Stanford shines despite lack of spotlight

STANFORD, Calif. -- Occasionally, I'll tune into prime-time television just a few minutes early and accidentally catch the end of "Wheel of Fortune." I admit I used to watch it every night … when I was in college … 23 years ago.

And I find myself thinking, "Wow, Pat and Vanna are still yukking it up, the show is still popular, the wheel keeps on spinning … no matter who is or isn't paying attention."

Which, perhaps, might also be a good way to describe how Stanford probably feels about being the lone top-shelf West Coast giant year after year in a sport where most of the power is situated two or three time zones away.

Sure, that's a moldy-bread ancient topic, isn't it? However, this season, when the Cardinal (14-0 Pac-10, 24-1 overall) seem so far out in front in a Pac-10 characterized by still-growing-up teams, you couldn't blame Stanford for having that "everybody forgets us" neurosis flare up.

The Cardinal's "wheel of fortune" is once again spinning toward a Pac-10 jackpot, and maybe more. But who's tuned in? Well, if you haven't been, let's catch you up.

Perhaps Thursday's 104-60 demolition of Oregon -- Stanford senior Jayne Appel had 26 points and 12 rebounds -- isn't the game coach Tara VanDerveer would want everyone checking in on. Because she fully believes the Ducks are a much better team than was on display at Maples Pavilion. It's a team that did a decent job of hanging with Stanford when they met in Eugene, Ore., on Jan. 23, before the Cardinal pulled away at the end for a 100-80 victory.

And there's no doubt that she's right: Oregon is better than what the Ducks showed in the rematch. But … that doesn't change that Stanford very well might be just as good as it looked. Which would be scary for future NCAA tournament opponents.

"When I wake up and it's a bright, sunny day," VanDerveer said, "although it's supposed to rain this weekend and we need the rain, and I get to work with the caliber of student-athletes I work with, and we go to such neat places just in the Pac-10, you know … I have a great life.

"I really don't get too caught up in it. These teams bring their best against us, and I feel we will be ready [for the postseason]. The big thing for us is just being healthy."

Uh-huh, the wheel keeps on spinning -- but in this case, the "spin" is genuine, not manufactured. So many things really are terrific about the program, the Cardinal kind of have to look at it like this: no "blanket" coverage like some top programs get … but, you know, also no blankets of snow. (Hey, you can't have everything.)

Still, VanDerveer over the years often has had to vouch for the Pac-10 in the manner of a chivalrous cowboy defending the honor of a barmaid in a hokey Western. And with perhaps just one other league team, UCLA, likely to join Stanford in the NCAA tournament, that's pretty much the case again in 2010.

However, we're just a year removed from Arizona State making its second Elite Eight appearance in three seasons. Cal has been through hell after losing players to graduation, injuries and illness, but the Bears are still 15-10. Coach Nikki Caldwell appears on her way to making her Tennessee pedigree work at UCLA.

Michael Cooper hopes to translate his WNBA/NBA success to USC, while Paul Westhead is trying to do the same at Oregon. Speaking of Tennessee lineage, Niya Butts has that as coach at Arizona.

"The one thing the league does not have is really dominant low-block players," VanDerveer said. "Jayne is the best one in the league, far and away. But we still have our hands full the rest of these games."

And there really is a feeling, not a forced one, that talk of the Pac-10's promising future is legitimate, not just the polite way of saying it's not so hot this season.

But whether you believe that, there's really no reason to doubt Stanford. Maybe you haven't tuned in to the Cardinal much since their great-first-half-turned-upside-down-second-half loss to Connecticut just before Christmas. If so, what you've missed is …

• Appel is "back," not that she really went anywhere. Admittedly, the "Big Appel" -- note to newbies for the fourth year running, that's not pronounced the same as "apple" … it's "uh-PELL" -- had some knee issues to deal with. Like a lot of players, she probably always will have those to some degree. She has learned how to minimize the strain on her knees on days off and when she's away from hoops.

Unfortunately for the Ducks, they couldn't do anything to minimize Appel's effectiveness Thursday, as she had her fifth consecutive double-double.

