STANFORD — Chiney Ogwumike might be the best player in the nation, but her teammates will need to step up and contribute if the Stanford women's basketball team is going to win its 14th straight Pac-12 Conference title this season.
Ogwumike filled up the stat sheet last season, ranking in the top six among Division I players in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and double-doubles. But without depth, the Cardinal fell in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, snapping its streak of five straight Final Four appearances.
“Last year, I was upset when Chiney shot because she wasn't rebounding and I was upset when someone else shot because Chiney didn't have the ball,” coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She really had to do everything for us.”
But the supporting cast should benefit from the experience it gained last season. The Cardinal are returning 10 players, including four starters, who are expected to make great strides this season.
VanDerveer said junior point guard Amber Orrange, who averaged 10.8 points per game last season, is poised to become one of the best point guards in the country.
“I think Amber is in the best shape she's ever been in,” she said. “She's a bit lighter, she's in that gym working on her shot, she's more vocal, and we're working with her to do more of the things we need to do.”
The team is also anticipating a breakout season from redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef, who played an increasingly important role last season after recovering from a foot injury that sidelined her for 11 months.
“She's really improved a lot,” VanDerveer said. “She's looking to be a lot more offensive and she's a great passer.”
The Cardinal will also be bolstered by a freshman class that features two top-20 recruits, according to ESPN. Five-star recruit Erica McCall and four-star recruit Kailee Johnson are likely to play big minutes at forward this season.
But Ogwumike, who's on the Wooden Award watch list, will carry a large chunk of the load, as usual.
“I think this year what you'll see is a more versatile Chiney,” VanDerveer said. “She plays big, but she's not just a back-to-the-basket, playing two feet away [player]. She's going to shoot 3s for us, she can play the three, she can handle the ball. She'll have more around her, so in some ways, she'll get to rest a little bit more. I wish I could clone her and have Chiney's on the rest of the teams I ever coach at Stanford.”
The Cardinal will open the season with an exhibition against Vanguard at Maples Pavilion on Sunday and they'll take on the defending champions, Connecticut, in Storrs on Nov. 11. With six wins, VanDerveer will become just the fifth coach to record 900 wins in Division I women's basketball.
But the Cardinal isn't focusing on personal accolades or simply returning to the Final Four this year.
“We've been re-calibrated a little bit,” Ogwumike said. “We love Final Fours, we love the streak, so it was disappointing to lose. I think we all realize we had that great history, but is that satisfying? No. We want to win a national championship.”