- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Matt Groening of "Simpsons" fame once did a cartoon about two of his whimsical characters entitled, "The 77 Moods of Akbar and Jeff."
The joke being that regardless of the descriptive adjective of their expressions -- serene, woeful, perky, mirthless, etc. -- the drawing of the identical little dudes in fezzes looked exactly the same.
Except the last mood: surprised. In that, Akbar's (or was it Jeff?) fez jumped off his head.
Now, admittedly, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer does display a slightly more obvious range of emotions than that. Still even when she is most joyful, she doesn't exactly do the verbal equivalent of turning cartwheels. That's just not TVD's style.
That is partly why she asked, after talking about her 2010-11 Cardinal, "Can you tell I'm pretty giddy about this group?"
Well "giddy" is not necessarily a term that you would associate with the professor-like VanDerveer. But "Tara-level" giddy? Yes, absolutely. That comes through clearly. Especially when she said, "I tell you, life doesn't get much better than what I have right now."
That's not because she's sure that the Cardinal are going to win their first NCAA title since 1992. She's not even thinking about that. Her current happiness has nothing to do with predicting results.
VanDerveer, as no-nonsense as she appears, is actually not a cut-to-the-chase-kind of person. She doesn't want to skip ahead even one page in the book. She prefers to enjoy each paragraph as it comes.
That's what happens when a coach really is pleased with her players, and VanDerveer definitely is that. Sure, she particularly misses center Jayne Appel and Ros Gold-Onwude, departed seniors. She has her worries about depth at the guard spot this season, particularly making up for Gold-Onwude's defense.
The nonconference schedule is loaded with the likes of UConn, Tennessee and Xavier (think the Musketeers have revenge in mind?), and the Pac-10 should be more competitive than last season with more teams having greater experience (of course, leaving unfortunate Oregon State out of that mix).
But overall, VanDerveer is not fretting. Every day she sees an eager group of players who spent the summer improving and come to practice fully engaged in the task at hand. That's spurred by seniors such as forward/guard/you name it Kayla Pedersen and guard Jeanette Pohlen, plus junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
"We call them our 'big three,'" VanDerveer said. "I'm so excited about the leadership they've shown."
She is also happy with the progress made by everyone else on the team, including sophomore Joslyn Tinkle, the only player who didn't actually spend most of the summer on the Stanford campus. Of course, Tinkle's father, Wayne, is the men's hoops coach at Montana, so VanDerveer doesn't have to worry about whether Joslyn is working hard when she's back home.
"This team for me so far has been an absolute pleasure," VanDerveer said. "It's like what you'd write in a coaching manual. Everyone is on time, enthusiastic and encouraging -- all the things that would be in a little story written about what you'd hope to see in a team."
If this is sounding like one of those preschool books where all the forest creatures dance and sing songs with one another, understand that what VanDerveer is describing is an all-business but still-pleasant environment her players are creating,even before the coaches take charge.
There is an awful lot of want-to coming from players such as Pedersen and Pohlen, who've been to the Final Four three consecutive times but haven't won the NCAA title. You better believe they are focused.
It's the nature of Stanford competitors. The rough part for VanDerveer is that the academic requirements and weeding-out process to get into the school do limit her player pool. The great part is that those same things mean the student-athletes she gets are typically high achievers, relatively low maintenance (except with the uncontrollable X factor of injuries) and rarely get into any mischief.
This past spring was one of the few exceptions. Point guard JJ Hones got into a bit of trouble with a golf cart and too much imbibing. Hones, whose career was troubled by knee problems, was dismissed from the team after the incident.
Such dark clouds are rare for VanDerveer, though. Instead, the bad times for her and the Cardinal faithful are usually about ACLs (let's not even talk about it) and not quite getting the ultimate prize. The Cardinal have dominated the Pac-10 and continue to be the standard-bearer for women's basketball on the West Coast.
But the 1992 title -- which quickly followed the breakthrough 1990 National Championship -- is quite a distance in the past. Kids that were born around the time the Cardinal won it all at the '92 Los Angeles Final Four are college freshmen now.
Speaking of which, there are three rookies for this Cardinal team. The most celebrated is the nation's top recruit, forward Chiney Ogwumike, junior foward Nneka's younger sister. But guards Sara James and Toni Kokenis also must learn the ropes quickly, especially because of the Cardinal's need at that position.
If you're looking for omens, there's this: Chiney Ogwumike was born on the day -- March 21, 1992 --Stanford started its NCAA tournament run that championship year.
VanDerveer's view about every season is simple: Prepare as best you can, and see what happens. She knows the strengths of this squad will be on the interior, but some of her big players -- not just Pedersen but Tinkle -- have developed strong perimeter skills, too.
Whether Stanford is good enough -- and has enough good fortune -- to win the NCAA title remains to be seen. But maybe there is one more thing, admittedly unrelated, that might make you think that it could be Stanford's turn once more: The Giants finally won a World Series again, the franchise's first while located in the Bay Area.
"I about broke both my arms and legs jumping on that bandwagon," VanDerveer joked. "I'm not even a baseball fan, but I loved watching them play. There were just a lot of little things I liked about that team and how they played."
And if her Cardinal have an ending next spring similar to what the Giants did this fall, VanDerveer's "elated" emotion will be obvious.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.