Fourth-ranked Stanford won't have Nneka Ogwumike when it tries to climb the Mount Everest of women's basketball Friday at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu.
Seven months after a hard-fought defeat to No. 1 Baylor in the national semifinals, the Cardinal will face a Lady Bears juggernaut that returns all five starters from a team that went 40-0 last season.
All-Americans Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and Destiny Williams are back with a top-ranked team that is expected to cruise to another undefeated season and NCAA title.
The Cardinal (2-0) has four starters from the Final Four team that fell to Baylor 59-47 in Denver. But Stanford looks completely different without Ogwumike, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft who left as one of the greatest in school history.
Whereas the Lady Bears (2-0) have started as a seasoned group, Stanford is a team looking for an identity.
"We're very fortunate at this point to be playing such a high-quality opponent, to help discover who we are," said junior Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka's sister.
"It's not like you're going to end your season with one game," coach Tara VanDerveer added. "It'll be a game where we'll learn a lot about ourselves, and it's a win-win. If you win the game, great, and if you don't win the game, it's great because you played them."
The last time the schools met, Cardinal coaches did a commendable job figuring out a way to slow the 6-foot-8 Griner, considered one of the greatest collegiate centers in history. Griner shot 3 for 9 from the field and scored 13 points, well below her season average of 24.0.
VanDerveer plans to try a similar tactic Friday in hoping the current players can make their shots.
"When we played them in Denver, we did not hit open shots," sophomore guard Amber Orrange said. "When we play them Friday, we'll just have to hit open shots."
If only it were that simple.
At this juncture, VanDerveer doesn't have a set lineup as Baylor's Kim Mulkey does. Returning starters Chiney Ogwumike, Joslyn Tinkle and Orrange have led the Cardinal so far. Junior guard Toni Kokenis has played limited minutes after starting last season. She suffers from an undisclosed illness that makes her questionable game to game, VanDerveer said.
"We have our 'big three,' and we need it to be four, five, six or seven," the coach said. "We need really major contributions from a lot of people."
Stanford expects to have its third new starting lineup in three games Friday in a 4:30 p.m. game that will be broadcast on KZSU 90.1 FM. The players will compete for playing time based on practice and game performances -- or until VanDerveer finds a combination she can trust.
Based on the latest game, redshirt junior Mikaela Reuf might start to give the Cardinal more strength inside. Reuf is 6-3 like Tinkle, while Ogwumike is listed at 6-4.
The Cardinal also expects to play 6-5 freshman Tess Picknell, who isn't as polished as the senior Griner.
"There's trepidation, but I know I will have help," Picknell said.
"I think the biggest thing is that we just have to tell her what to do," VanDerveer said. "You're not going to out-Brittney Griner Brittney Griner; you're Tess, you do what you're good at."
The coach could have been talking about her entire team.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.