Wiggins takes aim at her final title shot

The first three seasons of Candice Wiggins' Stanford career ensured she'll leave The Farm as the greatest player in the program's illustrious history. Her final season will determine whether she leaves Palo Alto as the greatest Stanford player never to win a national championship.

Thanks in large part to an infusion of young talent headlined by sophomore post Jayne Appel, the Cardinal appear to have more than an outside shot of ensuring that doesn't happen.

Not that everyone sees it that way. The Cardinal open the season ranked No. 8 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll, and in a women's basketball world where parity remains more tentative than transcendent, that still makes them as much a dark horse as a favorite in the race for the national championship. That despite the Cardinal returning three starters and six of eight regulars from a team that won 27 of 28 games at one point last season, and one that Wiggins described as the most talented group during her time in Palo Alto.

All of those numbers aside, it seems critics aren't ready to forget last season's stunning second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida State on Stanford's home court.

And you can add those who had the best view of Florida State's celebration to the list.

"Absolutely, it's motivation," Wiggins said of the loss. "I think it's going to be very important for us to keep that in the back of our minds as we head into the season. I think another big thing is you can't forget those losses, because those losses are what make you a stronger team mentally. And I think that loss kind of exposed our biggest weakness last year, which was our mental toughness."

If Stanford was mentally weary by the end of the season, it was with good reason. The team lost projected starting point guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude to a season-ending knee injury before it played a game and then lost replacement JJ Hones, who filled in so well that she earned recognition as one of the Pac-10's top freshmen, to a knee injury after 23 games. Those losses necessitated moving Wiggins from her natural position at off guard to point guard for extended minutes, no small responsibility on a team that had three true post scorers who needed someone to get them the ball.

Now with Gold-Onwude healthy after a full year of rehabilitation and Hones available after recently being cleared to practice, the Cardinal have more than enough depth at point guard.

"It frees me up to do what I like to do most, which is score," Wiggins joked. "So it helps me a lot at the 2; it just gives us a different look. I can always play point if need be, but I think this year, we'll be pretty good with that position. … I'm always prepared for anything my team needs, but it's definitely a lot better for me to be more of my natural position that I played a lot my freshman year and my sophomore year."

Wiggins, who registered at least three assists per game in each of the past two seasons, is capable of playing point guard as well as anyone in the country, but no other player is capable of playing off guard as well as she does when she's healthy.

Combined with her unexpected role of running the offense last season, a variety of injuries limited Wiggins' explosiveness getting to the basket -- she averaged a free-throw attempt every 4.9 minutes on the court as a freshman and every 5.8 minutes as a sophomore, but just one every 12.8 minutes last season. But thanks in part to her continued evolution from beyond the arc, where she shot a career-best 44 percent on 186 attempts last season, Wiggins remained an elite scorer who saved her best for the biggest games, averaging 17.7 points in seven contests against ranked opponents.

She also remained the most reliable star in college basketball. Wiggins committed a turnover every 17.4 minutes she was on the court, improving her rate for a third straight season. Her 17.4 was at least four minutes better than Duke's Lindsey Harding (13.4), Tennessee's Candace Parker (12.4), Maryland's Marissa Coleman (10.3) and North Carolina's Ivory Latta (8.7).

Even healthy, Wiggins appears to have a sizable task ahead of her without departed seniors Kristin Newlin, who led the team in rebounding, and Brooke Smith, who ranked first or second in almost every other major statistical category. But as good as Smith and Newlin were, their absences might not outweigh the development of Appel, a 6-foot-4 agile post who coach Tara VanDerveer has called a "franchise player."

"I just think she's one of the best centers in the country, certainly in her class," Wiggins said. "She is amazing, I think almost unstoppable under the basket because of her build. She has a very unique build; she has long arms, she's big and she uses her size extremely well.

"She reminds me a lot, actually, of Courtney Paris, who I've played with a lot, just in terms of dominance of size. And then on top of that, she's so competitive."

Appel posted numbers last season that would have been impressive for any freshman, averaging 13.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. What should have dropped more than a few jaws is the fact that Appel did all of that while averaging 19.3 minutes per game. Projected over just 30 minutes a game, a reasonable estimate of her load this season, those averages expand to 20.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.

Suddenly it's not difficult to understand why Wiggins dropped the comparison to Oklahoma's Paris -- who has 61 consecutive double-doubles and was last season's AP Player of the Year -- on her young teammate.

Of course, it wasn't just the depth ahead of her or VanDerveer's efforts to limit her workload that kept Appel off the court. She led the team with four disqualifications and 98 personal fouls, which in playing the projection game, works out to 4.9 fouls per game over 30 minutes.

On the first day of practice this season, Appel walked into the locker room to find a note from her coach affixed to her locker reminding her of an unofficial 11th Commandment.

Thou shalt not foul.

"It made it pretty clear that I need to not come out of the game because of fouls, only come out when I need a break," Appel said. "We've really been working on it a lot in practice, just defensive techniques with our team overall and me personally on the side."

Potentially the best inside-outside combination in the country this season (although they'll get arguments from Tennessee's Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle, UConn's Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery and Rutgers' Kia Vaughn and Matee Ajavon), Appel and Wiggins found some extra time to connect off the court playing for the U.S. team that won gold at the Pan-Am Games in Brazil this summer.

"I felt like we got a lot closer, and I think that will help us this year," Appel said. "Off the court and on the court, just communicating and knowing how each other plays."

That experience was one of three international tours for Wiggins this summer. She also won gold with the Under-21 national team at the World Championship in Russia and trained as an alternate with the senior national team this fall. While the latter involved far less playing time than the two medal-winning performances with junior national teams, it might have been the most helpful in preparing Wiggins for her senior season.

As the freshest face on a team loaded with WNBA stars, Wiggins found herself absorbing the leadership displayed by players like DeLisha Milton-Jones and Sue Bird. Heading back to a college team that will suit up nine freshmen and sophomores, and just four juniors and seniors, Wiggins was able to walk a mile in the sneakers of young players like McDonald's All-American Kayla Pedersen, whom she hopes to guide this season at Stanford.

"It's nothing that can be taught really; it just kind of happens," Wiggins said. "[Milton-Jones] is just a natural leader, and Sue is a great point guard, a great leader, so I asked them questions about other things, but I wasn't really asking them questions about leadership. You could just see it."

As consistently successful as Stanford has been during changing times in women's basketball, it's inescapable that eight different schools have claimed titles since the Cardinal last won a national championship in 1992. Just 5 years old at the time, Wiggins remains the best hope of ending that drought.

And even if Appel, the program's next great star, and the rest of the team's young players can't fully realize the magnitude of the task ahead of them, they have a very tangible image of what they're working for right in front of them.

"I think [Wiggins] worked extremely hard all three years," said Appel, a Bay Area native who followed Wiggins and the Cardinal long before signing on herself. "Being a part of the team and seeing it even more has helped me want to get it for her that much more. So it will definitely be a fight this year to get it for her."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.