August 11, 2019

Good Vibrations in August

Warren Grimes

It’s still a couple of months until women’s college hoops takes center stage, but August is an appropriate time to think about what’s coming.  Stanford has an amazing group of returning veterans, eight of whom started three or more games last season.  Oh, ----
 and those four amazing incoming freshmen.

Let’s start with one of those freshmen – Fran Belibi, who just returned from Bangkok, where she played on the FIBA U19 USA team that won the gold medal in the 16-team tournament.  Belibi is not yet the complete player.  She had no dunks, did not start, did not excel at the free throw line, did not garner lots of assists, did not take or make a single three point shot, and did have some turnovers.  She played the post much of the time, but did not demonstrate a consistent ability to cash in on post moves.  Belibi was not a go to player in crucial moments, and had her most impressive performances against lesser opponents.  But just about everything else about Fran Belibi was impressive.  No, actually,  it was
VERY impressive.

Averaging just 16.1 minutes off the bench, Belibi was still the team’s fifth highest scorer with 7.7 points per game.  She was also, by a wide margin, the team’s most efficient rebounder.  FIBA keeps statistics on how many boards a player averages in a 40 minute span of time (the length of a game).  Belibi averaged 18.2 boards in 40 minutes, well above team USA’s second place Hillman Baker, who averaged 12 boards over a 40-minute span.  There’s more.  Belibi’s 18.2 rebound average was actually the best of any player in the 16-team tournament (there were well in excess of 170 players in the tournament).  In addition to snatching more than her share of boards, Belibi leaps to keep the ball alive in other instances, allowing teammates an opportunity to capture the ball.   

Steals are another indicator of Belibi’s strengths – she averaged five steals during a 40 minute period, well above Hailey Van Lith’s second place three steal average.  This team leading stat is a good indicator of Belibi’s impact.  She has a long reach, leaping ability, and quickness that makes her a very effective defender.  She is all over the court, she is disruptive, she blocks shots, she alters shots, she is a giant headache to the opposing team.  Belibi’s steals often led to fast break conversions.  Although still lacking consistent post moves, Belibi is a very opportunistic scorer, with lots of putbacks from offensive boards.

FIBA also keeps statistics on a player’s efficiency rating (a measure of how well the team performs when the player is on the court).  Belibi’s rating of 13.9 was second highest on the team, just below starting point guard Page Bueckers 14.3.

Belibi’s shot blocking average (she was fourth on the team with an average of 2.1 blocks over a 40 minute span.  But that that's not all.  Belibi’s quickness and long reach results in altered shots that are not included in the blocking total.  On the subject of blocks, the team leader in blocks per minute was Cameron Brink (an average of 4.1 blocks in 40 minutes).  Brink is a rising senior in high school who has committed to Stanford for the Fall of 2020.  She averaged only 8 minutes per game in the FIBA tournament, but her performance was impressive.

Let’s get back to Stanford’s veterans.  Even without the highly touted freshman class, Stanford would be an impressive team with the potential to win the conference and more.  Nine players started three or more games for the team last year, and eight of those are returning.  Also returning is Jenna Brown, a high school All American guard who averaged 8.1 minutes last year.  That's nine players with substantial experience.  The big losses for Stanford are in the post positions.  Alanna Smith’s leadership, three point shooting, post moves, boarding, shot blocking, and defending cannot be replaced by one player.  Another substantial loss in the post is Shannon Coffee, who did not start a single game but was a key contributor in the rotation.

To replace these two post players, absent the freshmen class, Stanford would have to rely on three players who started in the post positions last year: senior Nadia Fingall, and juniors Maya Dodson and Alyssa Jerome.  Last season, Fingall and Dodson both were hobbled by injuries.  Neither played a complete season.  Their healthy return will be crucial.  Both Fingall and Jerome can convert from the three point line and help to offset the loss of Smith’s outside shooting.  Dodson is an athlete who could become a very effective offensive post player.  Her defense is already impressive.  I loved watching her defend the post in the conference championship game against Oregon.

