VICTORIA , BC - NOVEMBER 30: Head coach of the Stanford Cardinal Tara VanDerveer looks against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at the Greater Victoria Invitational at the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) on November 30, 2019 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images)

Stanford comes into the season ranked second in the country in the AP Poll. After a dominant opening win over Cal Poly, Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer needs just four wins to pass the legendary Pat Summitt for the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball.

The 2020-21 season will be VanDerveer’s 41st in coaching, and her win total is up to 1,095, just behind Summitt’s 1,098. Stanford is 12-25 against Tennessee, where Summitt earned all of her wins, in a series that has been played every December for 31 years and includes preseason tournaments and three postseason matches.

While VanDerveer’s team had its highest preseason ranking in 11 years, she started this season simply grateful that the Cardinal were able to practice, much less play. (And already, games are being cancelled due to Santa Clara County’s new Covid restrictions.)

“I’ve talked to our team about, in terms of how to best approach this: ‘Everyone’s middle name is flexible,’” VanDerveer said at the Pac-12 virtual media day. “We just have to be ready to do whatever we’re allowed to do and enjoy each day, one day at a time.”

“I know she has four or five wins until she gets the record, but I know she has bigger goals than that,” senior guard Kiana Williams said.

With the Pac-12 opened up due to the departure of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally, a trio who won the last three Pac-12 regular-season titles, Stanford believes it is capable of reclaiming the conference.

Williams, who is from San Antonio, is hoping to make the Final Four, which will be held in her hometown. The key for Stanford will be keeping her off the court, however, as she was forced to play nearly 36 minutes per game due to depth problems last year.

Williams is joined by sophomore guard Haley Jones, who played 18 games as a freshman before a season-ending knee injury. The former No. 1 high school recruit was fantastic as a freshman, and if the season opener was any indication, she has improved significantly in the offseason.

Lexie Hull and Lacie Hull, twins and the only members of the junior class available to play due to guard Jenna Brown undergoing knee surgery, will continue to play a massive role. Lexie may be the best pure scorer on the team, while Lacie continuously earns minutes with her defense.

If sophomore guard Hannah Jump can get hot, then Stanford will really be cooking. She is a 3-point specialist, but VanDerveer saw improvements in her fitness and strength that should allow her to improve on defense and create more shots for herself inside the arc, where she shot less than 20% of her attempts last year.

The guard position is book-ended by a fifth year and a freshman. The fifth year is Anna Wilson, who won an appeal to the NCAA for an extra year and was the 42nd-ranked recruit back in 2016. After an impressive preseason, she was named a starter for the team’s opener. The freshman is Jana Van Gytenbeek, who ranked as the No. 39 player in her class. Those two, and Williams, have learned from each other and make for a formidable group.

Cameron Brink, the No. 3 recruit in the country, is special at 6-foot-4. In her debut game, she dropped 17 points—the most for a Cardinal freshman since Candice Wiggins in 2004. Agnes Emma-Nnopu, the third freshman in the class, is able to rebound at an elite level, a skill that will immediately help the Cardinal and earn her playing time.

For Fran Belibi, the camp period allowed her to win a starting spot where she can showcase some of her incredible athleticism. Together with Ashten Prechtel, the other sophomore forward, the two form a nice duo. Prechtel is 6-foot-5 but has an inside-outside game with 31 blocks and 34% 3-point rate.

Senior forward Alyssa Jerome has started in the past and offers leadership and a steady presence inside. Altogether, the team’s depth will be a strength if it can be maintained. For Stanford, the goal is to play fast, rotate a lot, and maintain a quick tempo throughout all 40 minutes.

Few coaches are better up for that task than VanDerveer, which is no small reason why she is on the cusp of having more wins than anyone before her. For Stanford, the quiet celebration when the inevitable milestone occurs is just a subplot in a season in which their goals are much loftier — like celebrating a national championship for the first time since 1992.

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