chiney Ogwumike won’t be able to get all the rebounds for the Cardinal; others will have to step up. But will they?

Stanford’s preseason schedule is set up as if they are still championship contenders. They will face Baylor, Gonzaga, South Carolina, Tennessee and Connecticut before beginning conference play. It should be interesting, to say the least, to see how they’ll do against such opponents.

VanDerveer is a Hall of Fame coach, and one of the smartest in the business. No doubt she has a plan for rebuilding what is almost a brand new team.

But Stanford fans will have to remember – especially this year – that sometimes things take a while to be put back together.