The perimeter players that Stanford returns include already established all conference contributors Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington.  They were the second and third highest scoring players last season.  They know how to convert when it matters.  Then there’s Anna Wilson, who keeps battling  injuries but whose game really stepped up at the end of last season.  Last, but hardly least, three sophomores are likely to be in the mix.  The Hull sisters started games and had an impact last season.  They are focused players with talent and intensity.  The Hulls are unlikely to take a back seat to anyone in terms of hard work and basketball smarts.  They will contribute, as will their sophomore teammate Jenna Brown (who participated this summer in the trials for the U19 team).

Honestly, even without the freshman class, Stanford would have reason for optimism for the coming season.  The biggest question mark would be post play.  Health permitting, Stanford veterans could have a very productive post game.

Imagining Stanford without its highly touted freshmen is a way to focus on the talent of Stanford’s returning veterans.  They will show the way for the exciting new freshmen.

Stanford may be unique in its ability to recruit high school all Americans and keep almost all of them on its roster, even if some never achieve starting roles.  That’s a tribute to the academic reputation of the school and to Coach VanDerveer.  This year, the challenge of giving everyone a role may be greater than ever.  I expect VanDerveer will continue doing what she has done in the past: Give playing time to any player who plays hard and contributes in practice.  And when a player enters a game and does contribute, give that player even more playing time.

Imagine the intensity of Stanford practices during the coming season.

April 30, 2019

The Jordan Brand Classic and the Future of Women's College Hoops

                                                                                         Warren Grimes

            A week or so back, 24 of the best high school seniors played an all star game in Las Vegas: The Jordan Brand Classic.  These high school all star games don’t always show the players at their best.  There’s “hot-doggery” and “run-and-gunnery” – and usually not much focus on defense. 

            This all star game was well above average.  There was some defense, lots of blocks and steals, and some notable intensity in the second half as the home and away teams competed to win a close game.  Here are two examples, both involving the top-rated recruit in the country (and Stanford bound) Haley Jones.  The first involved Jones defending a would be dunk by her future Stanford teammate, Fran Belibi.  In that play, Belibi ran to the hoop to accept a high and very dunkable pass from a teammate.  Jones kept pace with her on the cut, staying between Belibi and the hoop.   Belibi lept above Jones to gain control of the pass, but could not get close enough to the hoop to convert.  

            In the second play, a loose ball was bounding in the direction of the basket.  Jones dove to the floor to gain possession, scooting the ball ahead to a teammate heading for the hoop.  Then Jones popped up in time and was there to tip in the miss.

            These plays showed focus and intensity, and Jones was not the only player to demonstrate this.  All three of the future Stanford players (Jones, Belibi, and Ashten Prechtel) acquitted themselves well, as did many others on the court.

            On a broader level, the 24 players selected for the game suggest the continuing dominance of the big-name schools.  South Carolina and Stanford had three players each while Notre Dame, Ohio State, and UCLA had two each.   Other power teams had representatives, including Baylor, Louisville, Maryland, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Tennessee, and Texas.

            Perhaps a bit of a surprise: two final four teams, Connecticut and Oregon, had no representatives in the Jordan Brand.  But don’t expect either of these teams to falter.  U Conn has had numerous players in recent Jordan Brand games, and will surely have one or more in next year’s game.  Oregon, which lost only one starter, has brought in two outstanding players from Australia and Germany (neither could be considered for the Jordan Brand Classic). 

            Overall, the lineups for the Classic showed the preeminence of the Pac-12 conference.  Seven of the 24 players (that’s 29% of players) have chosen to play for Pac-12 schools (three for Stanford, two for UCLA, and one each for Oregon State and USC).  This suggests that the conference’s strong performance in recent NCAA tournaments is likely to continue.

            During the run up to the game, Tennessee was busy finding a replacement coach.  They chose Kellie Harper, a former star Tennessee point guard and experienced coach who had just taken Missouri State to the Sweet Sixteen, only to be bumped by Stanford.  Harper’s Missouri State team was well organized and played very disciplined defense against Stanford.  I expect Harper to have Tennessee, with its roster of highly rated recruits, back in the top ten. 

            Harper will be Tennessee’s second attempt to replace Pat Summit.  The problem of replacing a legacy coach is one that will confront a number of other top programs in the next years.  Among the top programs with relatively senior coaches are Baylor, U Conn., Notre Dame, and Stanford.  When these replacements occur, there is a possibility of shaking up the established order. 

