January 25, 2021

Stanford FBC: Stories of the Season: Stanford: Still the Team to Beat in the Pac 12

Stanford FBC: Stories of the Season: 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...

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! 

January 09, 2021

Frannie and the Jets -- A Fast Team With Chemistry

 

Warren Grimes

Bennie and the Jets was a signature song for Elton John. 

But that’s old news!

Frannie and her jet-heeled teammates – that’s what’s happening right now!  

A fleet-footed squad, they are 10-0 and the number one team in the nation.  In their last four games, they have defeated four Big Dance quality teams, three of them now or previously in the top 10 in the nation, and two of them previously undefeated.  Three of the four games were on the road, and a fourth was in an arena where the team had never played. 

The closest margin of victory was the 70-63 win over Oregon, but that was a game played without three regular rotation players, including starter Lexie Hull.  Lexie leads the team in steals and is the fourth leading scorer (11.1 points per game) and rebounder (5.2 boards per game) on the team.

With only 8 players sharing floor time, Stanford outlasted a talented Oregon team.  Although Oregon has now lost two conference games (to UCLA and Stanford), they are still an elite team with the potential to win the conference, be in the top 10, and more.   Oregon scored and rebounded better than any other Stanford opponent (Stanford won by 7 points and eked out a 39 to 37 rebounding edge).

Stanford has impressive chemistry.  When someone has to sit down, or has a less than great shooting day, the defense and the whole team is there to fill the void.  Against Oregon, the usual suspects stepped up – most impressively Haley Jones, in her home territory (but not her home arena) with 18 points, 6 boards, and 2 steals.  Her threaded transition assist to a streaking Belibi was a play for the highlight reel.

Kiana Williams couldn’t convert a single three pointer, but still made 14 points on creative interior shots and 8-9 free throw shooting.  Every point mattered against Oregon.

Anna Wilson and Jana Van Gytenbeek were pivotal.   Wilson has played strong all season.  She has an amazing 54% conversion rate from the three point line, the best of anyone on the team – lots of interior players would trade for that percentage.  Wilson also comes up big when it matters most.  In the last four tournament quality games, Stanford has struggled a bit, but not Wilson.  Her three point shooting percentage has been 64% in these games.  Saving the best for Oregon, she shot threes at a 75% clip, gathered 9 boards (highest on the team) while putting up 11 total points.  Her defense on Oregon’s hot shooting point guard limited Paopao to 12 points. 

Then there’s Van Gytenbeek, who has not been in the regular rotation, but was asked to step up when three regular rotation players could not.  She did.  In 14 minutes, she made both of her three point attempts and a creative driving shot while totaling 8 points, an assist, and no turnovers.

Cameron Brink added 4 points, 6 boards, and 2 blocks in just 13 minutes.  Brink was unable to play against ASU, but in all these other tournament quality games, Brink has been a difference maker.  She leads the team in blocks by a large margin, and is the leading point scorer and rebounder on a per minute basis.  Stay healthy Cameron. 

Frannie and her jet mates have already shown improvement from the beginning of the season.  Against ASU, Fran Belibi stepped up with team highs in points (23) and rebounding (12).   Belibi and the rest of the team started the season shooting free throws poorly.  Not any more.  In the last four games against top opponents, the team has shot 84.4% from the foul line.  Against previously undefeated Arizona, the team drew lots of fouls, and made Arizona pay.  Stanford was 25-28 from the foul line.

Go Jets -- Frannie and the Jets!

December 28, 2020

How Can a Not-That-Tall Team Dominate the Boards?

Warren Grimes

There’s a lot to like about this season’s edition of Women’s Hoops.  A perfect record and a number 1 ranking are among the team’s achievements.  We’ll see how long these can be sustained.  Meanwhile, one feature likely to endure is the team’s impressive rebounding. 

At this point, the team is at the top of the conference in boards (48.9 per game average) with a 16.6 average margin over opponents.  These numbers will decline as the team matches up against tougher conference opponents.  Still, it was impressive that Stanford out-boarded UCLA, the third best rebounding team in the conference, by an impressive 14 rebounds.

What’s the secret?  It’s obviously not simply a matter of height.  Stanford has started a team with no one taller than 6’1”.  Yes, one of the starters is Fran Belibi with her 6’5” reach.  But Belibi is not the leading rebounder on a per game basis (that’s Haley Jones) nor on a per minute basis (that’s Cameron Brink). 

