Ogwumike learns to count on instincts
In thinking less, Stanford's post is learning more
STANFORD, Calif. -- Teaching has to be the easiest part of Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer's job, right? After all, there's no two ways about it. To get into Stanford, a player has to have a pretty high-functioning noggin.
And VanDerveer always has praised her players as student-athletes and talked about the joy of working with them. That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that there is no challenge to teaching them.
Because just like students of any subject, her players learn basketball in different ways. And like all good students, at times they might -- as the saying goes -- think too much.
Which brings us to the learning curve of sophomore post player Nneka Ogwumike.
"I definitely did have to fight through trying to be too cerebral," she said. "I'm very, very analytical. This year, if there's anything I've learned, it's that there's not much thinking once you're out there. Everything should be instinctual.
"This season, I've thought less about how to do things -- in a good way. I'm not overthinking things or thinking too much before I perform. Things are coming to me more naturally, and it's a lot easier when you can do that."
Ogwumike elevated her game enough this season to be Pac-10 Player of the Year, leading the league in scoring and field goal percentage, and ranking second in rebounding.
For the season, Ogwumike is averaging 18.2 points -- while shooting 61.1 percent from the field -- and 9.6 rebounds. In her seven postseason games between the Pac-10 and NCAA tournaments, she has tallied six double-doubles.
That includes 16 points and 14 rebounds in Monday's Elite Eight 55-53 thriller over Xavier. The thing about that game, however, that was not characteristic of Ogwumike was her shooting; she was just 5-of-17 (29.4 percent).
Still, Stanford survived, and Ogwumike is playing in her second Final Four in as many years in college. And this one is in her home state of Texas; San Antonio is about a three-hour drive from the suburban Houston town of Cypress, where Ogwumike's family lives.
"There's always that one overarching goal," she said. "But I know what I have to do to get what I want. I know it's not going to all come at once; it comes with those tiny, little stepping-stones of improvement.
This season, I've thought less about how to do things -- in a good way. I'm not overthinking things or thinking too much before I perform. Things are coming to me more naturally, and it's a lot easier when you can do that.” -- Stanford sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike
"Coming into this season -- well, even into last season, too -- I wanted a national championship. Our team has been capable of that, and still is. With each little thing you work on, it leads to a domino effect, and it becomes contagious for everyone. Everyone has that one goal, and it takes each of us individually to achieve it."
Ogwumike's elevation as Stanford's most potent threat is still something that's under construction, though.
"What I noticed this year is she is so attentive, and she's such a student of the game," VanDerveer said. "She's a very athletic player. She's working on expanding her game, shooting 3-point shots.
"She does whatever our team needs her to do -- whether it's rebound, score on the block, defend. So all facets of her game are maturing."
Ogwumike is interested in a career in medicine, which is one of the reasons Stanford was so appealing to her. But she also likes the way that VanDerveer teaches the game both to the whole team and to each individual Cardinal player.
"Tara knows how to get into my head, because she always relates with me about how we're both the eldest children," said Ogwumike, who has three younger sisters. "With that, you have certain predisposed instincts in you. She lets me learn, she doesn't throw me out there without any help at all. She teaches me in the way that I like to learn. She knows I don't like people badgering me, that I get things after seeing them one time. She's done a really good job of developing me as a player and a teammate."
Ogwumike says she's a very visual learner. In the classroom, she prefers professors who show things as they teach.
"I don't like lectures that don't use PowerPoints or notes. I must be writing something down," she said, smiling. "If you don't put anything up to see, then I will write down everything you say.
"I like lectures that are enthusiastic and have personality. I'm willing to learn about anything that interests me, and what's funny is that things will become interesting to me depending on how people teach them to me."
VanDerveer and her staff have definitely held her interest, and Ogwumike expects the same will be true when her next-eldest sibling, Chiney, comes to Stanford. The 6-foot-3 Chiney is the top-ranked 2010 prep senior by HoopGurlz and will be part of the Cardinal team next season.
"A lot of people would say Chiney is more feisty," Nneka said. "I think she's the extrovert. Now, I'm not necessarily an introvert. It's just that compared to her, I am more.
"Chiney is more out there. We operate the same way as we meet people and make friends. We both network, but she's kind of more, I guess, explosive with her networking."
Opponents will have to worry about how explosive both of them will be on the court together for Stanford.
"I'm very excited she's coming here," Nneka said. "In high school I was excited to play alongside her, and to have that part of my life happen again is definitely something I'm looking forward to.
"On the court, we're very compatible; we complement each other. As a player, she's more of a guard. In terms of morale, personality on the court, we both like to fire people up, bring intensity into the game."
Nneka then laughed, adding, "When it's the two of us, it's a lot of intensity. I would have to say, though, I calm her down a little more. We get along just fine. We don't ever yell at each other on the court."
For Sunday's national semifinal between Stanford and Oklahoma, Chiney might want to do some yelling as a spectator. She can watch to see all the ways her older sister has improved her game, including on defense.
"The biggest thing is Nneka's confidence," VanDerveer said. "I think she gained it through the season last year. She finished very strong, playing very well for us in the NCAA tournament, and it even built more doing so well for USA Basketball.
"I just think we're really proud of how hard she works and her improvement."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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