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As season nears, women’s basketball looks to contend with youth, quickness and depth

Junior Erica McCall (right) rounds out a spectacular junior class, which also includes Karlie Samuelson, Lili Thompson and Briana Roberson, that will be expected to do big things for the Cardinal this season. (BOB DREBIN/stanfordphoto.com)

Entering her 30th season on The Farm, head coach Tara VanDerveer is excited to see how the year unfolds for the young Stanford women’s basketball team — even if the upcoming season holds a bit more uncertainty than previous years have held.

“For a long time there we had an All-American returning every year and that was a nice comfort blanket,” VanDerveer said. “[This year] it’s a little bit of a mystery who is going to stand up and be our go-to players.”

Last season, the first season in several years that a player with the last name Ogwumike did not appear on the roster, Cardinal ground out a 26-10 record. Despite some highs and lows, the season produced an underdog victory over No. 1 UConn at home — the Huskies’ only loss in their past 79 games — to start the season and an appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16 to finish the year.

And while the graduation losses of Amber Orrange and Bonnie Samuelson as well as an increasingly competitive Pac-12 — for the first time in 15 years, the Cardinal were not picked to top the conference in the preseason poll (instead, Oregon State garnered the most first place points) — suggest that this year could in some ways mirror the inconsistencies of the last, that very well might not be the case.

VanDerveer’s team has the talent to stand out and achieve the program’s traditional standard of excellence. As they seek to make their mark on the conference, the Cardinal will depend on the leadership of four junior captains, junior guard Lili Thompson (13.3 ppg last year), point guard Briana Roberson (6.4 ppg), shooting guard Karlie Samuelson (6.4 ppg) and forward Erica McCall (5.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

While the starting lineup will be variable to start the season, VanDerveer predicts that the four captains will be joined in an eight-player rotation by sophomore forward Kaylee Johnson (5.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg), sophomore guard Brittany McPhee, freshman forward Alanna Smith — the team’s first ever international player, hailing from Melbourne, Australia — and freshman guard Marta Sniezek.

Having versatile players able to come off the bench ready to contribute will be a big factor for Stanford’s success this year, as the Cardinal have struggled to count on consistent production from the bench in recent years.

“This is a really young team,” VanDerveer said. “We don’t really have seniors in our lineup. Even our juniors aren’t super experienced juniors. We’re going to play a lot of freshmen. I don’t know what to expect. They’ll be sneaking up on me.”

While VanDerveer is confident in the eight-player rotation, she admits that her team is “being thrown into the deep end really quickly with two road trips to start the season.”

UC Davis, the Cardinal’s first regular season opponent, is known to play fast-paced, disciplined, “Princeton-style” basketball. Two days later the Card will travel to Gonzaga to play in a traditionally sold-out arena.

“It’s going to be tough in the beginning,” VanDerveer said. “We have to keep people healthy and improve a lot and we can be a contender for the conference championship and who knows what else in the NCAA [after] a lot of improving.”

To build off of last year’s successes and get back into the swing of gameplay, the team will use a relic of last season — its offensive scheme. After running the triangle offense at Stanford since the dawn of time, VanDerveer adjusted to a “new style” offense last year that is predicated upon the team’s commanding guard presence and lack of size, combined with its ability to move the ball, space the floor and shoot.

“Having a post high creates a lot more space and free movement,” Thompson said. “Triangle is like you’re on train tracks. If this happens you do this, whereas right now we’re just playing basketball and making reads. It’s more free for both the posts and the guards to just play. Whatever you see you go for that.”

 

The Cardinal will bring the same speed, high-tempo play and sharp-shooting to the 2015-2016 campaign, while also looking to emphasize improving its high-low and in-out game between the guards and post players.

“[A] strength will be shooting, both by posts like Bird [Erica McCall] and Alanna [Smith], who can step away from the basket and score, as well as guards knocking down threes, which is always a big part of Stanford basketball,” Thompson added. “It’s not just one or two people who can knock down outside shots, everyone is going to have to be guarded.”

To set the team up for success this season, VanDerveer and her staff have put a focus on going back to the basics — screening, passing, rebounding, defense — to mature the youth of the team and to prep its toolkit for the season. The Cardinal will also look to push the ball in transition and get the ball inside more, playing run-and-gun basketball, utilizing ball movement, floor spacing and constant cuts to the basket and high post.

“We’re really fast this year,” McCall said. “This is the fastest team I’ve played on in the three years I’ve been here so that’s definitely a big strength of ours.

In addition to the new player rotations and new style of play, Cardinal fans can expect to see new rule changes in women’s basketball this season. The NCAA has adopted four 10-minute quarters to replace the two 20-minute halves and will allow teams to advance the ball to the frontcourt in order to enhance the flow of the game.

Although VanDerveer jokes that she may have a few more gray hairs by the end of the season in the midst of so much uncertainty, she says, “I am feeling really enthusiastic about our team; the competition will be fun. I think this is a team that we will really see grow a lot and that’s really fun as a coach to watch.”

The Cardinal’s season kicks off this Friday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at UC Davis.

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

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