October 31, 2021

A New WBB Season: Concerns and Deep Mind Games


Warren Grimes

Over on the Cardboard, a couple of posters wrote of the “ugly” way Stanford took down Arizona in last season's NCAA final.  Arizona, too, was said to have played ugly. 

I understand the word choice.   In terms of offensive flow, both teams were decidedly subpar.  A final score of 54 to 53 does not suggest high potency offense.  Stanford had 21 turnovers – probably a season high.  In the regional final, Stanford scored 30 points in one quarter, more than they averaged in an entire half against Arizona. 

As for Arizona’s offense, Aari McDonald, a superstar who was critical for that team’s success, shot an unimpressive 24% (5 for 21).  McDonald was particularly unproductive inside the arc (1 for 12). 

OK, so I get it.  Offense for both teams was downright miserable.  But the Final Four was really about defense.  In the three end games, none of the four teams reached the 70-point threshold.  Arizona got 69 points against UConn in the semifinal, but that was as good as it got.  Each of the final four teams was an offensive powerhouse, but it was defense that dominated.

From a defensive perspective, the championship game was not ugly.  The defenses were strategic, refined, and intense.  Take Arizona.  Speaking before the game, coach Adia Barnes conceded Stanford’s superiority in rebounding and interior play.  But, Barnes said, “We are quicker.”  

Indeed they were.  Arizona had 12 steals, contributing substantially to Stanford’s 21 turnovers.   Stanford had superior size, better rebounding, and a higher shooting percentage (42%), but could do no better than 54 points and the one point victory.      

Stanford’s defense was equally impressive, holding Arizona to the 28.3% field goal percentage (and superstar Aari McDonald to an even lower percentage).   Stanford out rebounded the Wildcats 47 to 29.  The game’s last two offensive possessions, in many ways, typified the game.  Stanford had a full 30-second offensive possession, was able to run time off the clock by retaining possession, but could not get a shot off.  The ball rolled harmlessly off at the mid-court as the shot clock expired.  Arizona, in turn, had a final possession of 6 seconds and got the ball to Aari McDonald.  But the Arizona star, gang-defended, could do no better than an awkward three point heave as time expired. 

To the very end, it was defense that shone in the Final Four.

Returning everyone except Kiana Williams, and bolstering its ranks with four exceptional freshmen and a heralded transfer, Stanford should continue to play intensive defense this coming season.  But Adia Barnes’ defensive strategy has provided future opponents a clue as to how to defend Stanford.  How will Stanford deal with the aggressive quickness that Arizona demonstrated in the end game?  Most teams won’t be able to duplicate Arizona’s effort, but many may try. 

A strong and quick point guard with ball-handling skills could be part of the answer.  But who will that be?  Aside from starter Anna Wilson, there are two returning veterans (Jenna Brown and Jana Van Gytenbeek) and two new guards (graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton and freshman Jzaniya Harriel) who might be the answer.  For Stanford fans, it should be intriguing to see who can best demonstrate needed point guard skills.   Stanford could end up rotating the point guard position, depending on an opponent’s defensive presence.   Or maybe two of these players will be in the game at the same time.

This list of 5 guards, each of whom might be a point guard, still leaves open possible variations at the two and three positions.  Quickness and strength at the two and three positions will also be critical.  Aside from starters Haley Jones and Lexi Hull, there is Lacie Hull, Hannah Jump, Agnes Ema-Nnopu, and freshmen Brooke Demetre and Elena Bosgana who could play these positions.  All of these players are relatively tall, ranging from 5’11” Ema-Nnopu (she is an amazing rebounder) to Brooke Demetre’s 6’3”.

Stanford will return a bunch of post players.  Versatile Haley Jones can play the four, but look at the other options, including Cameron Brink, post season marvel Ashten Prechtel, dunking expert Fran Belibi, and solid Canadian journeyman Alyssa Jerome.  Now add the very athletic freshman Kiki Iriafen.

