Pac-12 preview: Stanford University

This is the ninth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

The biggest mystery in the Pac-12 going into the season is what Stanford will look like this year. Conference coaches picked the Cardinal to win the conference again, but the fact is that no one will know for sure until they step on to the court.

For starters, Stanford is Ogwumike-less for the first time in six years, with the graduation of Chiney Ogwumike last spring. Not only did the sisters lead the team statistically, but they carried it and kept the Cardinal relevant for the past three seasons.

After the graduations of Jayne Appel in 2010 and Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen in 2011, the team has not reloaded as it has traditionally, leaving the roster thin. The Ogwumikes propelled Stanford to the Final Four in 2012, and Chiney Ogwumike guided them back last season, after having stepped up in her sister’s absence beyond anyone’s expectations.

But there were cracks in the pavement last year, with a late-season loss to Washington and an unprecedented semifinal loss to USC in the Pac-12 Tournament.

The Cardinal’s anemic roster this season is being downplayed. But the loss of Chiney Ogwumike, who averaged 26.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game in her senior season, is severe. Also lost is Mikalela Ruef (7.1 points, 9.3 rebounds per game). Senior point guard Amber Orrange is now the leading scorer at 10.3 points per game, followed by sophomore Lili Thompson (8.3) and senior forward Bonnie Samuelson (7.3). All other returnees average 5.2 points per game or less. Much less, in some cases.

Of course, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer is taking the pro-active approach. She’s scrapped her years-old “triangle offense” for a more perimeter-oriented approach that will put the offensive emphasis on Orrange.

Stanford also has three new freshmen who could contribute right away: guard Taylor Rooks, ranked 19th in her class, guard Brittany McPhee, ranked 25th, and forward Kaylee Johnson, ranked 30th.

Whether or not the Cardinal will stay atop the conference depends upon who, if anyone, will step up. Orrange has shown quiet leadership since her freshman year, and Thompson is promising because of her youth. Samuelson will likely be made a starter with them. But all three will have to increase their production substantially, as teams who survive significant player losses do so when others fill in the gaps.

VanDerveer acknowledges that it will be a whole new Stanford this year.

“Everyone has been working extremely hard throughout the summer and in practice thus far and we’re looking forward to the season,” she said. “It will be a different look for us, but we are going to win by committee and will be doing some new things on the offensive end that will lend itself to having a more balanced attack.”

The Cardinal jump into the fire their second game, as they take on Connecticut. They also face Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee before beginning conference play Jan. 3, against Colorado at home.