By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
This is Nnemkadi Ogwumike's year and the senior preseason All-American has the Final Four clearly in her sights.
You won't catch her looking ahead though. She knows the path to the top will be grueling and there are still 141 shopping days left until the Stanford women's basketball team can think about Denver in April.
But just to make it even more demanding, Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer has put together another impossibly tough nonconference schedule, highlighted by visits to Connecticut and Xavier and visits from Gonzaga and Tennessee.
The fifth-ranked Cardinal opens the season Friday in Texas, where the 24th-ranked Longhorns are waiting to tip off at 5 p.m.
Stanford's home opener is Sunday at 2 p.m. against Gonzaga.
The first 10 teams on the slate appeared in the postseason last year, including eight in the NCAA tournament, one in the WNIT and one in the WBI. Last year's combined record of their first 10 opponents? 252-72. Wow.
And the Pac-12 season opens with a road trip to USC and UCLA, both currently ranked in the top 25.
Texas won 19 games last year and the other nine teams won at least 20, with three of those reaching 31. VanDerveer wants to make sure there's no time to relax for the veterans while providing the newcomers with a steep learning curve.
Ogwumike (17.5 points, 7.6 rebounds last year) and fellow seniors Grace Mashore and Lindy LaRocque have been through the grindstone before and will be counted upon to lead the others safely through the maze of the season.
Juniors Sarah Boothe, Joslyn Tinkle, Mikaela Ruef and sophomores Chiney Ogwumike (11.7, 8.0), Toni Kokenis and Sara James also know what its like to reach the Final Four.
With six freshmen, many of whom are expected to contribute right away, there will be a lot of cramming done until Christmas.
"The freshmen don't slow things down," VanDerveer said. "They go all out. Nneka has already told this team that we have to outwork people."
The newcomers bring versatility and depth, with guards Alex Green, Jasmine Camp and Amber Orrange and forwards (all 6-2 or taller) Taylor Greenfield, Erica Payne and Bonnie Samuelson. The ability to mesh with the Ogwumike sisters will likely determine their playing time.
Orrange (13 assists in the exhibition games) and Camp will see action at point guard, along with Kokenis. LaRocque and Green add depth to the position.
Samuelson could be difficult to defend since she's able to shoot from almost anywhere on the court. She made a combined 10 three-pointers in the two exhibition games.
"Our team is going to be really different," VanDerveer said. "We'll be smaller but much, much quicker. There's the speed of the freshmen guards and a healthy Toni and Nneka run the floor very well."
VanDerveer is hopeful Chiney Ogwumike can take her game to the next level.
"My conversations with her include 'let the game come to you,'" VanDerveer said. "I'd like her to be a little more versatile. I want her to know that knocking down a 15-footer is a really big thing. She needs to play within herself."
Ogwumike seems to have taken the lesson to heart.
"That is my motto for the year," she said. "Let the game come to me. Control what I can control. Live in the moment."
And help her big sister win an NCAA championship.
2011-12 WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Friday at Texas, 5 p.m.
Sunday vs. Gonzaga, 2 p.m.
Nov. 17 vs. Old Dominion, 7 p.m.
Nov. 21 at Connecticut, 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 25 at Xavier, 10 a.m.
Nov. 30 vs. UC Davis, 7 p.m.
Dec. 4 at Fresno State, 2 p.m.
Dec. 17 vs. Princeton, 1 p.m.
Dec. 20 vs. Tennessee, 7 p.m.
Dec. 22 vs. Cal State Bakersfield, 2 p.m.
Dec. 29 at USC, 7 p.m.
Dec. 31 at UCLA, 2 p.m.
Jan. 5 vs. Oregon, 7 p.m.
Jan. 7 vs. Oregon State, 2 p.m.
Jan. 12, at Utah, 6 p.m.
Jan. 14 at Colorado, 3 p.m.
Jan. 19 vs. Washington State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 21 vs. Washington, 2 p.m.
Jan. 28 vs. California, 2 p.m.
Feb. 2 at Arizona State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 4 at Arizona, 1 p.m.
Feb. 9 vs. USC, 6 p.m.
Feb. 12 vs. UCLA, noon
Feb. 16 at Oregon State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 18 at Oregon, 2 p.m.
Feb. 23 vs. Colorado, 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 vs. Utah, 2 p.m.
Feb. 29 vs. Seattle University, 7 p.m.
March 4 at California, 6 p.m.