STANFORD — Tara VanDerveer took a quick scan of her roster suddenly devoid of a star Ogwumike sister and came to a realization: After Stanford's latest Final Four run last spring, she would have to move away from the tried-and-true triangle offense the Cardinal ran for years.
The shift didn't come naturally for the Hall of Fame coach, who saw no choice with the departure of Pac-12 Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike off to the WNBA ranks to join big sister and fellow former No. 1 pick, Nneka.
So, VanDerveer called in ex-NBA coach Mike D'Antoni, Milwaukee Bucks assistant Joe Prunty, and Jenny Boucek of the Seattle Storm and sought their guidance in developing a more guard-oriented game.
“It has me totally out of my comfort zone,” VanDerveer said. “I'm a little cranky sometimes. It's a little stressful. You lose your all-time leading scorer and rebounder, your offense gets put in a handbag and goes to hell, and you've got a lot of freshmen you're counting on. I'm glad I have a long-term contract. But it's fun.”
The No. 6 Cardinal will provide a glimpse of their new-look, up-tempo offense when they host two-time defending NCAA champion and top-ranked Connecticut on Monday night at Maples Pavilion. The Huskies are riding a 47-game winning streak after opening the season with a 102-43 victory Friday at UC Davis.
“It seems like there are a lot of teams right now that are looking for reasons not to play us,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They're always looking for a reason to stay in the game, to stay in the series. I don't think Tara thinks a regular-season game, win or lose Monday night, is going to have anything to do with winning a national championship. I don't think the team that wins Monday night has a head start on winning a national championship, and I don't think the team that loses has no chance. These games are important for women's basketball.”
VanDerveer has caught herself sneaking into Stanford men's practices “because they're running triangle, to just get my triangle fix.”
Even going into September “it was stressful,” but VanDerveer notes, “I kind of had to let that go and get off the dock and get on the boat and go with it.”
Beginning her 29th year as Cardinal coach, VanDerveer is leading a team picked by the Pac-12 coaches to win a 15th consecutive conference regular-season title – though she's not counting on anything coming easily, especially with all of the changes.
After last season, VanDerveer and her staff decided to go in a different direction with the offense. They held a retreat with the men's coaching staff and began brainstorming ideas, then brought in some experts who run guard-friendly offenses.
“Working on our new offensive system has been a six-month project with all of us as coaches watching lots of film and talking with other coaches,” VanDerveer said.
Her sister, Heidi, coach at San Diego, “was very helpful, too.”
D'Antoni spent parts of two days on campus over the summer, as did Prunty. Boucek visited The Farm this fall.
The visit by D'Antoni did wonders for VanDerveer feeling more comfortable making such a daunting transition.
“We spent all day. He would diagram like crazy. He watched us work out with our team,” she said. “We were at breakfast, lunch, dinner talking basketball. It was just a jolt, another pro coach. We got professional consulting.”
“It was really fun, it was awesome,” she said.
She made sure the visitors were well fed at Jimmy V's Sports Cafe in the athletic department headquarters.
D'Antoni had a blast. VanDerveer impressed him with how secure she is as a coach to keep learning and finding new ways to get the most from her players.
“It was very much fun hanging around someone that's so accomplished like she is,” D'Antoni said. “Plus, it's fun talking basketball, it's fun exchanging ideas and visiting Stanford's campus. It was a win-win situation. … It says how dedicated she is to her student-athletes and that she's always trying to push herself to be better, which in turn will make the athletes she's coaching better. “
Former UC Davis coach Sandy Simpson recalls how VanDerveer used to host area coaches and “open her playbook.”
“She's always looking to pick up a tidbit, and it doesn't matter if it comes from a junior high coach or from Geno,” Simpson said. “There's no ego involved with Tara.”
Auriemma has no idea what to expect from the Cardinal come Monday.
He is counting on a competitive game.
“Tara's smart enough to realize, 'Well, just because it worked for this other team for these years, doesn't mean I can make it work for this group,'” Auriemma said. “You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find somebody better than Mike at offensive basketball. When he was in New York we certainly took advantage of that ourselves.”