On last season’s team, taller players were in the starting lineup, including Maya Dodson and Nadia Fingall, but that team averaged 8 fewer boards per game, and had only a 6.2 rebounding margin over opponents.  Stanford’s offense is faster paced this season, putting up more shots.  That explains some of the difference, but there’s more going on. 

A lot more than height goes into rebounding. 

It’s blocking out.

It’s strength.

It’s leaping ability.

It’s court sense and positioning.

It’s quickness to the ball.

And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s focus and desire.

The best rebounders have a combination of these strengths.

Let’s start with Haley Jones, who leads the conference with an average of 10.1 boards per game.  For Jones, it’s strength, court sense, and desire that stand out most.  Yes, Jones can jump and is reasonably tall, but those traits alone do not make a great rebounder. 

Jones is averaging .372 boards per minute.  That’s impressive, but falls short of Cameron Brink’s .431 boards per minute.  Brink’s numbers may go down as she gets more defensive attention, but, for now, she’s amazing.  Brink is averaging just 15.6 minutes per game, but is the 10th leading rebounder in the conference on a per game basis (6.7 boards per game).  I’ve been impressed with Brink’s good hands, quickness, and desire.  When Brink cannot grab the ball, she keeps it alive for other teammates to grab.  And she’s a defensive presence.  Her 15 blocks lead the team on both a per game and per minute basis.

Then there’s Fran Belibi, who is the conference’s 19th leading rebounder at 5.9 boards per game.  Her rebounds per minute (.347) are just below Jones.  Belibi draws a lot of defensive attention that opens rebounding opportunities for others.

There’s still more.  Lexi Hull is averaging 5.7 boards per game, the 22nd highest of any player in the conference.  That makes four Stanford players among the conference’s best rebounders.  Hull, like Brink, is in the right place, battles for position and control, and keeps the ball alive when she cannot grab it.

Yes, Stanford’s rebounding may be the best of any Stanford team.  Stanford also leads the conference in points, in steals, and is second in assists.  And Brink, Jones, and Belibi are among the conference’s top 5 players in field goal shooting percentage. 

That said, this is a very competitive conference.  Stanford’s edge over other top conference opponents is not large.  For example, 49.8 boards per game is only slightly ahead of second place Oregon (45 boards per game).   There are multiple challenges ahead.

Meanwhile, the biggest challenge of all to a successful season remains Covid 19.  More games are likely to be cancelled or postponed before the vaccine is available.  Keep safe everyone!

December 07, 2020

Pandemic Cannot Dull the Sophomore Shine

 

Warren Grimes

Last weekend, playing in Las Vegas, Stanford scored 2 key victories – any game that is played in this pandemic is a victory. 

Oh, and the team also defeated two opposing teams, one an improving Pac-12 team – the Washington Huskies. 

Stanford has lots of warts, but even more potential.  Among the warts – a decidedly mediocre free throw shooting percentage – 59% for the season’s first three games.  Three point shooting was a decidedly mediocre 23% against its toughest opponent so far – Washington.

Lots of other things are going very well indeed.  The team’s 4 sophomores (Haley Jones, Fran Belibi, Ashten Prechtel, and Hannah Jones) are lighting it up.  Against UW, the sophomores scored 60 of the team’s 83 points and had 31 of the team’s 58 boards. 

Leading the charge is Haley Jones, who terrorized last weekend’s opponents with a career high 25 points against UNLV on Saturday, then another career high 29 points against Washington on Sunday.  In Sunday’s performance, Jones shot 14-15, with the sole miss being a three point attempt.   As an afterthought, Jones had a career high 13 boards.

When Jones was on the floor, the team was simply better.  With Jones in the game, Stanford scored more efficiently (2.22 points per minute versus 1.77 points per minute when she was on the bench).  Stanford also defended better (UW had 1.15 points per minute with Jones in the game versus 1.46 points per minute she was seated).   

These stats are a bit misleading, because when Jones was seated, so were many of the other starting players.  Still, you can’t watch Haley Jones in action without noticing the spark she provides.  Jones is smooth, she’s strong, she has great court vision, and that’s just the beginning.  Jones has a wonderful and difficult to defend pull up jumper, she picks out teammates who are freed up by her drives, and those same drives to the basket demonstrate a remarkable array of scoops, hooks and other improvised shots.  Against UW, Jones was a remarkable 14 for 14 from inside the three point line.

