Pac-12 preview: Stanford University

This is the ninth in a series previewing the Pac-12 teams

Each of the last few years, as Stanford has graduated players and reloaded with a little less ammunition, the question has been: can they keep up the tradition of dominance? The one that has earned them most of the Pac-12 titles in the history of the conference tournament, and five consecutive Final Four appearances from 2008-2012?

The question remains the same this season.

Second-leading scorer Joslyn Tinkle graduated last spring. Then the Cardinal were hit with bad news over the summer, when junior guard Toni Kokenis (7.7 ppg) was forced to take a medical retirement after sustaining too many concussions. Last month redshirt freshman Aly Beebe medically retired after tearing her Anterior Cruciate Ligament for a third time. Kokenis was the team’s fourth-leading scorer, and provided a spark on the court with her inspired play.

Star senior forward Chiney Ogwumike (22.4 ppg, 12.9 rpg) will lead Stanford, as she did last year, and junior Amber Orrange (10.8 ppg) has been solid at point guard since her freshman year. The other returning starters – senior guard Sara James (5.3 ppg) and senior forward Mikaela Ruef (4.2 ppg) – score much less, as does the rest of the team.

Other junior returnees are forward Bonnie Samuelson (5.4 ppg), forward Taylor Greenfield (3.9 ppg) and forward Erica Payne (1 ppg). Redshirt sophomores Alex Green and Jasmine Camp will play this year, as will forward/center Tess Picknell. All returning players will need to step up.

The rest of the Pac-12 seems to be catching up to the Cardinal. Last year they edged out Cal for conference bragging rights by a tiebreaker, after splitting the regular-season series. In the Pac-12 Tournament title game Stanford had to fight for the win, as opposed to their usual blowout of opponents.

Despite losing Jeannette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen in 2011 and Nneka Ogwumike in 2012, the Cardinal have found ways to win, and win big at times. Last year they kicked off the season by snapping Baylor’s long winning streak, and they ranked in the top five for most of the season afterwards.

It is a tribute to the experience and meticulousness of coach Tara VanDerveer, who enters her 28th year at Stanford this season, that her team has made the most of what it has had. Their hope in paving a strong future might lie in this year’s newcomers.

Forward Erica McCall was ranked 11th overall in the 2013 class, and third at her position. Forward Kailee Johnson was ranked 20th overall and fifth at her position. Guard Karlie Samuelson was 77th overall and 20th among guards. Guard Briana Roberson was ranked 58th at her position. It is the highest-ranked class for the Cardinal in a few years. A fifth freshman, Lili Thompson, wasn’t ranked.

Stanford will need to figure it out fast, as they take on defending champions Connecticut Nov. 11. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2. Other preconference opponents include Texas, Purdue, Florida Gulf Coast, Gonzaga and Tennessee. The Cardinal kick off conference play Jan. 3 at home, against Oregon.