By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Freshmen Aaron Bright and Toni Kokenis are potentially future standouts in their respective Stanford basketball programs. In all likelihood, their futures start Sunday when both the men's and women's teams open Pac-10 play against California.
Bright made his starting debut with the Cardinal men in Tuesday night's 60-44 victory over visiting Yale. He'll likely be there again when the Bears visit Maples Pavilion for a 5 p.m. tipoff Sunday.
Kokenis has a pair of starts under her belt, and plenty of playing time against nationally ranked opponents both on the road and at home. She's received significant playing time, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game so far, against three of the top four ranked teams in the country.
Whether Kokenis starts Sunday's 12:30 p.m. game at California is a mere formality. She will get to see the court a lot.
Both Johnny Dawkins and Tara VanDerveer understand there are never enough point guards on a roster for a coach to feel secure. The 5-foot-11 Bright gives Stanford (7-4) a different look. The 5-11 Kokenis gives the ninth-ranked Cardinal (8-2 prior to Thursday's showdown with UConn) another body in the absence of a true, experienced point guard.
Bright assumed the spot, with Jarrett Mann moving to the off guard and Jeremy Green getting action on the perimeter. Bright, who had six points and six assists with one turnover, is expected to start against Cal.
"I like Aaron there," Dawkins said. "We can get better at that position. Aaron is unique in that he's more of a speedy guard who can knock down 3s."
Mann remains on the court because of his defensive capabilities as well as his ball-handling skills.
"He's our best defender on the perimeter," Dawkins said.
Green left Tuesday's game with an ankle injury.
"He rolled his ankle pretty good," Dawkins said. "Under different circumstances he could have played the last three or four minutes. We'll see how he is tomorrow, if there's any swelling."
The Cardinal would love to be at full strength when the Bears come to town.
"I'm optimistic," Dawkins said. "He's pretty sturdy. We are excited about the Pac-10. We've had some amazing tests and been in incredible environments. The schedule helped us get prepared."
Josh Owens continues to rediscover his basketball skills and said he's feeling just fine these days.
"We keep taking steps to get better all the time," said Owens, who missed all of last year with an undisclosed medical condition. "Everything is good."
Freshman Dwight Powell will continue to be worked into the rotation, too.
"His versatility on the perimeter and inside is something we can utilize now and for the future," Dawkins said of the 6-10 standout.
California (8-3) still has a young team, with 10 freshmen and sophomores and two seniors comprising the roster, but the Bears are maturing rapidly and are coming off a pretty good road win at Illinois.
Sophomores DeNesha Stallworth, Layshia Clarendon and Talia Campbell are Cal's top three scorers, and three of the top four rebounders. The starting five has usually been four sophomores and a freshman, with senior Rama N'diaye also getting a handful of starts.
Stanford has had its hands full following one of its most strenuous preseason schedule in school history.
Perhaps VanDerveer believes in the survival of the fittest and putting her troops through such a demanding nonconference slate will toughen them up, especially freshmen like Kokenis and Chiney Ogwumike.
"We play these games to let us know where we're at," VanDerveer said. "Toni has the ability to beat people off the dribble and that's something we need. Sometimes she gets going a little too fast."
As Kokenis develops into a polished player, Stanford will reap the benefits of even more versatility at the guard position.
In the meantime, seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen carry much of the burden with junior Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year. Ogwumike had 23 points while Pohlen added 19 and Pedersen 14 in an 89-52 romp over No. 4 Xavier on Tuesday.
Junior Lindy La Rocque, redshirt sophomore Sarah Boothe and sophomore Joslyn Tinkle have given the Cardinal quality minutes but there's still a lot more work ahead if Stanford entertains thoughts of returning to the Final Four.
Stanford's iron grip on the Pac-10 crown may have loosened a bit with Cal getting better every time out and UCLA putting together a tremendous start.
The conference title is still there for the taking though, as is another long run into the NCAA tournament.