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W. Basketball: New look, same high expectations for young squad

(SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Every year, when wintertime brings the damp skies that force everyone indoors, there are a few familiar questions that float around Maples Pavilion.

“Do you think we can beat UConn?”

“Think this is the year we finally win it all?”

But for the 2011-12 Stanford women’s basketball team, which tips off its season today with an exhibition matchup against UC-San Diego, there’s likely to be a brand new question in the air: “Who is that?”

After years of iconic players passing the torch along–from Candice Wiggins to Jayne Appel to Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen–the No. 5 Cardinal has a new, younger look this year.

With a class of six freshmen suiting up in red and white this season, Stanford has only six juniors and seniors on the team after five seniors were lost to graduation last year. Those five included All-Americans and first-round WNBA Draft picks Pederson and Pohlen, who each averaged over 33 minutes and 12 points per game–Pohlen was also named the Pac-10’s Player of the Year.

But despite the fresh infusion of talent and loss of two of the iconic players in Stanford women’s basketball history, expectations are still high for the team that has made it to four consecutive Final Fours and captured 11 consecutive Pac-10 conference titles.

The reasons for optimism begin with the supremely talented sister duo of senior Nnemkadi and sophomore Chiney Ogwumike, who Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer calls upon once again to provide the team a dominant force.

Nnemkadi, who has already been named an AP Preseason All-American for the second time, averaged a team-high 17.5 points per game last season and pulled down 7.6 rebounds per game, trailing only Chiney, who had exactly eight rebounds per game.

Nnemkadi, who piled up a laundry list of accolades last year (she was named to the State Farm Coaches’ All-America Team, and to the All-America Teams of Associated Press, USBWA and Wooden Award and was a finalist for the Wade Trophy, Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy) will certainly once again be on the short list for the Wade Trophy, awarded to the best player in the nation at the end of every year.

Chiney, last season’s Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, started all but one game last season on her way to 11.7 points a game and will be viewed as one of the centerpieces of the squad, despite her youth, after shooting better than 57 percent from the floor last season.

Behind the terrific known quantities that are the Ogwumike sisters, though, lies a talented group of players that have all logged substantial playing time off the bench in the past and will be a critical factor in determining the Cardinal’s success this season.

Sophomore Toni Kokenis, who averaged 5.3 points per game last year, is expected to step into Pohlen’s role as the point guard and maestro of the Cardinal offense after Kokenis spent last season mostly coming off the bench and either running the point or playing alongside Pohlen.

Senior Lindy La Rocque is again expected to start at shooting guard after starting 29 games in that spot last year, but both guards will likely be challenged for playing time by freshman guard Amber Orrange, who was the nation’s No. 15 recruit this past season and a McDonald’s All-American.

Filling the hole left by Pedersen–the all-time leader in career starts in a Cardinal uniform–will most likely be the bigger challenge, as a trio of players all can contribute in varied ways.

Redshirt junior Sarah Boothe and junior Joslyn Tinkle both averaged more than five points a game last season and played in more than 35 games, but both are also more suited to play inside the paint than Pedersen. Junior Mikaela Ruef will also be called upon to fill the gap, and a trio of dynamic freshmen forwards–McDonald’s All American Bonnie Samuelson, Taylor Greenfield and Erica Payne–will bring their 6-foot-3 frames to the Cardinal offense as well.

The Cardinal completed an undefeated conference season in the Pac-10 last year for the second time in as many years, and the early outlook for the conference has Stanford once again playing the role of heavy favorite. The only other Pac-12 squad ranked in the Top-25 preseason poll is No. 23 USC, which finished fourth in the conference last season.

On the national stage, Stanford once again plays a challenging non-conference schedule with a trip to visit the No. 20 Texas Longhorns to start the regular season on Nov. 11, as well as a road trip to tangle to with No. 4 Connecticut, which will be without three-time Wade Trophy winner Maya Moore after the Huskies’ superstar entered the WNBA as the number-one overall pick this summer.

The Cardinal’s highest-profile home game will be against No. 3 Tennessee, a team that includes AP Preseason All-American Shekinna Striklen as well as Meighan Simmons, last year’s SEC Freshman of the year.

After falling just short of a national title for the past four years, the Cardinal will be taking a fresh approach to the 2011-12 season and hoping that a little new flavor can finally give it the edge it needs to bring home its first national championship since 1992.

Stanford kicks off its season tonight at Maples Pavilion against UC-San Diego. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.