Stanford's Ogwumike sisters important in Cardinal title hopes
A year ago, Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike were a novelty act, two sisters sharing a cool name and roster spots on one of the nation's most prestigious basketball teams.
Now they're a known force. This season, the Stanford Cardinal is Ogwumike Inc., with both sisters holding the key to Stanford's success.
"Whatever works," said Chiney, a sophomore. "Our names are noticeable. We're sisters and that's noticeable. Anything that's noticeable for Stanford basketball we're all for. We don't want to fall into the history books as just another Stanford team."
Keep in mind that "just another Stanford team" isn't a bad thing to be. The bar has been raised so high for Tara VanDerveer's squad after going to four consecutive Final Fours that only a championship will be something new and remarkable.
Whether or not this team will be the one to achieve that elusive goal -- the Cardinal hasn't won a national championship since 1992 -- remains to be seen. After losing stalwarts Kayla Pederson and Jeanette Pohlen to the WNBA, VanDerveer is reinventing her team. She has six freshmen and the Cardinal -- unlike the huge post-focused teams of the past -- will be faster and guard-oriented.
"Our team is going to be very different," VanDerveer said. "Smaller and much, much quicker."
The Ogwumike sisters will be leading the new athleticism. Both have been named to the preseason Wooden team. Both are irrepressible in their optimism.
"I think we should have exponential success," said senior Nnemkadi (universally known as Nneka).
Nneka will make a case as the nation's best all-around player. The power forward was the best player on the Cardinal last year, leading the way in the NCAA tournament, averaging 23.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.
"She's our go-to," senior Lindy La Rocque said. "Like Tara says, when your best player is also the hardest worker, good things are going to happen. She's been a leader on this team from Day 1."
This year Nneka is taking her leadership role even more seriously, grabbing the baton handed down over the years from Candice Wiggins to Jayne Appel to Pederson and Pohlen and now to her.
"I'll completely take full ownership," she said.
She wants to be a big sister figure to the newcomers, having honed her skills when Chiney arrived last year.
"I just have a motherly kind of characteristic," Nneka said. "Having six little freshmen is so exciting. I love helping them out."
Nneka was a stern mother with Chiney last year, trying to make sure her sister knew what was expected on and off the court, leading to some intense "super sister" moments in practice.
"This year practice is quieter, it's more collaborative," Chiney said. "Now I know what to expect."
The sisters have contrasting personalities: Nneka is more grounded and Chiney is more effusive. Those differences were on stark display after last April's semifinal game, when Stanford was upset by eventual champion Texas A&M. Chiney, who had looked tentative and fouled out in the game, was disconsolate in the aftermath, her tears literally spilling down her face and onto reporters' notebooks. Nneka -- who had tried to single-handedly tried to win the game with 31 points -- was more businesslike, more irritated than devastated.
"That was my third time losing in the Final Four," Nneka said. "I was annoyed more than disappointed. People said, 'Oh you had a phenomenal game.' That means nothing at all because we were going home. I was like, 'Really? This happened again?'"
Nneka couldn't be around her emotional sister until the next day, a rare occurrence. Though the sisters don't live together, they share a car, occasionally have the same class and find it odd that anyone wonders whether they hang out together outside of basketball. Nneka said she isn't getting sentimental about her last season with Chiney.
"We're going to hang out together plenty in life," she said.
The closeness forms a strong bond on the court.
"It's so natural with them," La Rocque said. "When they make passes, it's like 'Wow.' They have a deeper root and they feed off each other."
The sibling chemistry will determine how far the Cardinal goes this season.
But there are two more Ogwumike sisters in the basketball pipeline. Olivia is a sophomore and Erica is in eighth grade. They're too young to commit to college but Stanford is on their radar: Ogwumike Inc. could have a long run.