December 31, 2018

Non-Conference Confidence

Non-Conference Confidence
Warren Grimes
                Impressive.  That’s the right word to describe Stanford WBB, this season’s edition.  The team ended the non-conference schedule 10-1.  One has to go back 5 years to find a better beginning to the season.  And this team should get better.    
                They lost their one contest to a hot-shooting Gonzaga team, despite an inspiring fourth quarter rally.  Building off that defeat, they went on to defeat two undefeated top 10 teams: Number three ranked Baylor at home; and number nine ranked Tennessee on the road.  The victory in Knoxville was  record setting and an altogether inspiring performance. 
                Stanford scored 95 points, two short of a record for an opponent playing on Tennessee’s home court, and shot 58% from the three point line, a record for a Tennessee visiting opponent.   Two Stanford players set career highs for points in that game: DiJonai Carrington had 33 points and Lacie Hull had 14 on 4-5 shooting from three land.  
                When two Stanford players set career scoring highs in the same game, that’s good news.  The last time I can recall that happening was in Stanford’s upset victory over Maryland in a NCAA regional final during Candice Wiggins’ senior year.  She and JJ Hones both set career highs in that memorable game, and Stanford went on to defeat another number 1 seed, Connecticut, in the semifinals.
                It’s premature to suggest this year’s team will have that sort of success, but not premature to say that the team is, indeed, very, very good.  So why the step up from last year?  Gone are Brittany McPhee and Kaylee Johnson, but the returning players are stepping up.  Four of the five starters are veterans with substantial experience.   
                Fouls aside, Alanna Smith is getting it done on the offensive end, leading the team with just under 19 points per game and shooting more threes than anyone else (and at a remarkable 49% clip).  She’s also the team’s second best rebounder.  And Kiana Williams is continuing her strong point guard performance, leading the team with 50 assists and just under a 2:1 assist turnover ratio.  She has almost as many threes as Smith, and at a commendable .386 rate. 
                A number of vets are back with improved performance.  Maya Dodson’s 16 points against CSUN was the team high, a sign of the team’s blossoming versatility and balance.  She is showing confidence in her jump hook shot.  Dodson leads the team in blocks and is improving her rebounding. 
                But let’s talk about two starting players who have really stepped up this season.  First is DiJonai Carrington.  She has excelled in numerous ways, including moving up to the team’s number one rebounder (on a boards per minute basis, she’s a slight step ahead of Smith).  She’s shooting threes at a .379 clip, but she’s also scoring in the paint on creative drives and put backs.  Her eleven points per game average puts her in third place on the team, but, of late, as in the Tennessee game, she has been performing well above that level. 
                None of this is totally different from last year’s Carrington, but she’s no doubt been asked to step up her performance in McPhee’s absence.  Carrington is a fierce competitor and a chemistry player.  Her strength, athleticism and drive make her critical to Stanford’s success.  Stanford’s ability to stay on pace with Smith out of the game is due in significant part to Carrington, whose versatility makes her a nightmare for opponents to guard.
                Lacie Hull has also been quietly (but not so quiet of late) contributing to this team’s success.  She has started 5 games for the team for good reason.  She plays solid defense, leading the team with 20 steals.  Lexie is steady on the ball, with a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio.  And she can shoot the three ball, at a 40% rate overall.  Of late, she’s been rebounding strongly, with 5 boards against Buffalo and 4 against CSUN.  
                Lacie Hull won the Pac-12 freshman of the week distinction last week.  Well deserved but, I must say, something of a surprise.  At the season’s start, one would have guessed that the first Stanford freshman to get this award would be her twin, Lexie Hull, or perhaps Jenna Brown, the highly ranked point guard recruit.  Lexie Hull, however, has played in only three games because of her injury, and Brown has been making steady progress as a point guard, but has yet to start a game.
                There is something to be said for the fact that Lacie Hull won the freshman of the week competition before either of her more highly touted freshman teammates did.  That suggests that they are all very good players whose development will make Stanford an even better team. 
                Imagine a Stanford team at season’s end with Marta Sniezek, Lexie Hull, and Anna Wilson back, and with a more experienced Jenna Brown.   Some of that may happen as early as this weekend, when USC and UCLA visit Maples.