"She drives the bus," VanDerveer said. "We're going to Jayne."

• However, Appel can easily share the wheel with other worthy drivers without the bus going off course. Jeanette Pohlen, who carries extra weight with the injuries the Cardinal have on the perimeter, had as good a game as you could ask: matching Appel's 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and adding seven assists with no turnovers.

• Speaking of which, VanDerveer has been bothered by her team's turnover totals this season, but not on Thursday. It was a point of emphasis for the Cardinal, and they responded with just 10.

• Sophomore Nneka Ogwumike, whose maturation in the post is one of the biggest gains in this season's Cardinal from last season's Final Four squad, had 17 points. She was one of three Stanford players who had four assists; as a team, the Cardinal had 23. Ogwumike, who is not lacking in hops, also had one wow moment in which it appeared she almost leaped over a slightly crouched Duck while pursuing the ball. Just another one of those Ogwumike "ohhhh!" plays.

• Ms. Matchup Nightmare, Kayla Pedersen, also had a double-double with 14 and 10.

• Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who VanDerveer thinks is the Pac-10's top defender, looked it. She was largely responsible for limiting Oregon's top scorer, Taylor Lilley, to just five points on 1-of-8 shooting.

• The Cardinal don't need much from their bench, obviously, but still the reserves mixed in well. Guard JJ Hones, who doesn't practice because of ongoing knee trouble, still manages to get effective game minutes, including 11 on Thursday. And Appel's doppelganger, freshman Joslyn Tinkle, had four points and four blocked shots.

All in all, the Ducks appeared overwhelmed as Stanford won its 43rd consecutive home game.

Tennessee left center Kelley Cain in Knoxville on Thursday because she had missed a lot of class work and needed to catch up. The fact that Tennessee was playing at the SEC's last-place team, Alabama, certainly made that decision easier. But it contributed to a much closer than expected game, which Tennessee still won, 74-67.

So perhaps the Cardinal, to make things more interesting on Thursday against Oregon, should have told Appel or Pedersen or Ogwumike or Pohlen to go spend the night at the library.

"We've had a good first half sometimes, a good second half other times," Appel said. "To put together -- I don't want to say perfect, but really good -- 40 minutes is something we've been working on all season."

VanDerveer doesn't like to measure this group against her teams the past two seasons that have gone to the Final Four, even though some of the key pieces are still here.

"Sometimes I'll watch game film from the last two years," VanDerveer said. "This year is really different. Nneka is a whole different player than last year. We miss [Jillian Harmon] but we have Kayla at the 3 [position], and she stretches the defense so much more.

"We're bigger and these players have played a lot together. I don't really compare it, but we want to do a lot of the same things: win the Pac-10, win the Pac-10 tournament and … we have very high team goals."

One can safely guess the unstated goal is winning a national championship, although the road to that would seem certain to contain the same team the Cardinal have faced the last two years at the Final Four. Stanford beat UConn in 2008 but lost to the Huskies last season.

UConn, with a 65-game winning streak, has been firmly entrenched at No. 1. Stanford, even after its 80-68 loss to the Huskies on Dec. 23, has been just about as firmly at No. 2. With Nebraska being unbeaten, some of the hopping-on-the-bandwagon Huskers fans -- those new to the rodeo, who not long ago realized, "We play hoops here? Yippeee!" -- might grumble about Stanford being ranked second.

But most of the knowledgeable Huskers faithful, plus in-the-know fans in general, are not questioning Stanford.

"It's OK if people are 'sleeping' on us," Appel said of the idea that Stanford isn't as watched as some top teams, largely due to being on the Pacific Coast. "I kind of like it. We watch a lot of everybody else. We have dinner as a team and check in on games."

VanDerveer really doesn't mind, either.

"I do not agonize over what people write or what they think," she said. "I go home and practice my piano and walk my dogs."

Her team is good enough to give her the peace of mind to do that. Besides, at the most important time of the season to seek attention, in March, expect that Stanford will again be getting plenty.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.