This was an odd season for Stanford women’s basketball, and conclusions that the season was a success or a failure would both be met with skepticism.
On the one hand, the Cardinal finished ranked No. 14 in the country, won the Pac-12 tournament, beat conference champion Oregon State on the road in their next-to-last regular-season game, got to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and was the only team to beat eventual national champion Connecticut this season.
And Stanford did all this despite losing Chiney Ogwumike, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft. The Cardinal had to change its approach from an inside-oriented game to one that focused on guard play. How can anyone argue that the season was anything other than a glorious success?
Well, the Cardinal had its run of 14 consecutive regular-season conference titles halted. In fact, Stanford did not even finish second, winding up tied for third with Cal. The Cardinal’s 10 losses this season were the most since 2001, and Stanford had not lost more than five games in any of the past eight seasons. Stanford had reached the Final Four six of the previous seven seasons, so a Sweet 16 berth does not mean as much to Stanford as it does to some other schools, And the Cardinal was ousted rather unceremoniously by Notre Dame in a 21-point loss in the NCAA Tournament.
OK, so make your own judgment. To a large degree, Stanford is the victim of its own success, building expectations beyond reason. Stanford’s total domination of the conference could not last forever, and remaining head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12 was becoming more and more difficult with the development of so many more outstanding female players than there were a decade ago.
One fact remains. Tara VanDerveer is probably the best women’s college coach in the country, and is certainly among the top five. She did a nice job with this season’s team, which had obvious shortcomings in the frontcourt. Of course, the question remains: How much longer with VanDerveer coach? She has given no indication that she has lost a thing mentally or physically. She remains at the top of her game, and still exhibits the passion to succeed with no hints of retirement. She has 953 wins, the third-most in women’s college basketball history, behind only Pat Summitt and Sylvia Hatchell. Two more decent seasons, and VanDerveer will break the 1,000-win barrier.
But she does turn 62 in June, and she can’t coach forever. Can she?
More to the point, will she have enough talent to get Stanford back to the top of the Pac-12 next season? The Cardinal lose their best player (Amber Orrange) as well as their two best outside shooters (Orrange and Bonnie Samuelson). Stanford also loses Taylor Greenfield, and the Cardinal would not have won the conference tournament without her.
Stanford has four recruits signed for next season, but only one, point guard Marta Sniezek, is ranked among the top 100 recruits for 2015 by ESPN. (Sniezek is ranked No. 37).
The Cardinal will rely heavily on guard Lili Thompson, who has a chance to be something special. However, the Cardinal need frontcourt help to become the consistent team it was in years past.
Orrange is off to the WNBA, having been the next-to-last pick in the second round by the New York Liberty. But she was the only Stanford player taken in the draft, and none was taken in the first round. In the previous seven WNBA drafts, six Stanford players was chosen in the first round, including four that were among the first five overall picks. It’s just an indication that Stanford’s talent level was down a bit this season.
Because of Stanford’s academic standards, there may be some years when a number of top basketball players are available for the Cardinal to recruit, but there also will be some years when there are very few elite players available to them. That makes consistent success difficult, and the ability to dominate is becoming more and more difficult in the women’s game.
However, the team will never be mediocre as long as VanDerveer is the coach.