Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer has begun tinkering with her 2010-2011 team, which is loaded with tantalizing options, but at some point she has to come up with a plan to give the team its identity.
“This may be the most versatile team I’ve had,” said VanDerveer, who is beginning her 25th season as the Cardinal’s coach.
As many as nine players are talented enough to break into the starting lineup this season, and most of them can play multiple positions, a trait personified by 6-4 senior Kayla Pedersen, who can play all five positions and may be the most versatile player in the country.
VanDerveer has all kinds of possibilities for lineups, and she can alter things considerably based upon the opposition. But a team with too many moving parts can lose its identity, its stability and its consistency, so VanDerveer has to be careful not to go overboard with the mixing and matching.
She has more time that usual to piece things together, because a new NCAA rule this year that applies only to women’s basketball allows teams to start practice 40 days before their first game. As a result, Stanford began practice on Oct. 6, more than a week before the usual starting date of Oct. 15.
So, through Monday, she has had five practices to look at what she has, and despite the loss of All-American center Jayne Appel, the Cardinal has considerably more depth and versatility than it had last season. The Cardinal is so talented and deep in the frontcourt that last year’s high school player of the year, Chiney Ogwumike, is not guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup.
At this point, VanDerveer is sure of only three starters – Pedersen, Jeanette Pohlen, and Nneka Ogwumike – all of whom were starters on the team that lost to Connecticut by six points in the national championships game last spring. In fact, Pohlen and Pedersen have been starters on the past three Cardinal teams, all of which got to the Final Four.
The positions those three will play is less certain, though. Ogwumike’s spot is set. She is a post player. Period. And there’s no reason to mess around with a player who was the Pac-10 player of the year and an All-American as a sophomore last year.
But Pedersen and Pohlen may move around. Pedersen could be paired on the block with Ogwumike to leave a wing spot open for Chiney Ogwumike or Joslyn Tinkle, who has lost 15 pounds and has impressed VanDerveer recently even though she is bothered by an ankle problem at the moment. Tinkle and the younger Ogwumike both also can play a post position, which would allow Pedersen to roam the perimeter. Pedersen has by far the best outside shot of the frontcourt players, so that could figure into VanDerveer’s thinking.
There is also the possibility that 6-foot-5, third-year sophomore Sarah Boothe, who is strictly a post player and who sat out last season with a foot injury, could earn a starting spot alongside Ogwumike in the paint, leaving Pedersen on the wing. In that case Chiney Ogwumike and Tinkle would come off the bench at any one of the three frontcourt positions.
That’s a lot of options, and we have not even begun to talk about the backcourt.
Pohlen has been the team’s point guard the past two seasons and will probably play that role again. But her natural position is shooting guard, and freshman Toni Kokenis is a natural point guard with speed, something the Cardinal has lacked in recent years.
“Toni is the fastest player I’ve ever seen,” Pedersen said.
If Kokenis progresses, she could start at point guard with Pohlen providing much needed perimeter shooting from the off-guard spot. Or Pohlen could stay at the point, and the starting shooting guard could be either freshman Sara James or sophomore Mikaela Ruef, who has improved significantly according to VanDerveer.
The final option is to have Pedersen play the shooting guard spot alongside Pohlen. That would make the Cardinal huge, and it would allow another talented frontcourt player to get on the court. Having the Ogwumike sisters, Pedersen and either Boothe or Tinkle on the court together would create a powerful lineup, although it would slow the team down a bit.
Pedersen has even been playing some point guard during practice.
“In practice, I’ve been playing every position, so I think it’ll just depend on what lineup we have in the game,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen considers herself a natural power forward, but she played small forward about 80 percent of the time last season.
When asked what position she thought she would be playing in the opener, Pedersen thought a long time and guessed she’d be at the wing, but she said it without conviction.
Pedersen is the player around whom all these options pivot, providing VanDerveer with almost endless options because Pedersen can do virtually anything on the court.
“I can’t image she’s not a top-three pick in the (2011) WNBA draft,” VanDerveer said.
But a team that tries to do too many things often suffers because it loses its team personality. Shifting players here and there can upset the team chemistry and play havoc with players’ understanding of their roles, which is important to the stability and consistency of a team. Stanford probably will be ranked No. 2 or 3 in the preseason poll, and VanDerveer does not want to mess this up by creating a team that lacks structure.
VanDerveer may try a lot of different combinations early in the season, but she needs to establish a rotation and define players’ roles by the second month. She needs to do it by the time the Cardinal hosts Connecticut on Dec. 30.
Here’s our guess on the starting five, and it’s just a guess: Nneka Ogwumike, Pedersen, Chiney Ogwumike, Sara James and Pohlen. But don’t ask us what positions they’ll play.
Of course, Melanie Murphy is expected to return from her offseason knee surgery in December or January, which will add another variable to the mix.
To receive Stanford basketball news regularly, click the “subscribe” button above the headline. It’s free.
To receive Cal sports news, click here.
Go to JakesTakeOnSports.com for Bay Area college football and basketball stories.