BOULDER – Women’s basketball teams in the Pac-10/12 have been chasing Stanford for so long there doesn’t seem to be any other way to approach a season. So let the chase begin . . . again.
Under Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal has won 21 Pac-10/12 championships in her 26 seasons, made 24 NCAA Tournament trips, 10 Final Four appearances and won everything there was to win in 1990 and 1992.
This season, Stanford is ranked fourth nationally, 11-1 (the lone loss was to No. 1 UConn, 76-57) and is favored once again to win the Pac-12. So what else is new? Well, not much apparently.
Yet the way fourth-year Colorado coach Linda Lappe sees it, a Pac-12 coach doesn’t approach a conference season with one team in the crosshairs or believing there’s a huge gap between the Cardinal and the rest of the league.
“That remains to be seen,” said Lappe. “You can’t go into the conference thinking, ‘Hey, we’re chasing one team.’ You’ve got to beat everybody to get to where you want to go. But obviously they (Stanford) have been at the top for a long time, so until someone knocks them off they can say that.”
Pac-12 play begins in full this weekend and Lappe is optimistic about her Buffs being the team that closes that real or perceived gap and catches the Cardinal. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Lappe's blueprint is about tucking away one win at a time rather than the pursuit of one team.
Stanford visits Boulder on the second weekend of Pac-12 play – Sunday, Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. to be precise – but three games precede that one. The Buffs open their conference schedule at Southern California on Friday, play at UCLA on Sunday, then return to the Coors Events Center to face California on Friday, Jan. 10. USC (8-5) already has a conference win after defeating UCLA (6-7) by two points on Monday night.
Cal, ranked No. 23 (AP) this week, and CU, ranked No. 12, were the media’s preseason choices to finish behind Stanford in conference, with Cal viewed as the most likely challenger. But Arizona State (10-1) is ranked No. 24 and making noise as a team not to be overlooked. What's more, Lappe believes the league is stocked with more parity this season than in the past several.
But like their coach, Lappe’s players aren’t rushing things; if the Buffs don’t open strong in LA on the first weekend of conference play, the second weekend and the visits by Cal and Stanford loses some of its sheen. Lappe is hopeful for the return of redshirt freshman forward Lauren Huggins, who sat out the win against Southern Utah with a lower leg ailment not associated with the stress fracture that sidelined her last season. Huggins leads the team in 3-pointers made (22-of-54, 40.7 percent) and is averaging 7.3 points.
Junior forward Jen Reese believes the Buffs enter Pac-12 play wearing a bulls-eye, and given last season’s fourth-place finish (13-5) and third-place forecast this season she’s probably right.
“Everyone is going to play their best against us, no matter who they are,” Reese said. “That’s just what’s going to happen with us being ranked. We’ve got to accept who we play and know that. We’ve just got to go in and play like we’ve been doing. That’s the main thing.”
CU finished its non-conference schedule 10-1, with Reese second on the team in both scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg). But the first few days of 2014 find Reese trying to work her way back into condition after a pre-Christmas bout with stomach flu that became an unwanted gift to her parents when she returned home to Clackamas, Ore.
“I felt like I was going to die,” said Reese, who is slowly getting her weight and strength back. “She was really sick for five or six days,” Lappe said, “but she seems to be feeling better. It was good to get her game time (vs. Southern Utah last week) and get her back in the flow.”
Maybe joking, maybe not, Lappe added: “I told her she’s really good when she’s sick because she doesn’t have to think and she plays at a good pace.”
Lappe’s pre-conference goals for Reese and all of her teammates are improvement in rebounding (particularly boxing out), overall defense (focusing on stopping one-on-one penetration) and setting better screens. Reese believes the Buffs’ overall effort “has gotten 100 percent better” and that offensive balance has never been more apparent.
“We can move the ball, see the open gaps . . . it’s all gotten so much better,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of people who can get in double-digits (scoring), which is great. If we play our defense our offense will come if we have a bad start.”
Reese is one of four Buffs averaging in double figures, with three others averaging over six, seven and eight points each. CU ranks second in the league in scoring (77.5) and scoring defense (59.5), trailing Oregon (105.3) and Stanford (58.2), in those respective categories.
Reese, who has shed the protective mask she’s been wearing after suffering a broken nose last month, said defensive improvement has been a personal focal point since her arrival in Boulder: “Coach has been on me about it for most of my time here. I want to be a good defender and not be picked on. I know I’ll be picked on in some games; it’s going to happen.
“Everyone knows it, I know it. Whatever. My freshman year I couldn’t guard that well and I think teams said, ‘Let’s just go at Reese.’ I’ve gotten ready for it; it’s a challenge to me. I try to step up and do it for my teammates and the coaching staff.”
The top three teams in the conference record-wise are Stanford, CU and Arizona State – each with one loss. Cal is 8-3, with two of its losses to No. 1 UConn and No. 3 Duke. The Sun Devils’ non-conference schedule wasn’t all fluff either; they defeated No. 10 North Carolina and most recently No. 20 Syracuse, with their one loss to San Diego, which is among others receiving votes in this week's AP poll.
“Arizona State is playing really good basketball . . . they play hard and together,” Lappe said. “I never like to go by any sort of preseason rankings. Oregon State had a chance to beat Notre Dame at home. There are a lot of good teams, then obviously Stanford and Cal. UCLA and USC at times will be very good as well. There’s a lot of talent and very good coaching. I think the parity is better this year from top to bottom. I think it’s a much tougher than a year ago.
“But we’re excited for conference. I feel like we’re ready; we need to be tested and the conference is really going to test us in a great way. That’s how you get better as a team, playing against good competition. Starting on the road is always tough, particularly going to the LA schools. But I think we’re ready.”