            But now let’s return to the Stanford story.  With three players among the 24 (12 on each team), Stanford, along with South Carolina, had preeminence in this game.  South Carolina’s recruits were rated the best in the country, above Stanford.  One can argue about this.  Much of the dispute centers on how highly Fran Belibi is rated.  She was not in the top fifteen in recruiting rankings, but was chosen as a member of USA Today’s first team high school All American list, suggesting a top five ranking. 

            In the game, Belibi played roughly half the minutes and still had a double-double: 16 points and 15 rebounds.  The rebounding performance was, by my count, the best of any player.  Belibi’s strength and slashing style drew a number of fouls, and she converted 8 of 10 at the charity stripe.  Belibi also had 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals.  I don’t care where the rating services place Belibi: I’m glad she’ll be playing for Stanford next year.  She’ll get lots of minutes, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches. 

            As for Jones, she won the MVP for her team, with a game high 17 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals.  Her leadership, smarts, and intensity were impressive.  She’s a player.  And Prechtel was no slouch.  In her time on the court, she had 5 points, 5 boards, and 3 blocks.  Prechtel is a mobile post player who can run the court, shoot the three, block shots, board, and pass the ball.  She’s for real.  Maybe a Shannon Coffee with a bit of Alanna Smith mixed in.

            Overall, Stanford’s three players put up 38 points.  South Carolina’s group of three contributed 34 points and had their own MVP (Zia Cooke).  I’ll let the experts debate the ranking of these two recruiting classes.  As for me, I wouldn’t do the trade.  Stanford’s class includes Hannah Jump, who, according to her high school coach, was likely the most reliable three point shooter in the high school game.  If she can play defense, she’ll get minutes too, maybe lots of them. 

            To quote the Stanford band, “Alright now!”

April 21, 2019

Prognostications Into the Future Can Provide Some Fun Fodder

Suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and pretend we're in this same moment, but in 2020 and then in 2021.

It turns out that Sabrina made the right decision and in April of 2020, Oregon beat Baylor and won the national championship. The first PAC12 national championship since Stanford won it in 1992. In the Final Four, Oregon beat UConn and Baylor beat Stanford in two classic battles. Of course, Stanford was disappointed to lose in the semis, but everyone knew how far they had come after incorporating their phenomenal freshman class.

In 2020, the lay of the land in the WBB world was massively changed from 2019. Baylor lost Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson to graduation, but with Lauren Cox, Didi Richards, Juicy Landrum, Queen Egbo, etc. they still had enough firepower to get past Stanford and reach the final game of the tournament. Notre Dame had lost all five of their 2019 starters and were rebuilding. Louisville was without Asia Durr, Sam Fuehring, and Arica Carter and were also rebuilding. Mississippi State lost Teaira McCowan, and Jordan Danberry and most of their power. UCLA and Oregon State both fought their way deep into the tournament fray.

In 2020, Stanford says goodbye to Dijonai, Anna, and Nadia who were instrumental in reaching the Final Four in April.  At the same time, Stanford was welcoming Cameron Brink (the number #2 recruit in the nation) and Jana Van Gytenbeek (also a top-50 recruit). Stanford moved Haley Jones to the point guard position at the start of the 2019/2020 season and Kiana to the two guard. Haley became the most successful freshman PG in school history and Kiana became the leading three point shooter in the nation. Stanford's women broke a dozen records in the 2019/2020 season - averaged ten three's per game and 40% as a team.

In the 2020/2021 season Stanford goes undefeated and wins the NCAA tournament championship. They also announce the number one recruiting class in the nation for 2021. The magnetic field of the  WBB world has been reversed and the best players in the nation are now coming to the PAC12 and to Stanford, which will be where the action is in NCAA women's basketball for the next decade.

Well, what do you think? Too far out? Anyway, that's; my story and I'm sticking with it!!

April 09, 2019

Yogi Berra and Stanford Women's Hoops

                                                                  Warren Grimes

            I had a strange dream the other night.  In the dream, Yogi Berra was a consultant for Stanford women’s hoops, commenting on the past and future of the team. 

            What possible connection could Yogi Berra have with Stanford and the women’s basketball team?   I haven’t a clue.

