Stanford has long been the measuring stick for the rest of the Pac-12 women's basketball coaches. The Cardinal has won, or shared the past 15 conference titles and 23 in the 28-year history of the conference.
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer is not about to concede anything just yet, even as other Pac-12 teams work to recruit and strategize on or above Stanford's level.
The coaches voted the sixth-ranked Cardinal the conference favorite yet again, though Cal received three first-place votes and Oregon State grabbed two. The media put Cal on top with nine first-place votes while Stanford had seven and the Beavers one.
Losing the nation's best player, Chiney Ogwumike, to graduation gives Stanford the appearance of vulnerability. After all, she left as the Pac-12's leading scorer and rebounder. She was Stanford's leading scorer in 34 of the 37 games played and was also the leading rebounder on 27 occasions.
Senior Amber Orrange, a preseason All-Pac-12 pick, led the Cardinal in scoring twice last year, both times against Connecticut. Senior Bonnie Samuelson was the top scorer against Arizona.
Orrange and sophomore Lili Thompson are the only returning starters, though seven others started at least once. Samuelson and senior Taylor Greenfield each started five times.
Stanford (17-1 in the Pac-12, 33-4 overall last year) opens the season Friday, hosting Boston College at 5:30 p.m. On Monday, top-ranked Connecticut comes to town for a 6 p.m. tip-off that has been sold out for months.
VanDerveer has junked her triangle offense in favor of one that hopes to take advantage of Orrange, Thompson and Stanford's athleticism. The problem is she and her coaching staff, which includes Amy Tucker, Menlo School and Stanford grad Kate Paye and Temple Brown, spent the offseason learning the new offense so they could teach it.
"We made the decision as a staff to go in a different direction," VanDerveer said. "We had to put something new together."
The offense is based on getting up and down the court fast and making quick decisions. It's based on a version of a fastbreak offense former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni successfully installed.
The women's coaching staff went on a retreat with the men's coaching staff to brainstorm ideas. Men's coach Johnny Dawkins was instrumental in providing information.
Stanford grad and former NBA player Mark Madsen spent days diagramming the offense and watching the team run it. D'Antoni tutored it.
"We wanted to help Amber and the rest of the team approach it intelligently," VanDerveer said. "It's more about spacing on the floor. Into September it was stressful. I was comfortable with the triangle but we had to leave it."
For VanDerveer, in her 40th year as a coach, it became a different way of looking at women's basketball and certainly provided a unique challenge.
"Yes, I'm teaching something I've never taught before," she said. "It has me totally out of my comfort zone."
Orrange will be asked to carry a big part of the responsibility this year, something that intrigues her.
"The offense is more oriented to the guard," Orrange said. "We'll move the ball around and share it more. I've been working a lot with Kate before practices visualizing things and evaluating things. It's been a process."
Thompson is a key to the offense, which also engages the 3-point shooters on the team, which are plenty. Samuelson, Thompson, sophomore Karlie Samuelson, Orrange and Greenfield are all skilled shooters from long range.
Thompson grew into a trusted role on offense and, in conjunction with Orrange, will give Stanford its most aggressive pair of backcourt players in a long time. Their ability to penetrate will likely open the perimeter.
"We want to run," VanDerveer said. "That's the first way we want to attack. We want to spread it around, get on the glass, not foul and box out."
Orrange is actually Stanford's top returning rebounder following the loss of Ogwumike and Mikaela Ruef. Sophomore Erica McCall is not far behind.
"I love playing with Lili," Orrange said. "She's super aggressive with the ball and is not afraid to take shots or guard the other team's best player."
Redshirt juniors Alex Green and Jasmine Camp and sophomore Briana Roberson give Stanford much-needed depth at the guard position while senior Erica Payne, junior Tess Picknell and sophomore Kailee Johnson will likely be in the frontcourt rotation.
Freshman forward Kaylee Johnson (yes, it will be hard to keep them separate) has shown a penchant for rebounding through the two exhibition games. She started both of them and grabbed a total of 28 boards to go with 19 points.
"If we had a race, she would beat everybody," VanDerveer said. "She's a pleasant surprise. She catches on quickly."
Freshmen guards Taylor Rooks and Brittany McPhee are also showing they belong. McPhee got a late start due to a stress reaction in her foot.
The starting lineup looks to be Orrange, Thompson, McCall, the freshman Johnson, and either Karlie Samuelson or Greenfield.
McCall scored a combined 33 points and had 18 rebounds in the two exhibition games. Roberson led the team with six assists against Vanguard.
"It's always been hard," VanDerveer said. "For as long as I can remember there has always been great players and great coaches in the conference. Do I expect a battle this year? Yes, but I expect it every year."
The opening homestand, which also includes Texas at 7 p.m. Thursday, will be a fairly accurate barometer for Stanford.
2014-15 STANFORD WOMEN'S BASKETBALL
Friday Boston College 5:30 p.m.
Monday Connecticut 6 p.m.
Nov. 20 Texas 6 p.m.
Nov. 24 at New Mexico 6 p.m.
Nov. 28 North Carolina* 4 p.m.
Nov. 29 Hawaii* 4 p.m.
Nov. 30 Prairie View* 6:30 p.m.
Dec. 14 Santa Clara 7 p.m.
Dec. 17 at Chattanooga 3 p.m.
Dec. 20 at Tennessee 10 a.m.
Dec. 22 UC Davis 2 p.m.
Dec. 28 UC Santa Barbara 2 p.m.
Jan. 3 Colorado 7 p.m.
Jan. 5 Utah 5 p.m.
Jan. 9 at Washington 7 p.m.
Jan. 11 at Washington State 1 p.m.
Jan. 16 Arizona 8 p.m.
Jan. 19 Arizona State 3 p.m.
Jan. 23 at UCLA 7 p.m.
Jan. 25 at USC 5 p.m.
Jan. 31 Washington State 12:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 Washington 7 p.m.
Feb. 6 at Arizona State 7 p.m.
Feb. 8 at Arizona 2 p.m.
Feb. 13 USC 6 p.m.
Feb. 15 UCLA 4:30 p.m.
Feb. 18 at Cal 7 p.m.
Feb. 22 Cal 1 p.m.
Feb. 26 at Oregon State 6 p.m.
March 1 at Oregon 1 p.m.
March 5-8 Pac-12 Tournament (in Seattle)
* Rainbow Wahine Shootout, Hawaii