December 11, 2018

Seven Games In: What’s Working, What’s Not

            Going into the December exam break, Stanford is 6-1. Not perfect, but a far cry from the 5-4 record at the same point last year.  Some things are working well, others less so.

            On the positive side, senior Alanna Smith is averaging 18.1 points per game.  Her contributions don’t stop there, as Smith is averaging 6 boards, 2.6 assists, and 1.6 blocks per contest.  Her three point shooting percentage is the team’s best (16 threes at a .485 clip). And she is knocking down free throws at a much improved rate (.778 compared to last year’s disappointing .539).  Smith is critical to the team’s success, but has had to sit substantial periods because of foul trouble (against FGCU and Gonzaga). 

            Equally impressive, veteran sophomore Kiana Williams is tearing it up with points (averaging 15.3) and assists (averaging 5 assists against 3 turnovers per game).   Smith leads the team in threes with 20 (at an impressive .465 clip).  She’s a fierce competitor and (for now at least) the team’s point guard.  She’s a very good one, but could also dazzle as a shooting guard.

            Other veterans have also shown up.  DiJonai Carrington and Nadia Fingall are consistently putting up double figures, and Maya Dodson, coming off the bench, is not far behind.  

            None of this is wholly unexpected.  But the statistics do reveal some surprises.  For example, who is getting the most playing time? Here are the top four in average minutes per game:
            Kiana Williams - 30.7 minutes
            Lexie Hull         - 25.7 minutes (in the 3 games played)
             Lacie Hull        - 23.1 minutes
            Alanna Smith    - 22.6 minutes

            Given that Smith is the team’s most prolific scorer (averaging .804 points per minute  against second place Williams average of .500 points per minute), Alanna needs to minimize fouls so that she can be on the floor more.

            So why are the Hull twins getting so much playing time?  
            One answer is that they play defense and keep the offense flowing with few turnovers.  On the defensive side, the twins lead the team in steals per minute. Here are the stats:
                                                Lacie Hull                   - .105 steals per minute
                                                Lexie Hull                   - .104 steals per minute
                                                DiJonai Carrington     - .077 steals per minute

            In the turnover category, Lacie Hull is the best. Despite averaging the second highest number of minutes, Lacie has less than one turnover per game while averaging more than 2 assists.   So far, both twins are perfect from the foul line (Lexie 2-2 and Lacie 4-4).

            The twins may be identical, but they are different players.  With 10.7 points per game, Lexie has the third highest average on the team.  And there’s more.  Lexie is the team’s top rebounder in terms of boards per minute. Here are the top four players in that category.
                                                Lexie Hull                   - .273 per minute
                                                Alanna Smith              - .272 per minute
                                                Nadia Fingall              - .243 per minute
                                                DiJonai Carrington     - .240 per minute        

            Rebounding was an issue in the loss to Gonzaga. Lexie’s injury kept her out of the game, and the team’s other top rebounder, Alanna Smith, played only 25 minutes.  Other players need to step up their rebounding, among them Maya Dodson, who, while leading the team in shot blocks, is averaging just .188 boards per minute.  With her athletic moves, Dodson tends to get fouled a lot, and she also needs to convert more of her foul shots (so far she has made only 1/3 of her 15 attempts).   

            Three other players are averaging 10 minutes or more per game (Alyssa Jerome, Anna Wilson, and Jenna Brown).  If this trend continues, 10 Stanford players would be part of the rotation.  To be a great team, each of them must find how they can contribute.  With Baylor and Tennessee up next, the door is open for each to demonstrate what they can do.  

Warren Grimes, FBC Feature Writer