January 31, 2022

Stanford's Unprecedented and Exceptional Janurary


Warren Grimes

On the last Sunday of the month, Stanford finished its January schedule with a hard fought 75-69 victory over #8 Arizona.  With only 8 games played in the month, Covid had subtracted from a 10 game schedule.  The string of 8 January victories was nonetheless an extraordinary accomplishment.

So what's such a big deal about a string of 8 victories?  Well, to begin with, it's the way it was done.

Let’s begin with Arizona.  This was a rematch of the NCAA championship game 10 months ago.  The Wildcats lost their high scoring point guard, but showed impressive offensive balance in scoring 69 points (Arizona had only 53 points in the NCAA championship game last year).  Stanford took an early lead, but that lead was never more than 12.  Single digit leads were vulnerable to back and forth scoring runs.  Cate Reese was a major contributor for the Wildcats, with 17 points on 3 for 6 shooting from beyond the arc.  The game was not decided until the last minute.

Haley Jones had hurt Arizona badly back in March 2021, so Arizona coach Adia Barnes worked to  control Jones.  Barnes succeeded in keeping Jones away from the basket, limiting her to 4 points on 2 for 12 shooting (Jones still had 7 boards and 6 assists).  Defending Stanford, however, is like a whack-a-mole game.  You stop one player, and up pops another to make your life miserable.  In this case, Cameron Brink had a career game with 25 points and 15 boards.  And the real and unexpected pop up player was Jana Van Gytenbeek, who came off the bench to score 18 points on 6/8 three point shooting.

That’s really Stanford’s January story.  It’s an exceptional story about depth and the ability of different players to step up and make a difference when their mates are stymied.  Opponents can stop some but not all of Stanford’s offensive options.

Take a look at each of the last eight games to see who has been the top scorer.  Four different starters (Haley Jones 4 times, Cameron Brink 2 times, Lexie Hull and Hannah Jump once) have been the top scorer in one or more of these eight games.

If one broadens the metric to see which players have been among the top three scorers in each game, Stanford’s diversity and depth becomes even more apparent.  In six of the eight January games, players from off the bench have been among the top three scorers for the team.  Fran Belibi has been among the top three in four games while Kiki Iriafen has achieved that goal in two games.  Three other substitutes have been a top three scorer in one of the last eight games: Anna Wilson, Ashten Prechtel, and Jana Van Gytenbeek.

With that sort of breadth and depth, one could honestly view the five starters, plus another five substitutes that have made substantial point contributions, as a formidable, whack-a-mole rotation. And it's not just points.  Players such as Anna Wilson come off the bench to contribute on defense.  Indeed, I would argue that the actual rotation is larger, and includes Jordan Hamilton, Agnes Emma Nnopu, and Brooke Demetre.   Each of these players played in critical moments in January.

Both Emma Nnopu and Hamilton played vital minutes in the opening half against California, when the Bears were threatening.  And Demetre was brought in as a substitute for Jones in the critical first half against Arizona.  Each of these players has her own strengths and can be used situationally.  For example, Demetre did not score a lot of points in January, but is a consistent and focused player who makes few mistakes, plays smart defense, and can be a deadly jump shooter from long and mid-range.  She’s a player who can break down a zone defense.

Doing the addition, Stanford’s situational rotation includes 13 players (at least) who can be called upon in critical moments of a game.  If one or more of these players has an off night, bring in someone else.

What else can be said about the eight game January run?   Resilience, of course, is high on the list.  Opponents in the toughest conference in the country regularly bring their A game against Stanford.  Even California, which is so far winless in conference, played Stanford tough in the second quarter, ending the half with a tie score.  Stanford’s defense – and its whack-a-mole offense -- made the difference in six hotly contested January games.  Only against Washington State and ASU did Stanford assert a comfortable first half lead and maintain it in the second half. 

Two other common themes were evident in the January games.  The first is improved free throw shooting.  For the season, the team is shooting just 67% from the charity stripe, but exceeded that percentage in every one of the last eight games (from a low of 70% against Colorado to a high of 83.3% against Oregon).

The second theme is rebounding.  Stanford won the rebounding battle in each of the last eight games.  The margin was close against Oregon (33-29), but more one-sided against other opponents.  Stanford out boarded Arizona by a 34 to 26 margin.   The rebounding advantage helps to offset Stanford turnovers, where January opponents continued to exploit the team (Stanford had 18 turns against Arizona while Arizona yielded just 11). 

What’s ahead is the second half of the conference schedule, including possible make up games.  Stanford may be favored in each of these games, but will be sorely tested by Oregon in Eugene and by every other conference opponent who can bring their A game.   This weekend, those opponents will be a very talented but short-handed UCLA and USC.

1 comment:

Stephen Perlman said...

Good story. Thanks.