By Rick Eymer
Chiney Ogwumike bounced around the Pac-12 Network Studios in her Cardinal '13' uniform greeting players like long lost friends. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer grabbed a few quick rounds on the ping pong table, practicing for her upcoming match with Stanford assistant Kate Paye.
It was Pac-12 women's basketball media day in San Francisco on Thursday and the place was swarming with coaches, players and conference officials hankering for the season to get under way already.
The conference coaches chose Stanford to win the Pac-12 title and that's hardly been a surprise since the Cardinal has been picked to win it all 13 consecutive years.
Clifornia, which shared the title with Stanford last year and then advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history, shrugged it off.
"We still expect to win the Pac-12 title," Golden Bears junior guard Brittany Boyd said.
Stanford has the same goal. In fact, it has a bigger dream.
"We're chasing Connecticut," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We want to win the national title. We want to get better every day. We love the competition in our conference. I think the Pac-10/12 has been historically overlooked."
Ogwumike said not reaching last year's Final Four made the team re-evaluate its thinking.
"It feels like the team has been reborn," said the two-time All-American. "We have a whole new opportunity of going to the Final Four. There were other things involved but when we didn't go to the Final Four, that was the streak most notable. We changed the mindset to winning the Final Four, not just the goal of getting there."
To emphasize that point, Ogwumike said that over the summer the team decided to clear out some of the comforts of their locker room and install exercise equipment instead.
"We wanted to change the culture," Ogwumike said. "We wanted the newcomers to see this was a place to put in the work. We wanted the team to recognize Stanford as a national championship caliber team. We wanted to get back to doing things the Stanford way and to embrace it."
With five freshmen joining a group of 10 returnees, the change had to be made swiftly and effectively. Ogwumike said there was no reason to worry.
"They are all realizing what they can bring to the team," Ogwumike said. "We don't look at them as freshmen, we look at them as assets. They all made the choice to commit to working hard. The freshmen bring competition to every position."
VanDerveer, six wins away from career No. 900, said the freshmen gleaned a lot from the team's 10-day trip trip to Italy.
"They got a lot of extra practice and played games," she said. "They are mature and ready to go. They are better than I thought they were. Everyone looks good."
Ogwumike, junior point guard Amber Orrange and senior forward Mikaela Ruef are the core, with senior Sara James ready to step.
VanDerveer said Alex Green has made the most improvement, adding that Bonnie Samuelson, Taylor Greenfield, Erica Payne, Jasmine Camp and Tess Picknell also improved since last year.
"Our main job is to keep everyone healthy," VanDerveer said. "It's not just about more depth, it's about better balance."
Stanford opens the season on Saturday, Nov. 9 at Boston College. Two days later it's a game at defending national champion Connecticut.