Stanford faces South Carolina in Fresno regional semifinals

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Stanford faces South Carolina in Fresno regional semifinals

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer recalls how during Dawn Staley's college days at Virginia she wore a rubberband on her right wrist and snapped it each time she committed a turnover.

VanDerveer remembers how much she enjoyed coaching the ultra-competitive Staley on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that captured gold in Atlanta. VanDerveer always told it straight, and that's what fueled the tough Staley, who grew up honing her game on the playgrounds of Philadelphia.

"When Tara found out we were playing South Carolina, she was ecstatic," sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike said. "She was like, Yeah, we're playing Dawn Staley's crew!'"

On Saturday night, VanDerveer's top-seeded Cardinal (33-1) will face Staley's No. 5 seed South Carolina team (25-9) in the NCAA tournament's Fresno regional semifinals, with Stanford looking to extend its school-record 30-game winning streak and take another step toward reaching a fifth straight Final Four.

"Coaching Dawn was just awesome. I loved coaching her," VanDerveer said Friday at the Save Mart Center. "She's a competitor more than anything else."

A humble one at that. The Gamecocks played at Stanford last season, and Staley invited VanDerveer to the visiting locker room to give her players a pep talk. And Staley spoke to VanDerveer's players at a 2007 tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands when Staley was still at Temple.

The Cardinal had just whipped South Carolina 70-32 in November 2010 when Staley asked her former coach to spend a few minutes with the Gamecocks players. VanDerveer also coached Staley assistant Nikki McCray.

"You don't really hear a lot of relationships like that when it comes to different coaches," said Stanford leading scorer Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who averages 21.8 points 10.1 rebounds and is eager to get to Denver and the Final Four in her NCAA tournament farewell tour. "It's nice to see those different types of dynamics. It's really cool. They have a lot of history together."

VanDerveer, Stanford's 26th-year coach, took a year away from the school to coach the U.S. Olympians to their gold medal in '96.

"Tara had a way of looking at basketball and seeing it played a certain way," Staley said, saying she learned from VanDerveer "to be more than just a player and build relationships. You learn all those little intangible things ... that made me one of the best point guards to play the game. Definitely Tara was one of those coaches who was really honest - she'll bring you to tears with her honesty. It fueled me."

Stanford and Staley's Virginia team each reached three straight Final Fours from 1990-92, with the Cardinal beating Staley in the NCAA semifinals on the way to its championships in '90 and '92. VanDerveer's Cardinal haven't won it all since then despite becoming a Final Four regular of late.

Current assistant and former Stanford guard Kate Paye guarded Staley in that 1992 game.

"Those are good years, 90 and 92. Hopefully that's a good omen. Dawn hopes it isn't," said VanDerveer, who cherishes a signed photo Staley gave her from when she was the Americans' flag bearer for the 2004 Athens Games.

The winner Saturday will face either No. 2 Duke faces third-seeded St. John's, who play the first game of the night.

VanDerveer, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year, earned her 797th career victory in that game with South Carolina, then beat former Stanford star and University of San Francisco coach Jennifer Azzi to join the elite 800 wins club shortly thereafter.

Next season, Stanford will travel to South Carolina, where the women's basketball program has become a big hit in Columbia.

"They play much better defense than she did," VanDerveer quipped of these Gamecocks compared to their coach. "Dawn is incredibly competitive, to the point she has amnesia. We used to play chess together and she will say how she beat me, and I'll say, No, Dawn.' Her team is so competitive."

South Carolina has reached its first regional semifinal since 2002, third overall in program history and first under fourth-year coach Staley. The Gamecocks' top three scorers and six players total - including all five current starters - were there that day last season to hear VanDerveer's words.

Not that they remember it much. This group has come so far since then.

"I don't remember much about the game, but we weren't prepared as much as we are now," guard Ieasia Walker said.

Markeshia Grant leads the balanced Gamecocks at 11.0 points, while La'Keisha Sutton averages 10.5 points for a South Carolina team that already pulled off an impressive win over Tennessee.

Staley sported an "I BELIEVE" long sleeve T-shirt on Friday in what has become her team's mantra.

"They've been pretty catchy since we've been having a pretty successful season," Staley said. "We really don't have anything to lose. They're the big dogs, the No. 1 seed. We still have to play the game."

VanDerveer looks at the Gamecocks much like the offensive-oriented Arizona State and California teams the Cardinal face in the Pac-12 Conference.

After traveling East to Norfolk, Va., for the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cardinal are back in familiar territory in California's Central Valley, where they beat Fresno State in this arena on Dec. 4. They're at the same hotel this time.

"This is kind of our second home and we want to come out and play really well here," VanDerveer said. "I think there's a comfort level having been here, been in the locker room, less newness. Whether that translates into wins or translates into more baskets, that's yet to be seen."

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Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.

Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

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Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Josh Jackson declared for the NBA draft on Monday after one of the best freshman seasons in Kansas history, one marked by plenty of highlights on the floor and a few distractions off it.

The 6-foot-8 swingman, who is considered a certain lottery pick, was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and its 13th straight regular season Big 12 title before losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Jackson signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

"After thoroughly consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball," Jackson said in a statement Monday.

"I am very thankful for all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas," he said, "and I look forward to starting my career in the NBA."

Jackson was the nation's No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation's top backcourts.

With natural athleticism and ability to slash to the basket - not to mention defensive chops that are rare among freshmen - Jackson quickly established himself as one of the nation's top draft prospects.

His importance was never more evident than in the Big 12 Tournament, when he was suspended by coach Bill Self following a series of off-the-court issues. The top-seeded Jayhawks stumbled in a quarterfinal loss to TCU, ending their run at the conference tournament before it really began.

He returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well in wins over UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, but was hamstrung by foul trouble and managed just 10 points in a season-ending loss to the Ducks.

Jackson's suspension came following an incident outside a Lawrence bar in December, when a member of the Kansas women's basketball team got into an altercation with Jackson's teammate, Lagerald Vick.

Jackson followed the woman to the parking lot and the woman said he kicked her car and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. He pleaded not guilty last week in Douglas County District Court to one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property and a trial is scheduled for May 24.

His attorney, Hatem Chahine, said he was planning to file for diversion.

Jackson also was ticketed in February after he struck a parked car and fled the scene, and that drew Self's ire when he didn't tell his coach about the incident until several weeks later.

His decision to declare for the draft came a week after teammate Svi Mykhailiuk announced he would skip his senior season. But unlike Jackson, the 6-8 sharpshooter has not hired an agent and could withdraw his name by May 24 and return to the Jayhawks.