            Anyway, in the dream, I had an excellent exchange with Yogi.  I first asked him about the Notre Dame loss.   Yogi didn’t hesitate: “We made too many wrong mistakes.” 

            Actually, I thought, Stanford made some pretty good mistakes in that game, like holding Notre Dame to a season low 26 points in the first half.  Stanford also, mistakenly or not, shot 45.5% from the three point line. 

            Can you mistakenly make shots?  Maybe.  Perhaps we should ask Arike Ogunbowale about converting her second free throw attempt in the last seconds of the national championship game (a rebounded miss would have given Notre Dame its best chance to tie or win).

            Overall, this past season has produced some exhilarating surprises for Stanford, and a few less pleasant ones.  Upsetting Baylor (that team’s only loss of the season) and, in the Pac 12 tournament championship game, winning that sweet revenge victory over Oregon (after the debacle at Maples) are my favorites.  A less pleasant surprise was that Marta Sniezek did not play a single second during the season.  Her career at Stanford appears to be over, but it was one of achievement.  Sniezek has moxie!  She was a pivotal point guard in her sophomore season, taking the team to the Final Four after that come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame in the regional final.

            Yet another surprise--that, among the three freshmen, Lacie Hull would be the one to start 30 games, lead the team in thefts, establish an excellent assist to turnover ratio, and shoot the three ball at 33 percent.  There’s more to this story, however.  Lacie Hull got the start because her twin, Lexie Hull, was out of action for multiple games because of a foot injury.

            Lexie would likely be the freshman who got the most starts and minutes but for that injury.  In her minutes on the floor, Lexie shot the three ball at a 38.2% rate and was one of the best rebounders on the team – on a per minute basis, Lexie was behind Alanna Smith and DiJonai Carrington but ahead of Maya Dodson.

            But lets get back to Yogi.  I asked him about next year’s Stanford team.  Yogi, pondered,  “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” he said.

            I persisted: “Come on Yogi, you can do it.”

            He paused before announcing that next year’s team will “have deep depth.” 

            That confused me – I felt, dare I say, out of my depth.  But upon further reflection, I think I know what Yogi meant.

            Stanford will have nine McDonald’s High School All Americans on its roster next season.  Five of them are upperclassmen (DiJonai Carrington, Maya Dodson, Nadia Fingall, Anna Wilson, and Kiana Williams).  The other four are underclassmen (Francesca Belibi, Jenna Brown, Haley Jones, and Ashten Prechtel).  I haven’t checked, but this could well be the highest number of McDonald’s honorees in the history of the program.  And this list of nine does not include major contributors such as the Hull twins and Canadian Alyssa Jerome.

            This last season, Stanford had eleven players on its roster that averaged 8 minutes or more per game.  Two of those players will be gone (Alanna Smith and Shannon Coffee), but they’ll be replaced by four freshmen, each of whom has a shot at getting major minutes for the team.  That would make a total of thirteen players in the early season who would be getting substantial time on the floor.  That’s depth!

            Having nine players who are high school All Americans, and thirteen players who are competing for major playing time, will make Stanford the envy of just about every other team in the country.   But what about the four teams who have won the national championship in the last four years (Baylor, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Connecticut)?   Those teams may have fewer high school All-Americans on their rosters, but could still hold an edge in the number of genuinely elite players: truly exceptional recruits that ranked, say, in the top five in their recruiting classes. 

            Next year, Stanford will have a #1 recruit (Haley Jones) and a #10 recruit (Kiana Williams), but the rest of its All Americans did not make the top ten list for most of the rating services.  On the other hand, USA Today has picked its own list of the top 15 girls high schoolers for 2019.  Two of Stanford’s recruits, Belibi and Jones, are on the 1st team, meaning the top 5 in the country.  And a third recruit, Prechtel, is on the third team, meaning among the top 15 players. 

            If USA Today has it right, Stanford will have three incoming freshmen who could be truly elite players.   Add this to proven veterans like Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington.

            Maybe that’s what Yogi Berra meant by “deep depth.”

            Before walking away, I asked Yogi what advice he would give to next year's team.  He told me that the team should be decisive: "If you see a fork in the road, take it!"  he explained. 

