May 29, 2020

The Last Four Stanford Teams -- And the Next One

Looking back, before one looks forward, provides perspective.  So let’s do that.  The last four Stanford women’s teams are useful points of reference.

Stanford in 2016-2017  (Overall 32-6 record).  This team made it to the Final Four.  By that measure, this was the most accomplished of the last four Stanford teams.  The team had great outside shooting and a strong interior presence.  It was the senior year for Erica McCall (14.4 point average) and Karlie Samuelson (12.4 point average) who, along with Brittany McPhee (13.3 point average), provided offensive punch.  One problem was inconsistent offensive production from the point guard position (shared by Briana Roberson and Marta Sniezek). 

When it counted, as it did in the Elite Eight upset victory over Notre Dame, these players did their job.  In a classic Stanford come-from-behind win, Sniezek dished the ball to Samuelson, McPhee, and an emerging Alanna Smith for the second half surge to pull even with Notre Dame.  McCall provided the last second block that gave Stanford the win.  Of the four last teams, this one had the highest average margin of victory and held opponents to the lowest points per game.  Much of the defensive credit went to McCall and Smith–they led the team in blocks and contributed to the team’s highest blocks per game average in any of the last four seasons.

Stanford in 2017-2018.  (Overall 24-11 record)  This team was led on offense by Brittany McPhee (16.9 pt ave.), Alanna Smith (13.9 pt. ave.) and Kiana Williams (10.4 pt. ave).  The loss of Karlie Samuelson and Erica McCall weighed heavily.  The team’s two early season losses to Ohio State gave it a .500 record before the December exam break.  McPhee, the team’s top scorer, was unavailable in some of the early losses.  That team, however, showed its resilience, bouncing back to compile a 14-3 record in conference. 

The highlight was probably a late season road sweep of the highly ranked Oregon schools, the first such sweep in five years.  In the upset win over conference champion Oregon, McPhee took over the game in the second half, scoring a career high 33 points.  I’ve never seen one Stanford player dominate a really good team the way McPhee did in the fourth quarter.  She demoralized the Ducks with her creative shot making ability.

The team’s three point shooting and free throw shooting were down, but late season improvements allowed them to reach the the Pac 12 tournament final (losing to Oregon) and the Sweet Sixteen (losing to Louisville).  Bright spots, in addition to McPhee, included the emergence of freshman Kiana Williams and the continuing evolution of Alanna Smith as a post player who could score in so many ways.

Stanford in 2018-2019.  (Overall 31-5 record)  This was Alanna Smith’s senior year.  She led the team in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, along with Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington, provided a front-court back-court synergy that led them to an upset victory in the Pac-12 tournament final, frustrating regular season conference champion Oregon.  The team shot three pointers well and, with only 5 losses overall, came in second place in conference standings.  The team lost to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight contest.  This was truly Alanna Smith’s year to shine, and she did.  But Kiana Williams, now a sophomore, established herself as a go to player of All American caliber.  And Carrington seemed poised to make a major mark in her senior year.  Three point shooting and free throw shooting were up over the previous year.

Stanford in 2019-2020.  (Overall 27-6 record).. This season began with great excitement.  The team had the number two recruiting class in the nation and the number one overall recruit (Haley Jones).  And it had some impressive returning players, especially Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington, both top point scorers in the previous year.  By far, the team seemed to be the deepest of the last four (and arguably the deepest Stanford team ever).  The roster included nine high school All Americans, including five upperclassmen (DiJonai Carrington, Maya Dodson, Nadia Fingall, Anna Wilson, and Kiana Williams) and four underclassmen (Francesca Belibi, Jenna Brown, Haley Jones, and Ashten Prechtel).  This list did not include the Hull twins (both of whom had impressively started games in the previous year), top Canadian player Alyssa Jerome, and gifted three point shooting freshman Hannah Jump. 

Early in the season, the team held the number one national ranking.  The team lost this ranking as the vaunted depth was undercut by injuries.  Maya Dodson, while recovering from stress fractures, did not play until after mid-season.  DiJonai Carrington was lost for the season after the first half dozen or so games.  And Haley Jones, after winning a regular starting spot (the only freshman to do so) was lost early in the conference season.  These were all players who had starting roles.  The team was fortunate to have a deep roster. 

