STANFORD, Calif. – Tara VanDerveer plans to reach out to every one of her Pac-12 coaching colleagues soon to let them know she's rooting for a strong nonconference showing by all.
The Stanford coach is cheering for continued strides in West Coast women's basketball, knowing full well these teams still lag behind on the national stage largely just based on the region where they play. And, because they're always left fighting to prove they belong with the country's powerhouse programs once NCAA tournament time rolls around each March.
"We're an afterthought. They're sleeping while we're playing," VanDerveer said. "But we know we have great teams and players."
Across San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, Lindsay Gottlieb is all for her California players celebrating their preseason No. 13 ranking, then going out and backing it up, of course.
Stanford and Cal are picked to go 1-2 in the Pac-12 this season, and both coaches — at very different stages of their respective careers — know the roles their programs continue to play in boosting the sport's profile on the Left Coast.
Stanford has reached five straight Final Fours yet failed to bring home a championship.
"To go to five Final Fours is an incredible accomplishment, and I think only three programs have done that. When you get that close there is a sense of, 'Wow, we're here, let's get it,'" VanDerveer said. "There is a disappointment not to have won in those five times that we've been, but I won't take anything away from those teams. I would be happy to go again."
When Stanford opens the season Friday night at Maples Pavilion, the fourth-ranked Cardinal will put their 79-game home winning streak — best current unbeaten home run in the nation — on the line against reigning WAC champion Fresno State. The Bulldogs, beginning their first season in the Mountain West Conference, have reached five straight NCAA tournaments.
For now, VanDerveer is going to give plenty of players a look and a chance to find a spot in the rotation.
Cal will host Lehigh on Friday at Haas Pavilion. The Bears have long been thought of as the Bay Area's other women's program behind perennial power Stanford despite their own successful history. The Golden Bears get it, too, knowing what it will take to keep their school's name in the national spotlight: staying on top and challenging the rival Cardinal for the Pac-12 title.
Gottlieb begins her second season in Berkeley working to build a top-notch program, and not just for a year or two.
"Any coach knows preseason rankings mean nothing in terms of what you want to accomplish in the year ahead, but I do think there's something significant in the fight to become relevant in women's basketball," Gottlieb said. "We have said one of our goals coming in when I took the job was we want to make Cal a place on the West Coast where the best students and athletes can say, 'I can have it all at Cal.' We're doing it."
Stanford, ranked fourth to start the season, is appreciative of a push in conference play — especially from its Bay Area rival.
"Always up for the challenge," Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike said. "More West Coast the better!"
Cal sophomore guard Brittany Boyd and a trio of determined seniors — Talia Caldwell, Eliza Pierre and Layshia Clarendon — and all the others are right behind her. They're all back from a team that bought into Gottlieb's system in a hurry a year ago and now has bigger plans, like deep NCAA tournament runs in March, Final Fours, and, eventually, a championship.
"Last year we weren't even ranked, so it's a blessing to be recognized," Boyd said. "But just knowing it could be taken away at any time, it could drop, it could go up. It's like: 'What are you going to do with it? Are you going to win that big game against Duke or are you going to give away a game you should win?' We have to hold onto that, be grateful and know there's still a lot of work to do."
Cal finished 25-10 last season and lost 73-62 to Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament, hurt by 19 turnovers, 12 in the second half. Gottlieb can point to those miscues as a way of teaching now.
She gave her players a list of things Cal must strive to improve: 3-point shooting and defending the 3, turnover margin, defensive field goal percentage. The coach now has the flexibility to use a variety of lineups and go big or small considering Cal's depth at nearly every position. She is counting on every one of her players taking her game up a notch.
"Cal has had great teams," VanDerveer said. "Right now we're rooting for them to do well. We're rooting for USC to do well. That reminds me, I want to get an email or a text out to all of the coaches, 'Let's go Pac-12.' We're excited when they're playing these teams and we want them to win."
Everybody else in the conference expects to chase the two Bay Area teams at the top — with both schools set to embark on another challenging preseason schedule to put the conference on the map.
"This is the first year where Stanford is going to have to look over their shoulder," Southern California coach Michael Cooper said. "There are some teams on the rise."