            And, of course, avoid those "wrong mistakes."

March 26, 2019

So Far, So Good

Warren Grimes

The Stanford women have won all five of their post season games so far.  That brings us to the Sweet Sixteen this Saturday against a Cinderella team, Missouri State.  Stanford’s success in that game, and in any additional games that follow, will turn on how well the team executes on defense.  I say this because the Stanford offense, though potent in its own right, has not demonstrated the consistency and high offensive production of teams like Notre Dame and Oregon.  For what it’s worth, Stanford has averaged 74.8 points per game, compared to Notre Dame’s 89.2 and Oregon’s 86.

Stanford’s vaunted Scout defense is part of the formula for success, but that’s only part of the story.  No matter how informed, no matter how knowledgeable about the other team’s star players, no matter how well the other team’s tendencies are known, defense has to be played with focus and intensity.  The good news is that, so far in five post season games, Stanford has been defending very well.

For the season, Stanford has held opponents to an average of 60.6 points per game.  Against five very good post season opponents, that number is 57.8 points per game.  Below, I have noted Stanford’s defensive record against these five opponents.

Opponent’s Ave. Points Opponent’s points against Stanford

California 72.7 59

Washington 63.7 61

Oregon                          86 57

UC Davis 71.2 54

BYU 69.2 63

By far the most impressive of these defensive performances was against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament final, holding Oregon almost 30 points under its season average.  Against a potential opponent like Notre Dame, which averages even higher numbers than Oregon, Stanford must pull off a similar defensive coup to have a chance to pull the upset.

From watching only a portion of Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan State, I’d say that stopping transition points is critical.  Should Stanford get to play Muffet McGraw’s team in the regional final, I’m hoping that Stanford  can limit transition opportunities and force a half court game that allows taking advantage of the scouting defense.

Do that well, and Stanford has a good chance of pulling the upset.  Win or lose, I’ve been enjoying this team’s growth and success.  That said, a few more Ws would be great.  The more the better!

March 11, 2019

Oregon Schooled Stanford; Stanford Schooled Non-Believers

Warren Grimes

An official tossed the ball up at center court at 5 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time.  It was Sunday, it was Las Vegas, and it was the start of the championship game for the women’s Pac 12 tournament.  Stanford was playing number one seeded Oregon, a team that had schooled Stanford a month earlier in what was the worst Stanford loss in the Tara VanDerveer era.  Many  fans, and I was one of them, thought Stanford had only a small chance of winning this game.  Fortunately, the team and its coaches did not share this view.

One of the most cherished moments in sports comes when your team upsets a higher ranked foe.  When that foe humiliated you a month earlier, all the more so. 

There were, to be sure, reasons for optimism.  Stanford had run off eight straight wins after the Oregon debacle.  Stanford had been shutting down opponents consistently, with what was probably the conference’s best late season defense.   Meanwhile, Oregon had lost two of its last eight games, albeit contests in which star post player Ruthy Hebard had missed part or all of the contest.  Oregon had also struggled mightily to win in overtime the semi final game against UCLA.  Oregon had less depth than Stanford and might have tired legs.

Still, I was skeptical about Stanford’s chances.  I doubted that Stanford could adequately defend five starting players who consistently scored in double figures, providing one of the most potent offenses in women’s hoops (averaging over 86 points per game and putting up 88 in Maples against Stanford).   I doubted that Stanford’s inconsistent offense could score enough points to win. 

Well, Stanford came to play.

Maya Dodson blocked Hebard’s first attempt, and Stanford jumped off to 8-0 lead in the opening minutes.  I still doubted.

Stanford took a seven point lead into the second quarter.  I still doubted.

Stanford increased that lead to nine points at half time.  I still doubted.

In the third quarter, both Smith and Dodson turned an ankle and had to leave the game.  Oregon outscored Stanford by ten points, taking a one point lead into the fourth quarter.  My doubts seemed confirmed. 

In the fourth quarter, with Smith and Dodson back, Stanford continued to battle as the teams traded leads.  By midway into the fourth quarter, Oregon had extended its lead to three.  Ugh. 

It was crunch time.  Smith responded with a three pointer in the last ticks of the shot clock.  With the score tied, officials called a media time out.  What followed was my favorite part of the game.

