December 29, 2016

Challenges and Opportunities, The Pac 12 Season Begins

By Warren Grimes

Stanford women’s basketball begins the conference season this weekend with the desert trip to the Arizona schools. Friday afternoon’s game against ASU will be a heavy duty encounter against one of the conference’s top schools. In national polls, Stanford is more highly ranked, but ASU is a perennial top team in the conference, was conference co-champion last year, shares Stanford’s 9-2 record in non conference games, and plays especially tough at home. Last year, ASU bested Stanford both home and away. The game will be a major test for Stanford.

This Stanford team begins the season with major challenges and opportunities. Stanford has three starters who routinely score in double figures: Erica McCall (16.7 average), Brittany McPhee (14.8 average) and Karli Samuelson (11.2 average). Each plays solid defense, with Samuelson leading the team in steals and McCall leading in boards and blocks. If there is a surprise here, it is McPhee – she averaged only 6.5 points last season.

Looking beyond this impressive starting trio, the remaining players show substantial but as yet not fully realized potential. There are major question marks at the point guard position and also at the power forward position.

At the point guard, both Briana Roberson and Marta Sniezek have started. Roberson has averaged 5.8 points per game to Sniezek’s 4.4 per game. But Sniezek is, by far, the team leader in assists (4.7 assists per game to Roberson’s 2.5). What is needed is a point guard who can lead the team but also provide more of a scoring threat.

An intriguing possibility is that Anna Wilson, who played her first collegiate game against Yale earlier this week, could provide a scoring spark while leading at the point. In her inaugural effort, Wilson scored 11 points in just 17 minutes of playing time. She had one assist and one steal during this time, but her potential as a difference maker must be established against top quality opponents. If she can stay healthy, her future looks bright.

At power forward, Stanford began the season with Kaylee Johnson getting most of the time (Johnson is still recovering from a stress fracture). Alanna Smith and freshman Nadia Fingall have played more in Johnson’s absence. The three players bring different skill sets to the court. Kaylee is a veteran and a force in rebounding and defense. When she returns, Johnson needs to assert herself offensively, but may have to fight to regain a starting position.

Fingall is a power forward (or post) in the true sense. She offers strength, finesse and smarts. Fingall has averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 boards while playing just over 14 minutes per game. Fingall started against Yale and performed well. Perhaps she has earned a starting position for conference games.

Smith has averaged 5.5 points and 6.2 boards in just under 17 minutes per game. She shot the three ball at 33% last year, but has had a disappointing 15% conversion rate so far this season. Smith has shown some progress in improving her assists and turnover numbers.

There are others who may earn a regular role in the rotation, including freshmen DiJonai Carrington and Mikaela Brewer.

To win the conference, Stanford must get both offense and defense from all five players on the court. It would be encouraging if all five starters could average a minimum of 10 points per game. If defenders can sag off the point guard or power forward, Stanford’s offensive potential will be limited. Karlie Samuelson is the only starter to consistently hit three point shots. Three point shooting percentages are down for McPhee, Roberson, and McCall. Sniezek has attempted only 4 (and converted 1). That’s not going to win games against top flight opponents.

Quick and precise interior court passing is another key to the team’s success. That sort of passing was in evidence against Yale, but must be proven against higher quality opponents.

The potential for a fine conference season is there. I’ll be watching to see who steps up.

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