This season, espnW is spending time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives off and on the court, from the start of practice to the final game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.
STANFORD, Calif. -- If this were baseball, these might be considered the dog days.
The Stanford women's basketball team is still residing in the Sheraton Palo Alto, killing time without the burden of classes and homework to clutter its days.
While their fellow students are slowly making their way back to campus after three weeks with their families for the holiday break, the Stanford players had just three days off. Yet there's been plenty of idle time -- together.
They've practiced, lifted and conditioned, spending five to six hours a day in the gym. They have played games at home and on the road. In between, they've watched more movies and a lot of the Food Network, spent their per diems at Jamba Juice, taken some more naps and caught up on some pleasure reading.
A few of the freshmen are spending their time reading the best-selling "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
"It's the best," freshman Bonnie Samuelson said. "My mom bought me all three books for Christmas. I've been reading through them so fast. I've got 'E' [Erica Payne] reading them. She and I went through the first one in like a day. I'm working on getting Taylor [Greenfield] to read them. The movie is coming out, and I saw the preview and it looks amazing."
Sarah Boothe said she has read five or six books "for fun" since the break began. She read the "Hunger Games" last year with some of her teammates. A couple of years ago, several players were reading the "Twilight" series.
"It's something you can't do during the school year," Boothe said. "At home I have like a library of books that I haven't read yet."
In a sense, this is a time for rest. Resting the body, preparing the mind. Saving up for a season that will have no more breaks starting next week.
The next time the Cardinal have an academic break will be the end of the winter quarter, and they will be waist-deep in the NCAA tournament.
The lull of early January is palpable, unless you are coach Tara VanDerveer.
Hall of Fame coaches don't lull.
On Wednesday, the team practiced early (it will shift its practices to late afternoon beginning next week, swapping time slots with the men's team) and were running full-speed fast-break drills by 1 p.m. before heading across the road to the football weight room for a session with strength coach Susan Borchardt.
"We are trying to use this as a time to get better," VanDerveer said from her home Tuesday night, where she was watching film and getting ready to watch the Lakers game. "We are hitting it hard in the weight room, working hard in practice. We have no guys to practice with, so we've got 12 people going hard against each other.
"It's not like the rush of people having to get to class. We are watching a lot of video. It is more intense than if they were in school."
The Cardinal are coming off a sweep against the Los Angeles schools to open the Pac-12 schedule. They returned home on New Year's Eve, and on Monday, the team and staff gathered at a local burger joint to watch the football team play in the Fiesta Bowl. At halftime, they headed to VanDerveer's home for dessert.
Brownies. Ice Cream. Sundaes. Cupcakes.
"The little ones, not the big ones," VanDerveer points out.
The players were back in their hotel rooms by game's end, and a painful end it was, with the Cardinal falling 41-38 in overtime to Oklahoma State after a pair of missed field goals.
At this point, it was time for something a little more feel-good. Say, like watching "The Bachelor."
Joslyn Tinkle, Mikaela Ruef, Toni Kokenis and Grace Mashore confess they are "The Bachelor" devotees. Tinkle tweeted a photo of the quartet piled on the bed to watch Monday's episode.
"I have written a blog about it," Mashore said. "He's from Nor Cal [Northern California], so it's very exciting for us."
Another favorite is the ABC Family show "Pretty Little Liars." But senior Lindy La Rocque has her own television vice.
"I watched a lot of 'Cupcake Wars,'" she said.
Boothe said she's ready to go back to being a student-athlete rather than just an athlete.
"I am ready to be back on campus and be around a lot of other people," she said. "I love my teammates to death, but 24/7 is a lot."
Indeed, bonding has its limits.
Tinkle said she's looking forward to moving back to campus and getting back to a routine, even if that includes homework and classes.
"I love my teammates, but it will be nice to get back to get back to my own space. We've been living out of suitcases for a while," Tinkle said. "It's good to get started on your own thing, your own routine. It's great that we get along so well, but you want your own space."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, many of the players met with VanDerveer individually after practice. They were short 15-minute sessions in which each player sat with the coach, looked over her grades and talked about what classes she is taking in the next quarter.
"Everyone did well, so that was fun," VanDerveer said.
Is it like meeting with your high school counselor?
"Not exactly," Mashore said. "If there are any red flags, she'll bring them to our attention. But you make plenty certain that there aren't any red flags."
VanDerveer understands this is a welcome time to retool, rest and look forward to what's coming on the rest of the schedule.
"I think the players enjoy their free time. It's a great time for team bonding. We've been practicing from 10 to 1, and then they have all day," VanDerveer said. "It's time to do what they what to do. But I think they will be ready to go back to school come Monday."
The conference schedule picked up again Thursday with the arrival of Oregon, followed by Saturday's matchup against Oregon State. Neither team looks like a serious threat to the Cardinal's two streaks -- the home-court win streak of 69 games (the second-longest streak in the nation behind Connecticut) or the Cardinal's run of 59 straight wins against conference opponents.
It could be argued there might not be too many Pac-12 teams that look like threats to either streak in the next couple of weeks.
"We have talked to our team about how we want to play," VanDerveer said.
Certainly, there's been plenty of time for that.