Stanford came out with renewed resolve and confidence.  The big players stepped up.  It began with an amazing contested interior shot by Carrington, followed by a theft and fast break layup by Carrington.  With Stanford up by three and about 90 seconds remaining, Williams faked a drive, then stepped back to swish a three pointer.  Stanford now led by six. 

It was Williams’ three pointer that made me a believer.  Stanford was going to win this game.  And they did, hitting free throws (Williams four and Smith two) that sealed the deal.

Coach VanDerveer said it was Stanford’s defense that won the game.  Indeed it was.  Hebard was limited to 13 points on four for ten shooting.  Ionescu scored 27 of Oregon’s 57 points, but was only 33% from three point land.  The Ducks scored almost 30 points less than their season average.  The defense was a team effort, with players like Dodson, Coffee, and Wilson playing pivotal roles.  Stanford’s 64 points were also below season average, but it didn’t matter.

Alanna Smith won the tournament’s most outstanding player award.  Well deserved, as she averaged 18.6 points and 12.3 boards per game while shooting threes at a 36.3% rate.  And she blocked shots.

Honestly, there were probably three other players who also deserved the most outstanding player award.  One was Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, who scored 27 points (almost half of Oregon's total) and had 12 boards in a losing cause.  Two other Stanford players should have been considered.  DiJonai Carrington was a huge difference maker in the Oregon win.  In that game, she was Stanford’s top scorer with 22 points along with 9 boards, including key offensive rebounds.  She made inspirational and acrobatic plays when it mattered most.  And Kiana Williams, throughout the tournament, was a rock.  She played an average of 39 minutes per game, dishing out many assists with a 2.7 assist/turnover ratio.  Not to mention her ability to score points when it mattered most (she averaged 16 points), and to hit game-sealing free throws.

Likely to get a two seed in the big dance, the Stanford team is in a good position with momentum and confidence on its side.

As for me, I got schooled by a great team with a great coach.

March 04, 2019

Tournament Ready? Who's Hot, Who's Not

                                                              Tournament Ready?
                                                           Who’s Hot, Who’s Not

                                                                  Warren Grimes

            Stanford is coming into the Pac 12 Tournament on a high note.  No perfection, but a whole lot of things are clicking.  Stanford won each of its last six games.

            Let’s start with the defense.  In the last six games (since the Oregon loss), Stanford has held it’s opponents to an average of 52.8 points per game.  Stanford has accomplished this while playing four of those games on the road.  Stanford held very good UCLA and ASU teams to 51 and  50 points, respectively.  Except for USC’s 67 points, no other opponent among the six has got beyond 54 points. 

            Impressive scout and team defense was needed, particularly in narrow victories against USC and Arizona.  The offense has struggled more, but here as well there are positive stories to tell.

            Let’s start with the big three.  No one is hotter than DiJonai Carrington.  For the season, she is averaging 13.7 points on 46% shooting.  In the last four games, Carrington has averaged 15.3 points on a sizzling 77% shooting.  Carrington was the top scorer in each of the two season-ending games in Washington, scoring 19 points in each contest.  She continues to be a strong rebounder, averaging 7.5 boards over the last four games.  Opposing coaches have a big problem defending this very athletic, very strong, and very focused player.  Carrington made only one of six three point attempts during this period, but opponents leave her unguarded at their peril. 

            Senior Alanna Smith has also been smoking opponents.  Her three point accuracy has declined in the last four games: 5-19 or 26% during this period.  The rest of her game, however, is sizzling.    Leaving out the three point attempts, Smith shot at a 68% rate against the last four opponents.  She averaged 7.75 boards and led the team in scoring (16.25 points per game) despite averaging only 27 minutes per game.  Fouls are still an issue for Smith, but she continues to be there when needed, making a clutch winning shot in the last seconds of the USC game.  And her defense is also impressive, averaging 2 blocks per game and on pace to break Jayne Appel’s season record for total blocks. 

            Last, but hardly least among the big three, is Kianna Williams.  In the last four games, she had 20 assists and only 8 turns; that’s an impressive 2.5 assist to turnover ratio.   She also made 10 three point shots at a 37% clip, just about where she’s been for the season.  Williams averaged only 11.25 points during the four game stint, but Williams makes points when the team needs them most (and dishes out assists so that others can score). 

