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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
There's still Stanford, but much else is new

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

This season, Tara VanDerveer's longevity makes her the mother hen to a bunch of spring chickens in the Pac-12.

VanDerveer, a recent Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, enters her 26th year as Stanford head coach, where the Cardinal are expected to win a 12th straight conference title.

At the other end of the spectrum, four teams -- Cal, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington -- have new coaches at the helm, and two teams, Utah and Colorado, are new to the conference.

None is likely to challenge for the Pac-12 crown, but maybe a fresh approach from a new coach or team will at least provide a speed bump to Stanford.

Of all the coaches, probably the most intriguing is Cal's Lindsay Gottlieb, replacing turnaround artist Joanne Boyle, who left for Virginia.

Despite a rare losing mark last season in the Pac-10, Cal's first in five years, Gottlieb will have some momentum to sustain with Cal picked to finish third in the coaches' poll behind Stanford and USC.

Boyle led the Golden Bears to four NCAA appearances in her six years and a record of 137-64 (.682) after 12 seasons of losing records before her arrival. Gottlieb is no stranger to the Golden Bears. She was Boyle's top assistant before leaving to coach UC Santa Barbara the past three years.

UCLA, picked to finish fourth, will be led by new coach Cori Close, who will have her own challenges. She's an offensive-minded leader who has an uphill trek ahead of her if the Bruins want to improve on their 28-4 record last season, which saw them reach the NCAA second round.

Close, after seven years as an assistant at Florida State, replaces Nikki Caldwell, who went to LSU and took her whole staff with her. Two national top-10 recruits who had signed left, one for LSU, another for rival Cal. Not only that, but the team's best player, senior Jasmine Dixon, is likely out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.

Arizona State's 11-year assistant coach, Joseph Anders, fills in as an interim coach for Charli Turner Thorne as she takes a leave of absence this season. Anders will try to squeeze more offense from a team that lost three of its top four scorers. Even with them, ASU averaged just 60 points per game last season.

Kevin McGuff is a breath of fresh air at Washington, where he replaces the fired Tia Jackson at the helm. But McGuff barely had time to get settled before a season-ending ACL injury to leading scorer and guard Kristi Kingma (15.6 ppg) dealt a blow to an already downtrodden program. McGuff guided Xavier to national prominence and an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. He will have to resurrect a program whose last NCAA appearance was in 2007, under now-Washington State coach June Daugherty.

Team to beat

Stanford reached the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Texas A&M in the semifinals last year and has a preseason ranking of No. 5 this year. Sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike have to be considered one of the best returning post duos in the nation. Senior Nneka is a candidate for national player of the year. Chiney was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season.

WNBA-bound Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen were key losses. But if returnees Mikaela Ruef, Lindy La Rocque and Joslyn Tinkle catch on as expected, Stanford should go far with experience and size.

Top challengers

USC is ranked nationally (No. 23) for the first time since 2006, and returns four starters, including seniors Ashley Corral, team-leading scorer Briana Gilbreath (14.5 ppg) and Jacki Gemelos, from a team that narrowly missed making the NCAA tournament.

No. 22 UCLA is a two-time conference runner-up to Stanford and was known for its defensive grit under departed coach Caldwell. It will sorely miss all-conference forward Dixon, but look for Markel Walker, Rebekah Gardner and Atonye Nyingifa to lead.

Could surprise

Utah, the new kid on the block, will help answer an intriguing question -- can the queen of the Mountain West hang with the Pac-12?

Utah had won seven of 11 Mountain West Conference titles before moving to the Pac-12 this season. The Utes are young, with only one senior, Janita Badon, and last season peaked in time for a stirring run through the MWC tournament to earn an NCAA berth. They lost in the opening round to eventual national runner-up Notre Dame but gave the Irish a good game.

Look for Badon, along with Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski, consecutive conference freshmen of the year, to lead.

Preseason player of the year

Nneka Ogwumike, Stanford's 6-2 forward, is a national player of the year candidate, a three-time U.S. international gold medalist and last year's Stanford leader in scoring (17.5 ppg) and shooting percentage (58.6). She was named to the All-Pac-10 team and was All-Pac-10 defensive honorable mention.

This season, she will be asked to lead in a way she hasn't before. Six freshmen dot Stanford's 15-player roster, and how quickly they catch on to the new up-tempo, run-the-floor offense could be key to providing depth. Ogwumike has some nurturing experience as the eldest of four girls, including teammate and sister Chiney. She will use it this season.

Game of the year

Stanford at USC, Dec. 29: It will be fairly early in the season, and Stanford could be -- do we dare say it? -- ripe for an upset if things don't go smoothly with a new offense and new faces. USC will be playing at home, which helps.

Fab freshmen

Aley Rohde, a 6-5 center, should help Arizona, one of the league's worst rebounding teams last season, pick up the slack inside, especially now with the graduation of Ify Ibekwe.

After graduation of both starting guards, 6-foot guard Eliza Normen will be key to Arizona State's hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament after a 20-11 season. Norman, who can play the point or wing, spent the offseason rehabbing from reconstructive knee surgery.

Colorado coach Linda Lappe hopes Lexy Kresl will ease some of the sting from losing all-time leading scorer Brittany Spears (2,185 points). Kresl is a long-range shooter from Phoenix who loves to bomb away, once scoring 53 points in a high school game.

Comeback story

Oregon's star point guard Nia Jackson led the conference in scoring until the season's last nine games, when she couldn't play because of knee trouble. She had microfracture surgery under her right kneecap in March. Coach Paul Westhead is confident Jackson will be 100 percent for the Nov. 13 season opener against Cal Poly. The Ducks hope she is. They were 12-9 before she left, 1-8 after, averaging almost eight more points per game when she was running the show.

Did you know?

Washington State has one of the Pac-12's toughest nonconference schedules. No one can accuse the Cougars, 8-23, 6-12 in conference play last year, of taking the easy route toward respectability. They will play games against Gonzaga, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and San Diego State.

Did you know, part II:

Arizona coach Niya Butts was born in an elevator.

Going to the dance

Stanford is a given. With four consecutive Final Four appearances and several more scattered throughout the past two decades, the bigger question is when will the Cardinal put it all together and win the big prize for the first time since -- does this seem possible? -- 1992. /p>

Just about all the key players are back for USC, which reached the WNIT title game last season after some thought USC should have made the NCAA field.

Utah has to prove it can handle the day-in, day-out competition of Pac-12 play. Still, it's hard to argue with a team that has averaged 20 wins per season for the past 36 years.