January 25, 2021

Stanford: Still the Team to Beat in the Pac 12


Warren Grimes

The last two weekends have not been kind to the Cardinal.  The team lost its #1 ranking, lost its undefeated streak, lost its clear lead in the conference, and lost two games in a row, one of them to an unranked team.  The team did regain its footing against a competitive USC team, decisively defeating the Trojans by a 27 point margin.   Nonetheless, the team's vulnerabilities have been exposed.

Despite setbacks, and despite some very challenging times ahead, ask any rival Pac-12 coach which team they would most like to defeat.  The answer will most assuredly be: STANFORD!

Part of this relates to the pedigree of the Stanford program.  Every rival coach would like to tell potential recruits how they took down the Cardinal.  So Stanford will continue to have a target on its back.  The good news, however, is that accomplishing this feat will be difficult.  On paper, Stanford is still the premier team in the conference.   Stanford is only as good as its next game, but that next game will always be one in which some really good Stanford players with fine teamwork will go all out to win.  

Let’s look at what has happened so far this season.

Stanford has lost two games, but both were “one-play” games – contests in which one missed shot, one turnover, or one lost rebound could have made the difference.  Contrast this season’s team with last season, where Stanford lost a total of 6 games.  Only one of these losses was a one-play loss (the one point loss to Arizona).  The three losses to Oregon were well out of reach (if not blowouts) by the closing minutes.   So far, at least, Stanford has not let any opponent engineer a comfortable win.

Stanford leads the conference in multiple categories, including scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding margin, blocked shots, assists, and 3 point field goals made.  Oh, and there’s one more category worth mentioning: free throws.  The team started out free throw impaired, but has picked up the pace to 72.6% from the line, the best in conference. 

Stanford has balance like no other conference team, with four players averaging double figures and a fifth, Cameron Brink, coming in at 9.8 points per game.  Stanford players are not leading the conference in most categories, but have multiple players filling the stat sheet.  For example, in scoring, Haley Jones, Kiana Williams, and Francesca Belibi are all among the top 20 scorers in the conference.  In rebounding, Jones (#3), Brink (#10) and Belibi (#15) are conference leaders.

Stanford’s Cameron Brink is misleadingly presented in the statistics.  One category where a Stanford player is the conference leader is field goal percentage, where Haley Jones leads with a .570 percentage.  But wait.  Is Jones really the highest percentage shooter on the team? 

Not even close.  Cameron Brink is averaging 64.1 percent, but wasn’t included in the conference tally because she fell below the minimum shots per game average.

Another category in which Brink’s performance is understated in conference stats is rebounding.  Haley Jones leads the team with an average of 9 boards per game, the third highest in conference.  But on a per minute basis, here are Stanford’s best boarders: (1) Cameron Brink -- .426 boards per minute; (2) Fran Belibi - .316 boards per minute; and (3) Haley Jones - .314 boards per minute.  It’s likely that Brink, on a per minute basis, is the #1 rebounder in the conference (and Belibi could be #2).

Stanford has depth.  The team has won games against top opponents even when one or more players had to sit out (Brink, Jones, Lexie Hull, Hannah Jump, and Alyssa Jerome have all had to sit out a game).  WSU could present a really tough challenge for Stanford with two back to back games on Wednesday and Friday.  One challenge for WSU, however, is that three of its starters (including the Walker sisters) are averaging over 35 minutes per game.   

Stanford is still vulnerable, especially to teams that have one or two players who, on any given day, can explode with career numbers.   Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed did that with her 32 points and 10 boards in Boulder.  In Santa Cruz, UCLA’s Charisma Osbourne had 24 points and 9 boards to lead the Bruins.  But even go-to players have their on and off days. Stanford has more balance, and more potential difference makers, a key to surviving a long season and winning the conference. 

UCLA decisively out-boarded Stanford in its one-play victory.  Two of Stanford’s top rebounders (Jones and Belibi) had to sit out the second quarter because of fouls (UCLA won that quarter by ten points).  And Stanford’s best boarder, Brink, ended up with 4 fouls and only 12 minutes of playing time.  In that game, Stanford also shot poorly from the free throw line (58.8%), well below its season average.  If Stanford gets to play UCLA again, I’m betting that Stanford will improve in both categories -- and also improve on its 20% 3-point shooting in that earlier loss. 

Numerous red flags ahead, including the continuing Covid issue.

But Stanford is still the team to beat.

Stanford has game, and should finish the season strongly!

Stay safe! 

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