By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
For Stanford women's basketball fans, Nikki Caldwell may be recognized as the second-best player to ever come out of Oak Ridge, Tenn. She helped lead Tennessee to the 1991 national championship, a year after Stanford won the first of its two NCAA titles with its own Oak Ridge native -- Jennifer Azzi.
Tara VanDerveer needed five years to build the Cardinal into a national champion. Caldwell appears to be headed in that direction and she's in her third year as head coach at UCLA.
The eighth-ranked Bruins (5-0, 15-1) visit Maples Pavilion Thursday for an early Pac-10 showdown with fourth-ranked Stanford (5-0, 14-2) at 7 p.m.
Caldwell enters the marquee matchup with 81 career games as head coach under her belt. VanDerveer has coached 1,004 games. Still, the Tennessee grad and former Lady Vols assistant under Pat Summit has 59 wins. VanDerveer recorded 55 wins in her first 81 games.
It's a meeting between a Hall of Fame coach and a rising star in the coaching ranks. Caldwell brought the Lady Vols' defensive philosophy to Westwood and has the Bruins on the brink of postseason immortality. VanDerveer, of course, has led three different teams -- Idaho, Ohio State and Stanford -- into national prominence.
"UCLA and USC should be great programs and it's exciting that they are," VanDerveer said. "We know what UCLA is capable of doing and their players have another year with Nikki Caldwell."
Six of the Bruins' top 11 players are in their third season with Caldwell, including returning all-Pac-10 players Jasmine Dixon and Doreena Campbell.
Seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen did not have particularly good shooting nights against UCLA in three games last year, but both still contributed to three wins.
Pedersen shot just over 21 percent against the Bruins and averaged 7.3 points. She did average 12.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Pohlen shot just under 24 percent, averaged 8.0 points and 8.3 assists.
UCLA's strength is in its perimeter defense, and the Bruins were able to limit the damage from Stanford's sharpshooters.
"They disrupt you with their athleticism and aggressiveness," VanDerveer said. "They get their hands on balls, rebound well and run the floor well. They are an opportunistic team and will take advantage of what you give them."
Stanford has seen that type of play many times over the years in the form of Tennessee, Connecticut and other top teams and the Cardinal players should be prepared for whatever the Bruins throw at them.
Stanford brings a 54-game home winning streak into Thursday's contest, and this is certainly no cakewalk. The Bruins have won all six of their road games this year, including a double-overtime game in front of 7,824 fans at Notre Dame.
Of course, for Menlo School grad Jackie Shepard, it may feel more like home. Shepard, a sophomore guard at UCLA, has appeared in two games this year.
While UCLA guards will give the Cardinal some problems, the post play of Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike likely will present the Bruins with a different set of problems.
Nnemkadi shot over 54 percent and averaged 17.3 points against UCLA last year. In addition, she grabbed 8.9 boards a contest. Chiney had a 5-for-5 shooting day and a double-double against Washington State on Sunday.
"She understands her job is to rebound and take high percentage shots," VanDerveer said. "For me she's a Freshman of the Year candidate. She's playing major minutes for us."
The Bruins give Stanford its stiffest competition of Pac-10 play to date. Their team speed gives everybody problems and they seem capable at any tempo. UCLA has won 13 of its games by 10 points or more. It's only blemish is a two-point loss at home to LSU.
A clash of top 10 teams is good for the Pac-10, adding drama to a conference season that has lacked for it until this week.
"We need to have more than two," VanDerveer said. "We need to have three or four teams in Top 25 at least, especially going into next year with the Pac-12. We want to try and get the attention of the Midwest and east coast."
Meanwhile, Stanford redshirt senior Melanie Murphy is participating in full workouts and could be cleared to play Thursday, though VanDerveer stressed she would only get limited playing time if at all.