It is unrealistic to expect that level of performance against talented and well prepared opponents.  Jones, however, has demonstrated that she can quickly adjust to any defense.  If she is doubled or tripled, she’ll find open teammates.

All of these gifts were present when Jones took the court last season.  The difference is that, after her mid-season injury last year, Jones has come back renewed, with a purpose and resolve that wasn’t evident last season.  If she can stay healthy, opponents will have a tough time this season.

The team is averaging 97.3 points and 51.3 rebounds per game.  Meanwhile, Stanford has held its opponents to an average of 48 per game.  That’s a winning margin of nearly 50 points.  These averages will look less stellar against tougher opponents, but word is out that Stanford will score a lot of points this year.  And scoring will be a challenge against Stanford’s defense. 

The credit for strong defense has to be spread widely.  Kiana Williams leads the team with 7 steals while Ashten Prechtel and Cameron Brink each have 5 blocks.  And Haley Jones is a part of the defensive presence with 4 blocks and 3 steals.  Not to be forgotten, Fran Belibi has 5 steals, making her the second most prolific thief.  Two other defensive stalwarts are Lacie and Lexie Hull, who were team leaders in steals last year.  Watching Stanford play defense is a treat because of cooperation that comes only with communication and teamwork.  The defensive plays generate exciting transition offense.  

There are some surprises.  For all three games, the starting five for Stanford had no one taller than 6’1”, albeit Fran Belibi has the reach of a 6’5” player.  That lineup emphasizes speed and athleticism.  Then again, both Ashten Prechtel and Cameron Brink (who lead the team in blocks) are getting lots of playing time and could well see some starts.

Another surprise – Hannah Jump is averaging 10.7 points per game (the fourth leading scorer so far) and is getting rebounds and assists.  And still another – the player with the least playing time so far is Alyssa Jerome, averaging 9 minutes per game.  Jerome is a gamer who had starts last year, and will likely see time in crucial games ahead. 

The toughest short term opponent for Stanford remains Covid 19.  The games between now and New Year’s could all be relocated, postponed or cancelled.  The drive of the players and the creative skills of the coaches and their staffs will be tested.  But this group will endure.

November 26, 2020

Fresh Faces, Fresh Opportunities, and - uhm - Continuing Covid Concerns

 

Warren Grimes

It was refreshing, even invigorating. 

Fans got to see Stanford’s WBB team in video-stream action on the day before Thanksgiving.  Not a nail biter, but the team performed impressively in a 108 to 40 thrashing of over-matched Cal Poly.  Everyone got playing time, and eight players scored 7 or more points (five had double digits).

It was rewarding to see improvements in sophomore performance from Haley Jones, Fran Belibi, Ashten Prechtel, and Hannah Jump (Jones had a double-double – 16 points and 10 boards in 25 minutes; Jump showed fitness and offensive flexibility in scoring 15 points in 17 minutes). 

But I want to focus on the three freshmen.  Let’s start with the two least heralded recruits.

Agnes Emma-Nnopu is just a player.  She is strong, athletic, and everywhere – particularly on the boards. When I first learned of her interest in attending Stanford, I went back and looked at her records playing for Australian national teams.  In the U-19 World Cup held in Bangkok in the summer of 2019, Emma- Nnopu was listed as a small forward, but she tied the Australian team’s big (Alexander Fowler) as the most efficient rebounder (averaging 12.8 boards over 40 minutes).  That team got to the final and took Team USA to overtime before losing by 4 points.  In that final, the Australian coaches played Emma-Nnopu for 35.2 minutes, and she responded with 10 boards, 9 points, and a strong defensive presence.

Against Cal Poly, Emma-Nnopu played just 15 minutes, but chalked up 7 boards and 8 points (including converting her sole 3 point attempt).  On a per minute basis, Emma-Nnopu was THE most efficient rebounder on the team.   As an opportunistic guard, she’s going to be a terror on the boards and meaningful contributor to the offense.

Not to be outdone, Jana Van Gytenbeek came off the bench for 14 minutes to rack up 9 points and 4 beautiful assists.  Two of those gems were half court passes to a streaking teammate who converted a fast break layup.  With no turnovers, Van Gytenbeek’s assist-turnover ratio is, for the time being, INFINITY.  Oh, and Van Gytenbeek was 2 for 4 from the three point line.

