February 28, 2018

The Last Three Games: Is Stanford Tournament Ready?

By Warren Grimes

In its last two weekends of conference play, Stanford went 2-1, with one loss at Haas against an inspired Cal team, and one lost opportunity in Pullman. The Washington State game was cancelled because of the sudden death of that team’s strength and conditioning coach.

The game in Pullman could have aided this Stanford team in refining strategies entering the conference tournament. Still, we know that Tara VanDerveer is renowned for preparing her team for the postseason. That record is likely to continue. Victories are not guaranteed, but fans can expect a well-prepared and motivated Stanford team.

The last three games do suggest some strategies that are likely in the postseason.

First, not surprisingly, the team has settled into a seven-player rotation, with the five starters supplemented by DiJonai Carrington and Nadia Fingall coming off the bench. Each of the five starters received some sort of all-conference recognition this week. In the last three games, the seven players have accounted for 193 minutes (the Maples Cal game), 188 minutes (the Haas Cal game), and 200 minutes (the Washington game). This is the crew likely to bear the load in the post season.

To be sure, the rotation may be expanded a bit for the conference tournament because of the possibility of three games on consecutive days. If so, one could expect players such as Maya Dodson, Alyssa Jerome, and Shannon Coffee to get meaningful time.

Another VanDerveer strength has been to motivate each player to focus on key, team-enhancing roles for the tournament. Most of these roles have been practiced throughout the season. There is, however, likely to be change in point guard and shooting guard positions. Based on VanDerveer comments and the Washington game, Marta Sniezek may trade positions with Kiana Williams, with Williams taking over primary point guard responsibilities and Sniezek stepping into shooting guard shoes.

Why the change? There is at least some evidence that it worked in the Washington game, when Stanford racked up a season high-tying 86 points. Sniezek, who had taken only one shot and scored only two points in the previous two games against Cal, had seven attempts and 13 points in the game against Washington. She was the team’s third highest scorer. Without her offensive contribution, Stanford probably loses that game.

Giving Sniezek the shooting guard role takes some of the offensive management responsibilities off of her shoulders, allowing her to concentrate more on scoring. As a point guard, Sniezek was not a consistent scorer, often reluctant to shoot until and unless the shot clock was expiring. In the Washington game, she was taking open shots and making layups earlier in the shot clock. Now defenses will have to guard her closely or face the consequences.

Giving Williams primary point guard responsibilities has other potential advantages. Kiana is not afraid to pull the trigger from outside at any point in the shot clock, so defenders must confront her whenever she has the ball. Williams scores primarily in three ways, with three-pointers, layups, and pull-up jumpers. With these options, plus the option to pass to an open teammate, it seems wise to have the ball in her hands more often, and especially as the shot clock is expiring.

Collectively, these changes may make it more risky for defenders to clog the middle, a strategy that could limit the effectiveness of Brittany McPhee and Alanna Smith. Against Washington, Smith was planting herself in the corner for three-point shots, a strategy that also helps to unclog the middle. She shot only 2-8 from three-point range, but those two successes helped to stave off a Washington comeback.

Finally, there is Kaylee Johnson, who has played great defense all year and is the team’s best rebounder. I fully expect VanDerveer to talk to Johnson about being more of an offensive contributor in the postseason. Six of the seven players in the rotation are significant three-point threats, placing substantial pressure on opponents to guard the perimeter, and leaving Johnson more opportunities for interior moves. I fully expect Johnson to be looking to exploit that.

Here’s to great chemistry, focused role playing, and a successful postseason!

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