The six losses in a Carona virus abbreviated season don’t accurately reflect this team’s accomplishments or potential.  Three of those losses came to what is most certainly the best team ever to play at Oregon.  To many, Oregon was the best team in the country and a strong favorite to win the NCAA tournament.  Moreover, at season’s end, the conference seemed easily the most competitive in the country, with five teams that ranked among the top 14 teams in country.  Five of six losses came against these teams(Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona).  Despite its losses, the team had established itself as a top ten performer (with six wins over the top 14 teams –three against OSU and one each against UCLA, Mississippi State and Gonzaga).  Stanford was a projected second seed in the NCAA tournament.

The team’s top offensive performers were, measured by game average, Kiana Williams (15 points), Lexie Hull (13.6 points) and Haley Jones (11.4 points).  The team’s three point shooting percentage (35.7%, improving to 37.6% in conference) was the best of any Stanford team in the last four years.  Thanks to the Hull sisters, the team also had the highest average steals per game of any of the last four teams.  Consistent post presence was an issue, but with the return of Maya Dodson and the emergence of freshmen Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi, opponents could not ignore the interior game.  In what was perhaps the team’s best overall performance, Stanford took down top ten opponent UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semi-final game, winning by a 16 point margin (Lexie Hull scored 28 points and had 9 boards).

So What’s Next?
There are obvious uncertainties generated by the Carona virus.  No one can be certain of the pandemic’s impact come November, but there is reason to hope that the 2020 season will be played, with or without restrictions on fan attendance.  As far as the basketball, things look good. 

Stanford loses one key starter - steady post performer Nadia Fingall.  And DiJonai Carrington, regrettably, has transferred to Baylor for her fifth year.  There remains, however, amazing depth on the Stanford roster.  Stanford’s highly touted recruits from last year will be back in good form, including (fingers crossed) Haley Jones.  Because of her ability to play virtually any position, and her creativity in generating shot-clock ending baskets and assists, Jones could be pivotal in creating a potential championship team. 

Of course, the team will build around consensus All American point guard Kiana Williams.  Perhaps the biggest uncertainty with respect to Williams is how much of the point guard responsibilities will be handed off to others, including Anna Wilson (whose late season performance was inspiring), Jenna Brown, or incoming freshman Jana Van Gytenbeek. 

The Hull twins can also be expected to start lots of games.  Lexie Hull is on a trajectory that puts her ahead of Brittany McPhee as an offensive threat.  Both Hulls shoot the three ball well, commit relatively few turnovers, and are amazing defenders with lots of steals.  They will get help in the two and three positions from, among others, Anna Wilson, and from freshman Australian recruit Agnes Emma Nnopu. 

A steady offensive threat in the interior may be the biggest question mark, but here again the talent is there for Stanford to be a dominant team.  Maya Dodson could be a real difference maker if she offers the offensive panache demonstrated at season’s end.  There’s lots more.  Ashten Prechtel was voted the conference’s best off-the bench player last year, demonstrating inside moves and outside shooting that will make her difficult to guard.  The second coming of Alanna Smith?

Fran Belibi, with her quickness and jumping ability, can be a terror on the offensive boards and a real headache for opponents to guard.  Belibi, more than most, has the potential to improve markedly, perhaps becoming a dominating player.  No one should forget the steady and reliable play of senior Canadian Alyssa Jerome.  And then there is incoming freshman Cameron Brink.  She is the team’s highest ranked recruit and has played on junior national teams.  If Brink can take playing time away from the likes of Dodson, Prechtel, and Belibi, that will have to be because Brink is a major force.

Uncertainties?  Of course, there always are. 

But exciting potential?  Even more of that!

1 comment:

Stephen Perlman said...

Great analysis. Agree with everything said. The one thing not mentioned (and maybe Tara and her staff are considering it), is tweaking the Princeton offense, making it less predictable, to keep opponents off-balance.

Now if we can only have a season.