- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There's no easy way to begin a conversation about Stanford's outlook this season without bringing up Candice Wiggins. Attempt it, and you end up talking around last season's Wade Trophy winner in a circuitous trek that inevitably lands you right back where you started.
With an unimposing frame and an unprepossessing personality, Wiggins never towered over her teammates, but her absence casts a Brobdingnagian shadow over Palo Alto.
So it's easy to imagine the current Cardinal might be a little tired of talking about the player who last season led them to the program's first Final Four in more than a decade.
"No, because Candice is an absolutely amazing player; she's an amazing person," junior point guard JJ Hones countered. "I mean, I wish she was still here and we didn't have to be talking about her. But it's not something that I'm tired of, because she deserves all the talk and publicity and credit she gets."
In fact, the Cardinal wouldn't mind one bit if they gave Wiggins an opportunity for some additional exposure -- as one of the more famous faces sitting in the stands and cheering them on at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis during the Final Four this spring.
Unlike Tennessee, which lost Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and others in addition to Candace Parker, and unlike LSU, which lost not just Sylvia Fowles but also the rest of its starting lineup, Stanford returns almost its entire roster other than Wiggins. With Hones, Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, Jillian Harmon, Jeanette Pohlen and Morgan Clyburn, the Cardinal start the season with 159 of the 200 minutes they collectively played against Tennessee in the 2008 championship game. Consider that, for all its returning talent, Connecticut has only 139 of 200 minutes from its semifinal against Stanford.
And while no one player could hope to replace the program's emotional compass and the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer, coach Tara VanDerveer ensured no one need try. In addition to all the returning talent, she brought in a surprisingly large and unsurprisingly lauded recruiting class, led by Gatorade National Player of the Year Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
Whether the result is unfamiliarly familiar or familiarly unfamiliar, it's unquestionably promising.
"In a way, it feels like it's the same team coming back," Hones said. "Because it is still like Jeanette and Kayla, Jayne and Jillian and Ros -- and then we even have, like, [Michelle Harrison] and [Melanie Murphy] that are coming [back from injuries] and stepping in. All those players, I played with them in practice every day, and so I know that's what they're capable of doing. Like Jeanette, the other day she had 19. I don't think that came as a surprise to anyone but maybe fans who don't get to see her in practice every day.
"But it's obviously a different team, because I feel like with Candice, she would be getting most of the shots -- not saying that's a bad thing; we obviously did really well with that. But now I feel, like Tara has been saying, it's kind of we're replacing her by committee and so people are scoring by committee. I think things are more distributed and everyone is getting their shot to prove that they belong here and that we belong."
Quite literally in the middle of it all is Appel, less the Robin to Wiggins' Batman than the Mickey Mantle to her Joe DiMaggio, waiting in the wings to emerge as the face of the program.
In a crowded class of elite centers around the nation this season, Appel is arguably the most well-rounded of the bunch. She scores, rebounds and defends, and she might be the best passing post in the country. There are 29 returning players who blocked at least two shots per game last season; Appel is the only one who finished with more assists (108) than blocks (84). And after collecting 98 fouls in 636 minutes as a freshman, Appel heeded her coach's "thou shall not foul" commandment last season to the tune of 114 fouls in 1,129 minutes.
Although hopefully unlike Mantle, the injuries that necessitated first surgery on her left shoulder in April and later surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee aren't indications that the ferocity with which she approaches play in the post has taken a toll.
"I definitely feel like my body going into the season is healthy," Appel said. "And our trainer, Marcella [Shorty], is working really hard to keep it that way."
The forced time off also gave Appel a line of demarcation between the disappointment of a 64-48 loss to the Lady Volunteers in the national championship game in Tampa and a new season with new expectations and new roles.
When the sling came off her shoulder over the summer, Appel recalled, it was time to start looking ahead. With or without the symbolic visual aid, all the returnees faced similar quandaries. Appel could well come close to matching Wiggins' scoring average (or at least the 19.3 points per game she averaged prior to the NCAA tournament eruption), but as Hones suggested and Appel echoed, nobody is talking about replacing her presence. In fact, having seen what it takes to get to the season's final weekend, nobody is all that interested in wasting energy on words of any kind.
"Our team has been pretty big, especially last year, on just kind of doing it instead of talking about it," Appel said. "My freshman year, we did a lot of talking about what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. And last year, we kind of took a different mentality of we're just going to go out and do it and not talk about it so much. And I think that's kind of the mind-set we've taken this year, also. We're all kind of aware that we all need to step up."
Help will come from the freshmen. Newcomer Lindy La Rocque knocked down seven 3-pointers in her first game in a Stanford uniform, an exhibition win against Chico State. According to Hones, 6-foot-5 freshman Sarah Boothe runs the court better than any player her size the point guard has ever seen.
With Boothe in the mix with Appel and Pac-10 freshman of the year Kayla Pedersen, the low post has the kind of depth it had when Appel played her freshman year alongside Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin. But nobody is getting more rave reviews than Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 gem who shot 14-of-18 with 13 rebounds, five assists and five steals in Stanford's two exhibition wins.
Ogwumike even seems to have a little touch of the on-court exuberance that made whatshername such a pleasure to watch from her first day on the court to her last.
"She's also very enthusiastic and brings a lot of energy to practice every day, which helps," Hones said of Ogwumike. "Because I feel like without Candice, everyone needs to bring their own energy, and then the people that do have enough energy can help us other people. And it's great, and unexpected, to have a freshman come in and kind of bring some energy for people."
There will be bumps in the road for Stanford. Doing anything by committee makes for a more delicate balance than a chain of command, and that balance will bear watching should something like last season's lost weekend in Los Angeles (dropping games at UCLA and USC) occur this season. And as nice as it sounds to look at the roster and wonder whether the third string might be able to finish in the top half of the conference, nothing can spoil a good dish like throwing in too many ingredients.
But something else returned alongside all that talent from last season, something that should quickly be passed on to the fresh faces.
"I feel like, coming into Stanford, I think if you ask anyone why they're here, it's to win a national championship," Hones said. "I think everyone put themselves in a place where they were going to do well both athletically and academically. And I don't think -- not think, I know -- we were not satisfied with how we finished last year. Yes, it's great we got to the national championship game, but this year we're greedy. We want more.
"I really think that we do have a lot to prove. Especially being -- I mean, I feel like it's a broken record, but especially being a West Coast team and whatnot, people are still going to underestimate us."
Wiggins is gone but not forgotten, but this season's Cardinal would like to make sure they're neither when the next net gets clipped in April.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Replace Wade Trophy winner Candice Wiggins? Not likely. But with nearly her entire roster back and a slew of incoming talent, Tara VanDerveer envisions a committee approach.