January 02, 2018

Restoring Order

By Warren Grimes

In life, as in sports, we learn to expect the unexpected. Surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant. Stanford women’s basketball fans got a heavy dose of the unpleasant variety this Fall. In 12 pre-conference games:

Stanford closed the non conference season at a .500 clip (6-6), unprecedented since Tara VanDerveer’s first years;
Stanford dropped out of the top 25 rankings for the first time since 2001;
Stanford, which relies on three pointers, shot 29.6% in its non conference games;
Stanford shot free throws at a 63.5% clip in its first 12 games, the conference’s worst performer; and
Stanford was plagued with turnovers, even in games that it won (a 16 per game average in the first 12 games).

For most, these disappointing outcomes were unexpected.

To be sure, one can find explanations for all of this.

Five of six losses were against top 10 ranked teams.
Only two of the six losses were at home.
Stanford was attempting to replace three top performing seniors from the previous season.
Stanford was implementing a new offense.
Stanford lost to injury its leader and top scorer (McPhee) for 9 games.
Stanford lost to injury its then second leading scorer (Carrington) for 2 of the losses.

In the new year, things are looking up. Stanford is 2-0 in conference after last weekend’s two impressive wins. The team won against quality teams (#11 ranked UCLA and a USC team that ended the non-conference season with a 10-1 record). In these two games, Stanford executed, not perfectly, but impressively. For the weekend, Stanford shot three pointers at a 39.4% clip, and free throws at a 69% clip.

Turnovers were still a problem - Stanford averaged 19 for the weekend. But rebounding, already a strong point in the opening games, continued to be a major plus (44.5 per game as against 32 per game average for opponents).

The two games gave a number of players a chance to shine. Starting with Brittany McPhee (23.5 average points per game) and Alana Smith (13.5 per game average and the team’s leading rebounder), the veterans have stepped up. Marta Sniezek is still far from a scoring machine, but this weekend managed 6 points per game and continues to shine on assists (5.5 per game) and a strongly positive assist to turnover ratio (2.75 for the weekend). Kaylee Johnson is a motivated defender, shot blocker, rebounder, and opportunistic scorer.

There have been other pleasant surprises. At the top of my list is Nadia Fingall. She played an average of 21 minutes in the two weekend games. In this relatively short span, she averaged 8 points, 4.5 boards, and played well in other aspects of her game as well (.750 FG percentage, 3 blocks, and 3 for 4 from the charity stripe). She plays well in tandem with McPhee (Fingall has surged with McPhee back in the lineup).

Kiana Williams is also showing great promise. She is now the team’s 5th leading scorer while averaging under 19 minutes per game. She’s shooting threes at a .333 clip, free throws at a 91 percent clip, and has a 2.0 assist to turnover ratio. She will be in the lineup in end game situations where foul shooting is critical. Her leadership and assist skills still lag behind Sniezek, but her potential is great.

Maya Dodson has been starting of late – and is consistently winning the tip. She’s rebounding and blocking shots, but her explosive offensive and defensive potential has yet to be realized.

DiJonai Carrington also belongs on the pleasant surprise list. For the season, she’s the team’s third leading scorer and a great creator on offense. On a per minute basis, Carrington may lead the team in turnovers, but she is also generating steals. If she can discipline her game to minimize turns, watch out!

Much of the excitement for this year’s team lies in the potential of these players, plus a number of others who are getting substantial playing time. In three point shooting category, Anna Wilson, Alexa Romano, and Shannon Coffee are all hitting threes at a more than 30% clip. And Alyssa Jerome seems a solid, consistent, and versatile player who will get playing time.

An interesting observation came from Coach VanDerveer, who said that last year’s team did not execute all that well, instead relying on Karli Samuelson. The challenge for the coaches and the team will be to morph into a finely tuned and consistently executing team.

Looking at the big picture, Stanford will have a tough time against a lot of its conference opponents. But this weekend restored some order. Every conference opponent will have to re-circle the Stanford game in red.

And there is something else: Stanford has much room for improvement and likely will be steadily progressing with each game.

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