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Wednesday roundtable: Was this a rebuilding year for women’s basketball?

Sophomore guard Lili Thompson (above) is a quick, offensive sparkplug, that will become an increasingly dominant part of the realigning Stanford team. RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily.

Stanford women’s basketball ultimately ended the 2014-15 season on a high note after an up-and-down year as one of the top 16 teams in the nation, leaving a pleasant taste in their fans’ mouths. Two years ago, the Cardinal were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 — also finishing in the top 16 in the nation — but that time, fans were a bit dumbfounded by the early dismissal. Two years ago the Cardinal caravan was driven by Chiney Ogwumike, who led the Cardinal to a 33-2 record before Georgia pushed them out of the running for the national title. The same outcome to ended these two seasons, but vastly different reactions ensued.

Despite the Cardinal losing winnable games this year and not playing like one of the best teams in the nation at times, this was not a rebuilding year. The Cardinal lost one elite player last year in Ogwumike and another key player in Mikaela Ruef. Losing only two starters didn’t mean that the team needed to be rebuilt — reshaped a bit, perhaps, but not rebuilt. The Cardinal made it just as far this year as they did two years ago despite the absence of Ogwumike, muffling the gossip swirling that the team wasn’t living up to the Stanford women’s basketball brand of recent years.

The Cardinal returned three starters in Amber Orrange, Lili Thompson and Bonnie Samuelson and had no problem filling the rebounding void left by Ogwumike and Ruef as Kaylee Johnson became a rebounding goddess early on. The team adapted this year by moving away from the legendary triangle offense into a four-guard front, targeting their strengths on the perimeter. The team also utilized the speed it already had in Orrange, Thompson and Briana Roberson to quicken the pace of the game and capitalize in transition. Thus, there wasn’t much rebuilding that had to be done — it was a matter of Tara VanDerveer recognizing and playing to the strengths that she had.

And it worked for the most part. The Cardinal sat atop the college women’s basketball world in November when they beat UConn after losing to them by almost 20 points seven months earlier. Even with luck on their side, a rebuilding team could not have pulled off an upset win over this UConn team.

Stanford has talent and a coach that knows how to use it, so even moving forward without the speed and clutch coast-to-coast shots of Orrange, and without the rocket-powered arm of Samuelson firing off from far behind the 3-point line, the Cardinal will adapt and the team will come together and win when it matters most — just as they did this year in the Pac-12 Tournament and against Oregon State in the aftermath of eyebrow-raising losses to Arizona and Oregon.

The Pac-12 is more competitive this season than in the past and so inevitably the Cardinal won’t be able to cruise through conference play and will consequently pick up a few more losses. I’m positive that VanDerveer would say that all this does is better prepare the team for the Christmas time of the basketball world: the NCAA tournament. More losses does not indicate a slump in the program — its Sweet 16 berth undermined that — it just indicates a need for adjustment and adaptation, the groundwork for which has already been laid this year.

Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Instead of characterizing this past season as a rebuilding one, it could better be described as an inconsistent one.

The Cardinal had some surprising wins — most notably against UConn, which will likely win the national championship game — but also against Oregon State. Yet the team dropped matchups against much weaker teams, Arizona and Oregon, for example, and struggled to play up against top-ranked teams, such as Tennessee and North Carolina. The team had the individual talent to compete or possibly even win these games, but could not do what it needed to do on both ends of the floor to come out with victories.

Despite a somewhat disappointing regular season, however, the Cardinal ultimately finished strong in both the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.

Its Pac-12 Tournament title was certainly not given: The team could have lost any of its close games to UCLA, ASU and Cal — decided by a total of 9 points — but managed to put together a series of solid games to earn the program’s 11th Pac-12 Tournament championship.

Despite slow starts in the first two rounds of the NCAA, the team earned definitive wins against CSUN and Oklahoma, and was unlucky enough to have to face the second-best team in the country, Notre Dame, in the Sweet 16.

While winning against Notre Dame was possible, the team would have had to play its absolute best to advance to the Elite Eight and even further in the tournament, something that would have been hard for a team as inconsistent as Stanford to do. In addition, the outcome still could have been the same even if Chiney Ogwumike played for the Cardinal last Friday night against such a talented Irish team.

As the team graduates two of its three top scorers (Amber Orrange, who averaged 13.3 points this season, and Bonnie Samuelson, who averaged 9.6 points), new fears may emerge of how the team will fare next season. Despite losing these two outstanding players, the team returns several underclassmen who could lead the offense.

Lili Thompson, who notched 13.3 points per game and was one of the most reliable scorers for the Cardinal this year; Briana Roberson, who stepped up big for the team in several games in January and most recently against Oklahoma; Erica McCall, whose performance during the NCAA tournament reflects a promising next two years; and guard Karlie Samuelson, whose 3-point shot will be relied upon to replace her sister’s sharp-shooting.

From the current freshman class, forward Kaylee Johnson will bring back her rebounding prowess, and, if she can enhance her offensive skills, she could significantly improve Stanford’s post game. In the Battles of the Bay, guard Brittany McPhee showed how well she can play, but she will have to work on her consistency moving forward.

Stanford’s recruiting class will also satisfy many of the team’s positional needs — not only two guards but more importantly two forwards with size: Shannon Coffee (6-foot-5) and Alanna Smith (6-foot-3). These players will no doubt be expected to contribute right away, as head coach Tara VanDerveer continues to boost the team’s post talent to get to or at least around the same level as that of its guards.

Although I have still not completely recovered emotionally from Stanford women’s basketball’s crushing exit from the NCAA Tournament, I think the team and Cardinal fans should be proud of this past season and continue to expect good things from Coach VanDerveer’s prolific program. In fact, perhaps the team has a Final Four run two seasons from now, when this year’s underclassmen will be juniors and seniors.

Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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