Stanford's Ogwumike sisters eager to face Griner

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Stanford's Ogwumike sisters eager to face Griner

STANFORD -- Stanford sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike are thrilled to take on one mighty, Mile High challenge: stopping 6-foot-8 Baylor star Brittney Griner and the unbeaten Lady Bears.It's a matchup they've both been eagerly waiting for as they lead the Cardinal (35-1) into their fifth straight Final Four this weekend in Denver riding a school-record 32-game winning streak. Nneka Ogwumike faced Griner in an AAU game back in high school, and that's when she insists she learned to shoot 3-pointers because scoring in the paint was a big problem. But the senior feels like everybody else in the country has already faced Griner, and now she's finally getting that chance in her NCAA tournament farewell.

Chiney Ogwumike knows Griner will alter shots and block her fair share, too."I think we have a tall task ahead of us, no pun intended," Chiney Ogwumike said with a grin before practice Wednesday. "I expect my shot to get blocked quite frankly. Embrace it."Stanford is an underdog for a change, and that's fine with 26th-year coach Tara VanDerveer. She hasn't received any text messages, emails or calls with tips on how to pull off the upset against the Bears (38-0)."Everyone just says, Good luck, our money's on Baylor,'" she said, only half-joking.VanDerveer has a couple of tall male practice players who have played as Griner in the past - like last March when Stanford figured it might face Baylor at the Final Four. That was before Texas A&M pulled off a surprising victory against the Bears in the regional final and then beat the Cardinal in the national semifinals on the way to an improbable championship.VanDerveer won't even mind if Griner dunks against her team. It's good for the women's game, after all."That adds excitement," the Hall of Fame coach said. "It's two points. We're not going to have a breakdown about it. As long as it's not the winning basket. If Brittney Griner dunks, I hope she slams a couple home in warm-ups. I'll be sitting right there cheering. She's a special player."Nneka Ogwumike is a load to handle herself, so Baylor's defense will have its hands full. Ogwumike, the likely No. 1 pick in next month's WNBA draft, had 39 points and 10 rebounds in Stanford's 76-60 victory over No. 5 seed South Carolina in the regional semifinals, then added 29 points and nine boards in an 81-69 win over Duke in the Fresno Regional final Monday night."Honestly, if Nneka was 6-8 I'd be terrified of her," said Chiney Ogwumike, who grabbed 17 rebounds in the Duke win. "Her game would be ridiculous. She said, March madness turns you into a monster.' She's playing out of her mind."While these Final Four trips are becoming familiar each March, students and others in the community are stopping the Stanford players and coaches a little more frequently lately considering they all know that Griner and Co. are up next.In fact, VanDerveer was at the grocery store and got startled when she grabbed a carton of milk from the refrigerator only to have a man on the other side loading it congratulate her."Nneka and I went to get Jamba Juice yesterday and got stopped," Chiney Ogwumike said. "Someone said, Are you those twins?' We're like, Yeah, we're the twins.'"In truth, Chiney is the sophomore. Yet both know it's going to take one impressive sister tag-team act to move into the title game and have a chance at the program's first championship since 1992."I'd rather do that than go against tiny little people," Nneka Ogwumike said of going up against Griner's big body in the middle.She doesn't remember a lot from that game against Griner, except that they played at Rice and "it was hard for me to score, obviously."Griner's game was still developing and Ogwumike recalls she was figuring out her fundamentals. How tall was Griner then?"Taller than me," Nneka Ogwumike quipped.VanDerveer is counting on another balanced performance come Sunday night at the Pepsi Center after she got contributions from much of the roster in the win over Duke. While Nneka Ogwumike will run the show, the rest of the team is looking to take some pressure off its All-American forward - especially considering things will be all the more difficult dealing with Griner inside on both ends of the floor.Even 6-3 forward Joslyn Tinkle might find herself helping on Griner. Tinkle - daughter of Montana coach Wayne Tinkle - is eager to prove herself any way she's needed. A year ago as a sophomore, she didn't get off the bench in the NCAA semifinals after playing in every game up to that point.That fueled her for months, and she became a regular starter in January. Tinkle hit three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists against the Blue Devils on Monday."I just love to be out there, regardless of where I am," Tinkle said. "I'm doing my best to do whatever it is needed for our team."And it's certainly going to take a little something from everyone to get by Griner."We know that we're capable of more. Right now, I'm going in and just enjoying every moment," Nneka Ogwumike said. "It's not every day you play against someone like her. I'm excited. I feel like I'm the only one in the country who hasn't played her."