            As good as the big three are, the key to tournament success may lie with the remaining starters and rotation players.  Maya Dodson is now back, starting three of the last four games and making a contribution.  Dodson has missed some put backs and lay ups that she should have made, but her shooting percentage in the last four games is a respectable 50%.  Her boarding and defense are impressive.  Dodson has the highest boards per minute for the last four contests – .30 per minute compared to Smith’s .287.  Dodson is also the team’s most athletic shot blocker.
            On a minutes per game basis, the top five players over the last four games include the Hulls: Lacie, who starts, averaged around 26 minutes and Lexie, who comes off the bench, averaged 23 minutes.  For these last four games, Lexie has shot from distance at a 38.5% clip; Lacie at a 37.5% clip.  That makes the Hulls, along with Kianna Williams, the best late season three point shooters.  The Hulls are also in the lineup because they are focused and smart defenders.  They, along with Anna Wilson, lead the team in thefts per minute.

            Anna Wilson has averaged 13 minutes per game over the last four games.  She’s a tenacious defender, a theft leader, and a three point threat – Wilson made 3 of 7 attempts for a 42.8% clip in this late season period. 

            Alyssa Jerome has also averaged 10 minutes in the last four contests.  Jerome is steady, rebounds and defends well, and can be a three point threat.  Jenna Brown and Shannon Coffee are two more players that can provide fruitful minutes if (as we hope) Stanford plays three games in three days.

            My challenge for the players:

                                                 For the seniors, and for each other,
                                                                     play smart,
                                               but play your heart out this weekend! 

February 18, 2019

True Grit in LA

True Grit in LA

Warren Grimes

With four conference games left, Stanford is now in sole possession of second place in the conference, pending the outcome of the Oregon/Oregon State game.  The demoralizing 40 point loss to Oregon did not take the fight out of this team.  In Los Angeles, Alanna Smith and her mates played hard and, at least on occasion, very well.  The 14-point win against UCLA came despite erratic offensive efficiency (Stanford shot only 28% from distance).   The 2-point USC win was a remarkable comeback, with the result in doubt until USC’s last second shot missed the mark. 

The last games of a conference season are intensely fought.  Each team is in late season form, fighting for the best possible seed.  Conference coaches are playing an opponent for a second time and have honed their defense.  Against a top team like Stanford, every opponent is hungry for a signature victory that could give them a ticket to the big dance, or a higher seed in the conference tournament.  So yes, Stanford’s irregular offensive performance can be attributed to its own subpar efforts, but it is also related to enhanced and refined defensive schemes by skilled opponents, and to the level of intensity that opponents bring.

Stanford’s defensive efforts continue to impress.  Over the last four games, Stanford has given up an average of 62.5 points per game (if Oregon’s 88 point performance is excluded, the average drops to 54 points per game).  Playing the same four teams during the same period, Cal  has given up an average of over 88 points per game, or roughly 26 points per game more than Stanford.  Solid defense requires communication and team work, so the entire Stanford squad deserves credit for this effort.  Individuals still stand out, including Alanna Smith for her blocks, DiJonai Carrington for her defensive boards, and the Hull twins for their focused defensive intensity and steals.  The Hull twins are steal leaders, but fall short of Anna Wilson’s .075 steals per minute, the highest rate on the team. 

So what’s with the offense?  During the LA weekend, the team shot 31% from distance.  That’s not a horrible percentage, but its down from the 35.5% season average, and almost certainly not enough to excel in the upcoming tournaments.  Maya Dodson’s renewed absence made Stanford more vulnerable to a defense focused on perimeter drives and outside shooting.  The more the inside game thrives, the greater the opportunity for outside shooters to gain a rhythm. 

Aside from Maya Dodson returning and building on her prior efforts, more playing time for Lexie Hull could help.  For the L.A. weekend, Lexie was 2-4 from distance and, for the season, the freshman’s 38.5% distance shooting rate is now the second  highest on the team.  Lexie Hull continues to impress with her rebounding (on a per minute basis, Lexie is the third best on the team behind Smith and Carrington).  The Hull sisters are also the team’s best free throw shooters, but have so far been unsuccessful in drawing a lot of fouls.  Depending on matchups, Stanford’s strongest offensive lineup could be Smith, Carrington, the two Hulls, and Williams.  This group may lack height and strength underneath, but it includes the team’s three best rebounders, its best three point shooters, and the finesse and defensive moxie that can lead to transition buckets.   

