It took awhile, but we finally get to the best team in the West: No. 15 Stanford.
The Cardinal lost five seniors to graduation and return only two starters. But that duo -- which aren't just starters but are stars -- will carry the load. Last season, Candice Wiggins became the first Pac-10 woman to win the conference's Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards in the same season. Just the ninth freshman to be named a Kodak All-American, Wiggins is Stanford's returning leader in points, assists and steals. And she gets to the foul line. Wiggins made 162 free throws last season (while shooting 84 percent from the foul line), a school record.
Wiggins is the team's primary scorer, primary 3-pointer shooter and one of the top players in the country. She is equally deadly in the post or on the wing. The most amazing thing about Wiggins, though, is that she didn't turn 18 years old until Valentine's Day. She's now a sophomore -- which means she'll continue to keep Stanford good for a few more years.
Brooke Smith, the other returning starter, is in her second season at Stanford after transferring from Duke. Smith is the primary low-post threat and has a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-like skyhook that is one of the best offensive post moves in the country. She led the team in rebounding and blocks last season and was second in the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage. She is very skilled at passing out of the double-team as well.
Stanford doesn't have a true point guard, but rather a multitude of interchangeable guards who can handle the ball. Wiggins is one of those players. Another is Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, a true freshman who had some knee problems during her senior year of high school. She's continuing to get healthy and could start, but will likely open the season backing up Clare Bodensteiner. Cissy Pierce will also see action at the guard position, but currently has a fractured elbow. She is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
Krista Rappahahn will stretch the defense for Stanford. She is a deadly 3-point shooter who will benefit from the double-teams that Wiggins and Smith will draw.
Kristen Newlin, a 6-foot-5 post, will form a very big, almost Twin Tower look inside with Smith, who's 6-3. Initially, Newlin and Smith might start, but eventually Newlin might come off the bench to give Stanford a faster, more up-tempo team. Both will be game-changers on the defensive end. And, speaking of defense, Stanford held its opponents to a school-record 56.0 points per game last season.
The team lost Kelley Suminski, a starter and last season's minutes leader, to graduation. She was a coach on the floor and ranks second in school history with 208 made 3-point field goals. Also gone is Sebnem Kimyacioglu, who ranks third in school history with 205 3-pointers. Suminski and Kimyacioglu hold the school records for games played with 136. Key contributors Susan King Borchardt and T'Nae Thiel are also gone.
Depth could be an issue. Losing five seniors hurts the experience level, too. Players will have to learn on the fly to keep up with Wiggins and Smith, the best duo in the West.
Peter Newmann is the college basketball researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.