Now to THE most heralded freshman – Cameron Brink.  She hardly disappointed.  Brink came off the bench to play 18 minutes.  In those limited minutes, she came close to a double-double, with 17 points and 9 boards.  Brink was impressive with her ball handling.  Brink may not be the optimal post defender against an opponent’s strong offensive big, but she could make that same big’s life miserable when Brink is playing offense.  Brink attempted no three point shots, but the record shows she can and will be a three point threat.  She drew lots of fouls, and needs to improve on her 5 for 10 freep-throw conversion rate.

All of this news about freshmen and sophomores leaves out fifth year senior Anna Wilson.  She got the start and had a team high 5 assists in 15 minutes on the court.  Wilson is part of a deep roster that gives Coach Van Derveer lots and lots of options. 

I loved the passing and assist making of this team – 26 assists against only 10 turns.  The 2.6 team ratio will be difficult to maintain against tougher opponents, but says something about the team’s potential.  The team’s number 2 national ranking is well deserved.  Scoring 108 points is no joke.  Cal Poly was overmatched, but a competitive side that will do well in the Big West conference. 

The team’s biggest immediate challenge is the pandemic.  There will likely be cancelled games, maybe lots of them.  Indeed, shortly after the Cal Poly game ended, the team’s scheduled Sunday game against Pacific was cancelled – another casualty of Covid 19.    

Coach Van Derveer’s advice to the team is to be flexible.  Good advice for all of us. 

Stay safe!

September 16, 2020

High School Player Rankings: How Big is the Grain of Salt?

 

Warren Grimes

Yes, the ratings of high school basketball players matter.  Fans and the press pay a lot of attention to who has the best recruiting class, who has the highest ranked player, and what all of this means for the future success of the team.

The rankings are hardly meaningless.  A rating service like ESPN’s HoopGurlz uses experienced scouts to do the ratings.  And a statistician would tell us that a higher rating correlates positively with success in college.  But consider this Stanford example.

In the 2018 recruiting class, Jenna Brown was given a 5 star rating as the #20 player in HoopGurlz ratings (Brown was rated even higher in Prospects Nation - #13).   Lacie Hull, on the other hand, was given a 3 star rating and did not make the top 100 players.  After two seasons of basketball, Lacie Hull has been a frequent starter, always in the rotation, and has had a substantial impact on the team’s success.  Brown has been in and out of the rotation, partly due to injuries, and is still waiting to show what she can do.

In the 2016 recruiting class, the #4 overall player was Sabrina Ionescu.  The three players above her were Lauren Cox (Baylor), Joyner Holmes (Texas) and Crystal Dangerfield (U Conn).  Each of these three  are fine players, but none of them came close to the impact that Ionescu had on her team, her conference, and women’s hoops nationally. 

Let’s look at HoopGurlz high school class rankings for five recent Stanford classes.  Stanford was rated in the top 10 recruiting classes for each of these classes, achieving the #2 rating for the 2017 class and again for the 2019 class.  The team’s lowest rating was the #8 class of 2018.

Class of 1017   #2 Overall                                             Class of 2018  - #8 Overall

Kiana Williams -#8                                                           Lexie Hull - #16

Maya Dodson -#11                                                          Jenna Brown- #20

Estella Moschkau -#44                                                   Lacie Hull -(Not in top 100)

Alyssa Jerome (Canada)

 

Class of 2019  #2 Overall                                              Class of 2020   #5 Overall

Haley Jones  -#1                                                             Cameron Brink - #3

Ashten Prechtel - #16                                                     Jana Van Gytenbeck - #39

Fran Belibi  #23                                                             Agnes Emma-Nnopu  -(Australian)

Hannah Jump - #50

 


 

Class of 2021   (Uncertain Overall Ranking but likely top 10)

Brooke Demetre - #11

Kiki Iriafen - #19

Jzaniya Harriel  #78

Elena Bosgana  - (Greece)

 

                Based on performance so far, we can draw some general conclusions.  For example, the higher ranked Stanford players tended to do better at Stanford.  Kiana Williams is an outstanding example.  So far at least, the outlier has to be Lacie Hull, who was not even in the top 100 for her recruiting class.

But here are some reasons to take high school ratings with a large grain of salt.

