Stanford University always seemed a step ahead of Pac-10 competition and cruised to relatively easy tournament victories on the way to the Sweet 16, but forward Nneka Ogwumike says they're still "getting better and better". (Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media)
Sitting down for my evening coffee (fix) yesterday, I came across two articles that revolved around the significance of 1985 to women's basketball.
The first was an article at Courant.com about University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma arriving in Storrs in the spring of 1985, already intent on making women's basketball history.
UConn Softball Coach Has Seen Basketball's Rise Under Geno - Courant.com
Geno Auriemma, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, recited his plans for the UConn women's basketball program not long after arriving in Storrs in the spring of 1985. The Huskies would not only compete at a high level, the new coach said, they would sell tickets. They would fill the Field House with fans, Auriemma promised.
The second was an article from the Star-Ledger about Rutgers coach and then-Ohio State University coach Tara VanDerveer actually making women' basketball history with the first-ever advance sellout on February 3, 1985 before Auriemma even had an opportunity to wax improbable about making UConn relevant.
On one level, I suppose it's difficult for me to really put these two events in context beyond the information provided in the articles -- in 1985 the highlight of my days was watching GI Joe and Transformers back-to-back and then seeing how quickly I could change the channel before enduring the Laverne & Shirley theme song (I hated it for unknown personal reasons).
However, given that most people assume that Auriemma and Vanderveer are on a collision course to meet in the National Championship twenty-five years later, it's interesting to reflect on the potential significance of this game to women's basketball history.
Almost as much as people assume that UConn will dominate all challengers on their way to the championship, people assume that the final victim will be Stanford. And although the momentum UConn has built only seems to be growing with each successive victory in their 74-game win streak, Stanford doesn't intend to relent in their second chance to stop this runaway train. Anything less than winning the championship would be a disappointment for 2010 Pac-10 Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike.
"When you're there, why stop," asked Ogwumike during an interview with Swish Appeal on Thursday, laughing when asked about the team's expectations if they met UConn a second time. "It's not just getting there, it's winning the whole thing."
Of course after being thoroughly outplayed in the second half against UConn back in December, a win would essentially require that Stanford has improved at a rate beyond that of UConn in the same period. It's a difficult task, but one of the things that might have quietly defined Stanford's season.
"We're not complacent with where we are - we're getting better and better," said Ogwumike. "I think we're doing a really good job of progressing into the team we want to."
As much as Auriemma's career has been defined by unrelenting pursuit of the unattainable, the standard of excellence that VanDerveer has set for Stanford women's basketball is equally impressive. Stanford's culture of improvement has been on display all year and VanDerveer's ability to maximize the talent of her growing and improving players has been on display on year.
Kayla Pedersen: The Calming Force of Stanford’s "Three-Headed Monster" - Swish Appeal
"What I'm excited about is that our team is really buying in to improving," said VanDerveer in a video on Stanford's website, previewing their game tonight against the University of Oregon. "They're really looking at ok: so we have some issues, maybe turnovers, so we're working at cutting out our turnovers. If we didn't rebound one game, we come out and we focus on that."
One of the subtler but perhaps representative improvements that has taken place at Stanford this year is in the post. It's not just that Ogwumike has emerged as the team's statistical leader in her sophomore season, relegating reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year Jayne Appel to arguably the second or third most important player on the team. It's the way that it has happened.
It's not merely that a sophomore "won" the right to operate in the low-post from Appel, pushing a decorated senior to the high-post. According to Ogwumike, the change is more an example of the team maximizing individual improvements to strengthen the team as a whole.
"I think it has more to do with how people have improved because I know Jayne is more comfortable up there," said Ogwumike. "I've learned how to shoot outside more consistently now and I think being able to have either post in the high-post and either post in the low post is definitely a huge asset. So the fact that a lot of us are extending our games allows us to do more things in other places."
Despite a reputation for rigid and methodical play, there are subtle aspects of Stanford's program that are dynamic and adaptive. It makes for a potentially interesting matchup between the two teams if they meet again.
Of course -- perhaps moreso than assumed for UConn - Stanford does have to make it through the rest of their region, starting with the University of Georgia, today's opponent. Georgia is a team that comes to California after holding Oklahoma State University's Andrea Riley to 9-31 shooting in an overtime thriller. Although guard play is widely considered one of Stanford's biggest weaknesses, Ogwumike suggests they'll handle this one just like any other.
"We don't really change anything in terms of what we want to do as a team," said Ogwumike of how they plan to approach Georgia. "We want to take away what they like to do best, whether it be rebounding or driving and I think that's what our game plan is."
There's a clarity of focus that Ogwumike exudes that even many older college players simply don't possess, whether during interviews or on the course. A lot of that reflects the things we've read about her upbringing, but it also reflects positively on Stanford's program and coaching staff. The constant focus on improvement while almost casually focusing on executing the things they do well is certainly what makes Stanford a great team, even in a year in which they sit in the large shadow of UConn.
"My assistant coaches Bobbi Kelsey and Kay Paye do a great job of scouting," said VanDerveer after their road game at the University of Washington earlier this season. "And our team really prides itself on listening to the scouting report and really knowing what teams are going to do and taking away people's favorite moves."
The bottom line is that Ogwumike is confident that her team has improved enough to beat UConn a second time around, defying everyone's expectations of an undefeated season.
"Oh yeah," said Ogwumike as to whether she's confident that Stanford could pull off what would amount to an historic upset. "It takes a lot of hard work...to get there we have to take care of what's right in front of us."
Twenty-five years after Auriemma dreamed of packed houses while Vanderveer actually experienced one, it would be a monumental victory for women's basketball.