By Ann Killion
November 10, 2009

The women's basketball season begins this week. And if you were judging on the basis of how last season ended the gap between the top two teams is as wide as the distance between Storrs, Conn., and Palo Alto, Calif.

Connecticut, which went undefeated last season, is ranked No. 1. Stanford, the team UConn crushed in last April's semifinal by 19 points, is ranked second.

Is the gulf really that big?

"They're very talented," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of UConn. "But I would think it will be different for them."

That's because Geno Auriemma's team -- still loaded with Maya Moore and Tina Charles -- must learn to cope without its point guard, Renee Montgomery, who is now in the WNBA.

Adjusting to the loss of a starting point guard is something VanDerveer dealt with early last season, when Cardinal point guard JJ Hones went down with a torn ACL.

Now Hones is back for Stanford, though not quite yet at full strength. All-America center Jayne Appel, who had knee surgery in June, is also getting back to the dominating form she showed last spring. Stanford is rounded out by forwards Kayla Pederson and Nnemkadi Ogwumike and guard Jeanette Pohlen, who stepped in to play point guard last year.

Newcomer Joslyn Tinkle -- whose father, Wayne, coaches the men's team at Montana and whose mother, Lisa, played for the 1988 Montana team that Stanford beat for VanDerveer's first NCAA win -- is also expected to contribute.

VanDerveer will have a chance early to judge if the disparity between the nation's best teams is as vast as it was last April. Stanford travels to UConn in December, a daunting trip that VanDerveer added to the regular preseason gauntlet she always tries to schedule for her team.

This year's tests include an opening road trip to both Old Dominion and Rutgers, games against DePaul and Duke and the Cardinal's regular December date -- an engagement that has yielded just five wins in its 21-year history -- with Tennessee

"I think I'm certifiable," VanDerveer said. "It always looks good on paper, but then the reality of who we're playing hits."

But VanDerveer knows her team needs the challenge and the exposure. It's her way of keeping Stanford at the top of the women's game, year in and year out.

Though the Pac-10 conference is improved with the rise of Cal and Arizona State -- which both advanced in the NCAA tournament last season -- Stanford has made a concerted effort to tangle regularly with the game's best, which means traveling east.

VanDerveer's new manta for the season is a Nigerian saying she learned from the father of Ogwumike.

Every disappointment, Peter Ogwumike told her, is a blessing.

"We're not trying to go undefeated," she said. "It's not like football where if we lose a game, we're out of the national championship race.

"We need these games. We need to get exposed to the officials. We need to get our players' attention. They may be able to get away with the doing the wrong thing and then when you need them to do the right thing it's too late. We don't want that."

A year ago, Stanford had to learn how to play without All-America Candice Wiggins and then lost Hones. Now VanDerveer's team, which is coming off back-to-back trips to the Final Four for the first time in a decade, is deep and experienced.

"If you had told me a year ago that we'd lose Candice and JJ and make it to the Final Four, I would have bet my house that we wouldn't," she said.

And this year?

"I'm betting on us," VanDerveer said. "I think we're a team to be reckoned with."

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