The big three (Alanna Smith, Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington) proved their moxie over the weekend.  They were responsible for the grit that was demonstrated against a USC team that led, frequently by double digits, for most of the game.  Smith won the conference POW award, deservedly as she averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 boards for the weekend. 

Meanwhile, two other Stanford guards have the potential for breakout games: Jenna Brown and Anna Wilson could be pivotal in providing bench points and defense.  Brown has the second highest assists per minute rate while Wilson leads the team in thefts per minute and does well on assists.  To gain more playing time, each needs to score more points. 

The team’s toughest remaining conference opponent is ASU this coming weekend.  Stanford needs the Ws, but, even more, it needs the opportunity to improve its offensive efficiency. 

February 11, 2019

Reflections on the Oregon Debacle

                                                  Reflections on the Oregon Debacle
                                                                  Warren Grimes

            I could not have written this on Sunday.  It is now roughly 24 hours later, and with a bit more perspective, here are some thoughts on Stanford’s miserable outing against Oregon.

            Stanford got taken to the cleaners, got tooled, got educated, got cremated, got obliterated (pick your favorite phrase).  Sure, you can find isolated points of accomplishment – we held Oregon to 88 points while Cal gave up 105 – but the fact is, Oregon’s point margin over us, on our own home court, was larger than Oregon’s margin over teams with far weaker records than our own.   Oregon, by it’s own coach’s estimate, may have played its best defensive game of the year. 

            There are similarities between Oregon and Stanford.  Both are teams with explosive offensive potential that score in a lot of ways.  Both are “pick your poison” teams, meaning that an opponent attempting to defend typically cannot effectively defend both inside and outside scoring threats.  But Oregon simply executed this offensive advantage far more proficiently.  True, Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, by themselves, scored 47 points (to Stanford’s 48), but defending them left open a lot of other Oregon players that shot 75% from distance.  It was truly a team effort for Oregon. 

            Oregon has a lot of length, both inside and on the perimeter, and this combined with a focused and intense perimeter defense took Stanford distance shooters out of their rhythm – Stanford shot 22.7% from beyond the arc.

            Stanford’s vaunted scouting defense obviously did not do the trick.  TV commentators said that Coach VanDerveer wanted to prevent inside scoring and distance shots, while giving up the mid range jumper.  Obviously, Stanford accomplished neither.   Ruthy Hebard makes 72% of her shots, mostly on the inside, and she was 8-12 on Sunday.  It makes sense to double her, but only if Oregon’s outside shooters are significantly less proficient.  That was not the case on Sunday, with Oregon converting 75% of its 3-point shots.  With the benefit of hindsight, Stanford would have been better off letting Hebard convert more of her 2 point shots while focusing on intense perimeter defense.  But, in any rematch, Oregon may not convert the 3 pointers at that phenomenal rate (for the season, Oregon shoots 42% from distance), so focusing on Hebard may still make sense. 

            Maya Dodson’ continued improvement, both defensively and offensively, may be a key in any rematch against Oregon.  Dodson was 4 for 13 with 4 boards in her 25 minutes on Sunday.
If she can be a more proficient scorer on the inside, this could occupy Hebard (and perhaps others needed for help defense).  And it might open up shots for Stanford’s perimeter shooters. Defensively, no single defender can shut down Hebard, but limiting her productiveness could allow Stanford defenders to focus more on perimeter shooters. 

            Beating this extremely talented and well coached Oregon team is a formidable challenge.  Oregon does not have the depth of other teams, but if its starters stay healthy, they would be my favorite for the conference and national championships.  But, in sports, the rule is that you have to play the game.  Stanford, in a rematch, seems likely to play better than it did this last Sunday.  Meanwhile, Stanford’s immediate task is to go to Southern California and get some Ws against a rapidly improving UCLA and an always threatening USC.   That’s more than enough to have on your plate for the rest of the week.