Wow, this team has “deep depth.” 

I’ve borrowed Yogi Berra’s words to describe past Stanford teams.  Last season’s team had unusual depth – 11 players saw action in the championship game.  This season, the words fit better than ever.   

The roster is 17 deep because three players are opting for the extra “covid” year.  Each of these 17 players could start for most other Division IA programs.  If this was Charlie Turner Thorne’s team, she could run her five-player platoon system with three platoons and two extra substitutes in case of injury.  Not expecting that from Coach VanDerveer, but who knows.

This year, depth is not a strength of some other premier Stanford athletic programs.  The football team and the women’s volleyball team are struggling because of a lack of depth.  Even the women’s soccer team could use an injection of additional quality players.  Too bad WBB cannot lend some quality athletes.

To fully grasp the depth of this season’s WBB team, consider these two fantasy games.

I. Organize three five-member squads for an intra-squad scrimmage, with each squad getting its shot against the other two.   Squad #1 should be the team’s five starters; Squad #2 should be made up of other veteran players (there should be 7 or 8 to choose from, depending on who the starters are); Squad #3 would be the five newcomers, four freshman and a transfer (if one or more of these players became starters, adjustments would be necessary).

Squad #1 would presumably consist of the four returning starters from the championship game (Brink, Jones, Lexie Hull, and Wilson) plus (you fill in the blank).  The fifth starter might be a veteran, might be a newcomer, might be a point guard, might be a ball-handling player in slots two-five, etc.  The team has flexibility because Haley Jones and Lexi Hull are versatile players.

Squad #2 (non-starting veterans) would have some high octane veteran players, presumably including Ashten Prechtel, Fran Belibi, Alyssa Jerome, and Lacie Hull.  Sophomores Van Gytenbeek or Emma-Nnopu could be added, as could senior Jenna Brown.  That’s a squad most Pac-12 coaches would love to have.

Squad #3 would be the newcomers -- four highly touted freshmen plus transfer Jordan Hamilton.  Last year, Hamilton was a key player for a gifted Northwestern team that gave Louisville a scare in the second round of the tournament.  It’s not preposterous to suggest that, as the freshmen develop, this squad could be a match for squad #1 by season’s end.

II. Assume a make-believe scenario in which Stanford is allowed to field two separate WBB teams (in this fantasy world, it’s now the Pac 13).  Coach VanDerveer would pick five players for team A, after which Coach Paye would pick five for team B.  They would then alternate picks until the 17 player list was exhausted.  One team would have 9 players; the other 8.  A bit short on depth, but both of these teams would have as much or more depth as UCLA had last season.  Team B could well end up with players like Prechtel and Belibi, plus three or more of the exciting newcomers.   Could Stanford field two top ten teams?   Could the two Stanford teams finish one and two in the conference? 

You decide.

Nothing is guaranteed,

But --

this season should be lots and lots of fun.



craftsman said...

Always enjoy. your thinking and writing, Warren. Watched the intersquad scrimmage yesterday and several things stood out:

Agnes has become a great three point shooter besides being a strong defender and rebounder.
Jana has more confidence - reflected in her ball handling and shooting.
Lexie has the look of eagles about her. Seems ready to move her scoring up near 20 peg.and be named first team All American.
Kiki is strong and mature for a freshman and will help the team this season.
Haley was taking it easy, but her three point shooting will help from game one.
Cam and Ash both mean business.
Fran was more relaxed and effective.

Warren Grimes said...

Thank you for this comment.
I wrote this piece before hearing about the intrasquad scrimmage.

Sounds like Emma-Nnopu will be a real offensive contributor this season. She's a gifted athlete.

The motivation level for these athletes is very high. That's always been a plus for Stanford, but perhaps this season more than ever.

I understand that three of the potential point guards did not play in the scrimmage, leaving wide open the question of who will end up at the point.