Stanford could go far with Wiggins leading the way

Updated: February 18, 2007, 9:50 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Candice Wiggins is down, but the Stanford Cardinal are anything but out as long as that's a temporary state of affairs.

Candice Wiggins
Robert B. Stanton/WireImage.comAll-American Candice Wiggins leads Stanford with 16.8 ppg, shooting 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range.

Wiggins sprained her right ankle in a win against Washington on Feb. 10 and played sparingly in No. 10 Stanford's win over Oregon State on Thursday. The Cardinal play Oregon on Saturday. Although there were initial fears the injury might linger into the postseason, Wiggins sounded optimistic Tuesday about the long-term outlook.

"It's looking good, it's looking a lot better than what I think everyone expected," Wiggins said. "We'll see; it's kind of like a day-to-day thing."

Wiggins' ankle injury comes on top of offseason surgery to alleviate plantar fascia in both feet. It seems like a lot to deal with, but Wiggins isn't complaining.

"I think every player on every team kind of experiences little nicks and pains," Wiggins said. "It's just when it's continuous and they keep coming back and recurring, that's when it's frustrating. I also have to count my blessings though, because I'm in a situation where I still can play, even if it is with pain. I can deal with that, but there could be a lot worse situations."

At this point, Tara VanDerveer's team (22-4, 14-1 Pac-10) has little choice but to search out the bright side. If Michael Jordan's Bulls ran the triangle offense to perfection, the Cardinal are working on fine-tuning the triage offense.

It's barely stretching the limits of statistical credulity to point out that Stanford hasn't lost a game in which one of its players didn't suffer a season-ending injury since the leftover turkey and stuffing was still chilling in the fridge over Thanksgiving weekend.

In addition to the injuries plaguing their best player, the Cardinal lost starting point guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude to a torn ACL before the season even began. Freshman JJ Hones stepped in and did a remarkable job running the offense, compiling a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio while leading the team in assists through 23 games. But she suffered a torn ACL in the opening minute of a game against Cal on Feb. 4.

Stanford had a 17-game winning streak entering the game against Cal, but the season-ending injury to Hones threw the Cardinal for a loop in what ended up being a 72-57 loss against the school's traditional rival. The Bears had lost 14 straight in the series.

"Right after she hurt herself it was apparent something was wrong," Wiggins said. "And I think that's when everything kind of just shut down for us. You could see it in people's eyes; everyone was just not really there, including myself. … It's so hard to see a teammate go down like that."

They bounced back, posting big wins against Washington State and Washington to improve to 13-1 in conference play, but perhaps it's no surprise that with ample evidence of how quickly things can change, Wiggins has a tough time heeding the call of discretion while battling her current injury.

"Especially with a team like this, which we all know is very special, you don't want to miss anything, any part of it," Wiggins said. "Any little part, one game, is a big deal for me because this is the last time I'll be able to play with Brooke [Smith], this is the last year I'll be able to play with all the seniors. So that really, to me, is what motivates me to want to play. And when you can't, and you've got to kind of do the big picture, it's still very frustrating."

Because for all the injuries and adversity, this is still a team capable of reaching the Final Four if Wiggins returns at close to 100 percent.

Even without Hones running the point, the Cardinal are arguably the best passing team in the nation. They rank sixth in the NCAA in assists per game, and of the seven teams averaging at least 18 assists per game, only Georgia State's assists represent a greater percentage of the team's total field goals.

Hones led the way averaging 3.9 assists per game, but Wiggins, Smith and Jillian Harmon all average at least two assists per game. And if the last two games are any indication, VanDerveer isn't done turning nervous freshmen into calm distributors. Melanie Murphy totaled 12 assists and one turnover against Washington and Washington State, averaging 25.5 minutes per game.

"We have an excellent inside game with Brooke Smith, Jayne Appel and Kristen Newlin," Wiggins said, speaking about her own increased minutes at the point. "So it's not really hard to be a point guard at Stanford when you have Brooke Smith and Jayne Appel to give the ball to, to distribute to. It's just about finding ways to get it inside, so that's the hardest part, being able to deliver."

That post game made Stanford a nightmare matchup in last year's NCAA Tournament, as Smith exploded on the offensive end and Newlin chewed up minutes, space and rebounds on defense (although Oklahoma's Courtney Paris scored 26 points against Stanford in a regional semifinal, she did it on 11-of-24 shooting). The bad news for opponents this spring is that the Cardinal are only getting better inside with Appel settling in as a star in waiting.

"The biggest thing I think I've seen with Jayne in her improvement is her confidence," Wiggins said. "It reminds me of my freshman year, you come in and you're really excited and you really want to have a role on the team and contribute as much as you can. Then as the season progresses, you start gaining confidence and so your role expands. And Jayne is like that, you know, she is just such a competitive person. For me, I've never, ever played or seen any post player, any player, like her. She is just so unique in her body, how she moves, her hands, everything. She is phenomenal."

Far from wearing out during conference play as a freshman, the 6-foot-4 Appel was averaging 12.6 and 6.8 rebounds in the team's previouis 10 games heading into Thursday, including her first career double-double against Washington State on Feb. 8 (19 points, 14 rebounds).

All that size makes the Cardinal equally difficult on defense. The Cardinal have limited opponents to 34.9 percent shooting on the season, a mark that would be the team's best field-goal defense during the Wiggins era if it holds. Tennessee shot 50 percent from the field in recording a 17-point win against Stanford in late November, but time has helped the Cardinal grow more comfortable with their defensive responsibilities.

"You can guard anyone, so everyone really knows the scouting report, really knows every single player, so it's like a real team defense," Wiggins said of a shift in defensive philosophy that took place after the departures of one-on-one stoppers Susan King Borchardt and T'Nae Thiel after the 2004-05 season. "Maybe we're not pressuring the ball a lot, or causing a lot of turnovers, but we know our assignments and I think we play good team defense."

But for all the pieces coalescing around Wiggins, Stanford's fate still rests with her. She won't win player-of-the-year honors, but she remains the most complete player in women's college basketball. No star is better at fitting in as part of an offense for 30-plus minutes and then taking over when needed.

Consider the most obvious offensive contributions a player can make on the floor: field goals, free throws and assists. For every turnover Wiggins commits, she averages 6.9 of those positive offensive plays. Tennessee's Candace Parker (6.5 positive plays per turnover), Duke's Lindsey Harding (6.5), Oklahoma's Courtney Paris (5.8) and North Carolina's Ivory Latta (3.2) all trail behind her. And while that stat penalizes Harding and Latta by failing to draw a distinction between 2-point and 3-point field goals, Wiggins shoots 42.5 percent from behind the arc.

Simply put, no star in the country is more efficient on the basketball court than Wiggins.

"It's one of those things where you kind of have to have a feel of what's a good shot and what's a bad shot -- I still take really bad shots sometimes," Wiggins said. "Playing for so long, I kind of can tell when is a good time for me to take over, when is a good time to attack, or when is a good time to feed our posts. … I think the biggest thing is to really understand the flow of the game and what's open."

Only one body can truly stop Wiggins, and it's her own. If she's healthy three weeks from now, the Cardinal finally might get to use scissors to cut nets instead of training tape.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.