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

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AP

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

Even the most passionate Cal fan might struggle to name a single player on the current basketball roster. The team's top five leading scorers from last season have all departed. Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird moved on to the NBA, Grant Mullins graduated, and both Charlie Moore and Kameron Rooks elected to transfer.

But perhaps the most significant change is on the sideline. Out is Cuonzo Martin, who agreed to a massive seven-year contract with Missouri, worth a reported $21 million. Replacing him is 44-year-old Wyking Jones, a longtime assistant coach, who spent the past two seasons as Martin's top aide in Berkeley.

Jones' promotion was met with heavy criticism from many in the media, both locally and nationally. Skeptics believe Cal settled for the cheap option, rather than the best option. But why can't both be true? There's no denying that salary played a factor in the hire - the athletic department's financial troubles have been well documented in recent years. But Jones impressed Athletic Director Mike Williams in other areas too, reportedly acing his job interview with a detailed plan for the program moving forward. And unlike the other candidates, Jones already has direct experience dealing with Cal's unique set of circumstances.

“It's not something that you can walk into and just get a really good grasp of,” Jones explained. “It's a learning curve that, if you walk into this situation for the first time, it would take you a tremendous amount of time. Knowing who to go to when you need things, who's in charge of this, who's in charge of that, just having a familiarity of how to really get things done around here.”

Jones also discovered the challenges of recruiting at a school like Cal, where not every athlete can qualify academically. While many coaches would view that as a negative, Jones chooses to embrace it.

“In my mind, that's what makes this place special,” he said. “It's the number one public institution in the world for a reason. Your recruiting pool shrinks quite a bit, but that's okay because typically what happens is if you get a kid who has a lot of discipline on and off the court, you're not going to run into troubles on the weekends when they're in the dorms. They're usually kids who have a lot of respect for the community and other students.”

From a coaching standpoint, Jones has unquestionably paid his dues in the world of college basketball. Prior to joining Cal as an assistant in 2015, he made stops at Louisville, New Mexico, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount, where he also played from 1991-95. Now, after nearly 15 years in collegiate coaching, Wyking Jones is a head coach.

“I think initially it's very exciting to have an opportunity to coach, have your own program at a storied program like Cal, to follow in the footsteps of some great coaches,” he said, smiling. “But now the smoke has cleared and it's time to get to work.”

That work has already begun. As previously mentioned, Jones will have to replace his top five scorers from a year ago, who accounted for nearly 56 points per game. The Bears will count on increased production from senior center Kingsley Okoroh and junior guard Don Coleman. They will also rely heavily on redshirt senior forward Marcus Lee, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky.

“It's an adjustment, for sure,” Jones admitted. “But you have 13 scholarships for a reason. It's just an opportunity for the guys who are still here to earn their scholarship. It's an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves and have an impact on this program.”

Under Cuonzo Martin, Cal established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last season, the Bears ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game. Jones hopes to continue that trend while also implementing a full-court pressure defense, similar to the one he coached at Louisville, which resulted in a national championship in 2013.

“It's a process,” he acknowledged. “In year one, hopefully we can be good at it. In year two, look to improve. In year three, hope to be great at it... It's a type of defense, when you're talking about pressing, it's reading all the other guys on the court. It's never scripted. It's being able to read when is the right time to go trap, when is the right time to go switch, when is the right time to bluff and stunt at a guy to slow him down. So there's a learning curve in it.”

Jones knows there will also be a learning curve for him personally as a head coach, especially with such a young and inexperienced roster. He expects his team to be overlooked and undervalued by much of the college basketball world, but that's just fine with him.

“I think a lot of people will probably guess that we won't be very good, and that's motivation right there. That's motivation for my staff, for our managers, for the support staff. It's motivation for everybody that's a part of this program to exceed those expectations. So I think that makes for an exciting season.”

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.