Olympic Coach Tara VanDerveer is back after leading the United States to gold in Atlanta, and if that's not enough, Stanford returns ten letterwinners from its '96 Final Four Team
There is good reason for the optimistic attitude surrounding Stanford's 1996-97 campaign. Experience and depth along with a rich tradition make the Cardinal a favorite for a sixth Final Four showing.
"We hope to build on last year's success," said Head Coach Tara VanDerveer. "With another year of experience and greater guard depth, we want to keep improving."
Stanford has received the preseason number one vote from Street & Smith's, College Sports Magazine, The Sporting News, Athlon Magazine and Dick Vitale's Basketball Preview. The return of 10 players from last year, VanDerveer's return to The Farm and Stanford's back-to-back Final Four appearances make the Cardinal an attractive favorite. The last time Stanford was the preseason number one team was 1989-90, the same year the Cardinal won its first NCAA Championship.
Stanford has reached the Final Four five times in the 1990s. The Cardinal is one of only three teams in NCAA history to make five or more Final Four appearances (Tennessee - 9, Louisiana Tech - 8) and Stanford has taken the NCAA Championship in two of those Final Four showings, 1989-90 and 1991-92.
Stanford returns 10 players from last season's Final Four squad. This group earned a record seventh Pacific-10 Championship with an 18-0 conference record, en route to a 29-3 overall mark. The 1995-96 team extended Stanford's home winning streak to 33 games, dating back to the end of the 1993-94 season, while also winning 47 consecutive conference games in Maples Pavilion.
The returning players made up 97% of Stanford's scoring and 96% of the team's rebounding last season. The group is very experienced with four seniors, five juniors and one redshirt sophomore. Stanford also adds three top freshmen guards to the mix.
In addition to the players, VanDerveer's return to Stanford is causing excitement around The Farm. VanDerveer took a 12-month leave from collegiate coaching to lead the 1995 National Team and the gold-medal-winning 1996 Olympic Team. During her time away, VanDerveer traveled the world, racking up more than 100,000 miles and collecting many new ideas to bring back to The Farm.
Stanford's style of play will basically remain the same. There will be subtle differences, but those will primarily be felt by the players. The Cardinal will run a more up-tempo offense with an aggressive defensive and rebounding philosophy, much of which is a reflection of VanDerveer's year away.
"Although we'll have a little more variety in our offense and our defense, we will continue to emphasize the same things I think define Stanford Basketball," said VanDerveer. "By that I mean unselfish play, team-oriented basketball, an up-tempo running style, aggressive defense and a strong low post game."
VanDerveer is relying on her experienced group of guards and forwards to push the ball up court. Leading the way is All-American forward Kate Starbird and senior point guard Jamila Wideman.
Starbird and Wideman are joined by a tall and experienced group of returners. As a team, Stanford averages 6-foot-0, with eight players topping the six foot mark. Under the basket, Stanford will turn to the experience of Olympia Scott, Naomi Mulitauaopele, Vanessa Nygaard and Heather Owen. The play of redshirt sophomore Chandra Benton will also be key in the paint.
The Cardinal will be tested early as Stanford faces several top-20 teams on the road. Stanford travels to Tennessee, Old Dominion, Colorado and the University of San Francisco, and could play Stephen F. Austin in the second round of the Wahine Basketball Classic in Hawaii. On November 17th, Stanford will also get a glimpse of three other top teams as it hosts the State Farm Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic featuring Stanford vs. Alabama and Connecticut vs. Western Kentucky. The Cardinal's game with Alabama is a rematch of last season's West Regional semifinal, which Stanford won in overtime.
"We are excited about the level of competition we face this year. We always want to play good teams to see right away our areas of strength and the areas we need to work on," VanDerveer said. "I'm very familiar with the top 20 college teams because of playing at their arenas last year with the National Team. Hopefully this will help with our team's confidence going on the road."
Here's a look at the 1996-97 Stanford Cardinal:
Stanford's guards are a mix of youth and experience. The group is led by senior Jamila Wideman at the point. Wideman has seen most of the action for the past three seasons and VanDerveer expects another great year from her.
"We are looking for Jamila to push the tempo more and really increase defensive pressure," said VanDerveer. "Jamila is a team leader based on her experience and outstanding play."
Senior Charmin Smith should continue to see playing time after a solid performance as a starter last year. Smith and Wideman will be backed up by three top freshmen. Christina Batastini, Milena Flores and Melody Peterson are each capable of stepping in and contributing immediately. All three bring impressive credentials and will provide important relief to Wideman and Smith.
The Cardinal is rich in depth and experience at the forward positions. The group is led by senior Kate Starbird, who has averaged 15.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game during her Stanford career. Starbird was named Co-Pac-10 Player of the Year and first team Kodak All-America last year.
"We are looking for Kate to have another All-America year," VanDerveer said. "She will be very important on the break and in pushing the tempo of our game."
The Cardinal has a solid core of juniors in the forward group. Vanessa Nygaard, Heather Owen and Olympia Scott were key to the success of last year's team and the coaches are expecting nothing less this year. Combined, these three averaged 30.5 points and 15.5 rebounds per game. Nygaard was named to the West Regional All-Tournament Team after tallying 35 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in two games. Nygaard also set a new Stanford record in three-point attempts with 193 and tied the Pac-10 record for three point-attempts in a game with 15 against Massachusetts.
Stanford's leadership will also come from senior Tara Harrington and junior Regan Freuen. Both have improved their play offensively and defensively.
At center, Stanford has junior Naomi Mulitauaopele and redshirt sophomore Chandra Benton. Mulitauaopele was an impact player for the Cardinal last season and was named to the West Regional All-Tournament Team. Mulitauaopele is a versatile player who contributes at forward as well.
The Cardinal coaching staff is looking to Benton to step up this year after using a redshirt season as a freshman. Last year, Benton recorded eight blocks, including three against Sacramento State. At 6-7, she is the tallest player in Stanford history.
"We need Chandra to be a presence in the middle, to be an intimidator. We are looking for her to shoot more both inside and out," said VanDerveer.
Joining VanDerveer on the sidelines are familiar faces. Amy Tucker, who led the Cardinal last season in VanDerveer's absence, stays on the Stanford staff as associate head coach. Tucker gained national attention as she was honored as the 1995-96 Pac-10 Coach of the Year and UPI Coach of the Year. Tucker has worked with VanDerveer for 13 years, dating back to their time at Ohio State.
Angela Taylor and Ann Enthoven return for their second seasons as assistant coaches. Both Taylor and Enthoven played for the Cardinal and returned to The Farm in 1995-96.