- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Things in Tara VanDerveer's Stanford office don't change much from year to year.
From the wall portrait of the U.S. basketball team she coached to Olympic gold in 1996 to the refrigerated diet soda and game tapes in the closet to the laminated logos of Stanford's opponents taped to the back of the closet door, all are constants.
But some things are undeniably different in VanDerveer's universe this season.
The plan she's drawing up to send the Cardinal into battle for the next five months is not the same. No longer can she draw a circle around the big, dominant girl in the middle of the floor -- Jayne Appel or Nneka Ogwumike -- and say, "Get it to her."
Instead, the pick-and-roll will make an appearance and the style will be up-tempo. The two-man game is suddenly in vogue on The Farm.
And the Hall of Fame coach is more than a little inspired by what she saw from the San Francisco Giants during their run to the World Series title.
"I don't know diddle about baseball," VanDerveer said. "But I love how they did it. On paper, no one picked them to win. They needed people to step up. Different players making big plays when they needed them."
A team greater, perhaps, than the sum of its parts?
"Oh, we have to be that," VanDerveer said. "Have to be."
Or maybe a team worthy of a sixth consecutive trip to the Final Four, which would be an NCAA record?
Stanford's regular place in the Final Four looks less sure this season than in years past. The Cardinal are favored to win a 12th straight Pac-12 title. They will carve a path through a tough nonconference schedule that includes Baylor, Tennessee and Connecticut. And they have 6-foot-3 junior All-American Chiney Ogwumike returning.
But the rest is a work in progress. As Stanford opened the season with an exhibition game on Thursday -- an easy-breezy 117-33 victory over NAIA Division II Corban -- VanDerveer was practically watching an audition. She still needs to see what she has and who might be able to assume a leading role.
"I'm not even sure yet what combination to play people," VanDerveer said. "I'm learning about this team."
Ogwumike is the unquestioned leader, playing without big sister Nneka for the first time in her college career. Nneka's absence turns Chiney into Stanford's No. 1 offensive option and the focus of every opponent's defensive blueprint.
"I try not to think about that," Chiney said. "It's a different year and a different team and I'm just doing the things I do to go out and get better."
Ogwumike knows she must rein in her game, become a more disciplined player and avoid the foul trouble that has sent her to the bench for significant minutes in each of the past two national semifinal games.
"She has to be on the floor," VanDerveer said. "That's a given."
Ogwumike is one of four starters back for Stanford, including senior wing Joslyn Tinkle, junior guard Toni Kokenis and sophomore point Amber Orrange, one of the "six pack" who came into the program last year.
Tinkle will move back inside to complement Ogwumike in the paint. Kokenis will shoot more 3-pointers. Orrange hopes to pick up where she left off at the end of last season, when the introverted guard's gifts started to show through.
Ogwumike is the only player who averaged double figures last season, with 15 points and 10.1 rebounds.
"There is a lot of room for different people to step up and contribute," said Tinkle, who averaged 8.7 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. "I feel like everybody has a role. I think we are younger and a little more inexperienced, but a lot of us have been to a Final Four and I know we are not satisfied, either."
Much of the Stanford offense circulates around Ogwumike, whom VanDerveer calls "the best offensive rebounder we've ever had at Stanford." And the way the coach figures it, the more people are shooting, the more chances Ogwumike has for a putback. The return of injured players Jasmine Camp and Mikaela Ruef provides depth.
Chiney's younger-sister tendencies, the freewheeling exuberance that Nneka would gently keep in check, have given way to something a little more mature and settled. Her game, meanwhile, has rounded out to include a face-up shot.
"My goal is to be the same kind of presence inside that Nneka was," Chiney said.
Her teammates see the difference.
"She's very determined to bring us back to where we've come from, even without Nneka here," Kokenis said. "She's very motivated and she's got a very tough mindset."
Orrange might be the best candidate for breakout star. The guard from Texas, who scored in double figures in three of the last six games of the 2011-12 season -- including an 18-point performance against West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- has been told she needs to be more vocal. She is now one of the last players in the gym, working on her ballhandling and shot.
"I'm just trying to push the ball and do whatever Tara wants," Orrange said. "It's already a big difference being a sophomore. I definitely feel like I know what I'm doing."
VanDerveer hopes to be saying that about a lot of her players come early April.
"We are depending on a lot of people," VanDerveer said. "We have some very steady players around Chiney and around Amber."
16dBonnie D. Ford