-          The ratings services don’t agree.  A small example: Prospects Nation rated Ashten Prechtel #54 while HoopGurlz rated her as #16.

-          Not all recruiting classes are equal – My sense is that the 2019 class, for example, contained a larger sample of exceptional athletes (Fran Belibi was rated #23 -- #13 by Prospects Nation-- but has the potential to be one of the greatest to play at Stanford).

-          The rating services don’t fully account for the value of foreign recruits.  The 2021 class includes Elena Bosgana, potentially the best foreign recruit since Alana Smith, and maybe something beyond that.  How one rates the 2021 recruiting class depends a lot on Bosgana’s rating.

-          The rating services cannot predict injuries.

-          The rating services cannot fully assess factors such as heart, focus, and drive (Lacie Hull again being an example).

-          Finally, a team has to have role players that fit the team’s strengths and the coach’s strategies.  A player’s talents have to fit.  A player like Agnes Emma Nnopu, no matter her ranking, seems to fit a Van Derveer profile.  We'll see.

So, yes, to quote Coach Van Derveer, a team has to have the horses, and rating services do a fair job of predicting the thoroughbreds.  But it’s far from perfect process.  A top notch coach who evaluates a high school player may have quite a different assessment than the public rating services.  And a lot depends on the focus and hard work once the player starts playing in college.

Speaking of starting to play in college, we are all waiting for word about this season.

July 02, 2020

Does the Road to Stanford Success Pass Through Bangkok?


A strange thought. 

But let me explain.
 
Last year at this time, FIBA conducted its Women’s Under 19 World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand.  The United States team won that competition by the slimmest of margins.  In the end game, Australia led late into the final minutes.  Team USA rallied to tie the game at the buzzer.  In overtime, the USA prevailed, but Team Australia had established itself as a meaningful threat to US dominance. 

Next season’s Stanford roster will include two players from Team USA and one from Team Australia.  One of these, Fran Belibi, is already known to Stanford fans.  In Thailand, Belibi did not start for the team, but was one of the first players off the bench.  She averaged 7.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in just over 16 minutes per game.  She was disruptive on defense, blocking and deflecting, stealing and intimidating.  Her rebounding efficiency was the best of any player in the 16-team tournament.  That's impressive.  Her 68.8% field goal conversion was also impressive.  These strengths were reflected in Belibi’s freshman year on the Farm.  The potential for a sophomore leap is strong.

A new player on next year’s roster will be Agnes Emma Nnopu, who played impressively for team Australia.  Nnopu averaged more minutes than Belibi – 23.2 per game.  Her point production, an average of 6.1 per game, was below that of Belibi.  Nnopu, however, can shoot the three ball and was proficient from the free throw line (78.6%).  She’s also a dedicated defender.  In the tournament, Nnopu’s most notable accomplishment came as an offensive rebounder.  Nnopu had 52 rebounds in the seven-game tournament, with a whopping 65.4% of these offensive boards.  That’s unusual and shows how active Nnopu was on the court.  Belibi, by contrast, was a more efficient rebounder on a per minute basis, but 64.7% of her boards were defensive.  Nnopu is not a post player and will likely defend on the perimeter, but she finds a way to get the boards and to get it done both offensively and defensively.  She’ll be fun to watch.

Last, but not least, Cameron Brink played on team USA in the Bangkok tournament.  Appearing in only 5 games (and averaging just 8 minutes per game), Brink averaged just 2 points per game but was an excellent defender and rebounder.  Brink’s shot blocking (on a per minute basis) was superior to that of Belibi and other posts.  Had Brink seen more minutes, her stats would certainly have impressed.  Brink is a top 10 recruit, the highest ranked in this year’s class.  Her all around game includes ball handling, outside shooting and assist making.  Brink will be difficult to keep off the floor. 

The third new player on Stanford’s roster, Jana Van Gytenbeek, lacks a direct Bangkok connection.  This promising young point guard, however, has chosen to work out this Summer with a group of young Stanford players that includes two Bangkok veterans, Belibi and Brink. If some of the Thai connection rubs off, watch out for Van Gytenbeek.  

So yes, experience in Bangkok can be part of the formula for success at Stanford.  All of these players will be exciting to watch when the new season commences.  For this to happen, Nnopu has to 
find her way to the US, and all of us have to come to grips with the pandemic.  

It will be done.

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!