November 12, 2023

A Great Team in the Making? Chemistry and Intensity


  Warren Grimes

After scoring a mere 87 points against unranked Hawaii, Stanford put up 96 against 9th ranked Indiana.  Indiana coach Teri Moren described Stanford as “terrific.”  Maybe she was right. 

Indiana met Stanford at Maples on a Sunday mid-November afternoon.  Stanford looked like a formidable final four team.  Indiana scored 64 points but trailed massively early on, with Stanford holding a 54-26 lead at the end of the first half.  The final margin of victory was 32 points.

Indiana is a very good team, likely to compete for a big-10 championship, but Stanford brought intensive defense and unselfish inside-outside play on offense that the Hoosiers could not match.  Is Stanford better than last year?  A bit early to say, but things are looking pretty good.

The loss of All American Haley Jones was big, but that loss is being offset.  This year’s team brings an intangible team chemistry, led by leaders like Cameron Brink.   Brink, and others, bring experience, intensity, and unselfish team play.  In addition to chemistry, there are at least two other notable strengths to this team that contribute to its inside-outside dominance.  First, the returning veterans are improved.  Second, the three freshmen, led by Nunu Agara, are impressive. 

Kiki Iriafen’s improvement, while perhaps expected, is noteworthy.  Last year, Iriafen averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 boards per game.  This year, after two games, the average is 21.5 points and 12 boards.  Last year, Iriafen shared a lot of minutes with Lauren Betts, but the combined total of those two players was 12 points and 7.3 boards.  I expect Iriafen’s totals will moderate as the season progresses, but she is now a part of the best post duo in the conference.  I expect double-doubles will be frequent in Iriafen’s junior season.

The other half of that duo is All American Cameron Brink.  Brink has benefitted from playing 3 on 3 basketball over the past Summer.  Her post moves are quicker than ever, and she has hit 2 of her 4 three-point attempts so far.  She leads the team in boards with 12.5 per game despite playing an average of just 22.5 minutes so far.  Against Indiana, she had 20 points, 17 boards, and 4 blocks (2 against Indiana’s All American center Mackenzie Holmes).  Stretching back to last season, Brink has made over 50 consecutive free throws, and she gets lots of opportunities.

Other starters are also showing improvement.   Fifth year senior Hannah Jump leads the team in minutes played and has converted three-point shots at a 50% rate.  She seems more active in give and go moves, scoring six of her nine baskets inside the three-point line.  Elena Bosgana has started two games and is averaging 10 points per game on a combination of threes and interior moves.

Starting point guard Talana Lepolo continues with major minutes as a ball handler (and swishing 2 of 3 three-point attempts against Indiana).

I’ve not mentioned Brooke Demetre, who once again with her steadiness and outside shooting may lead the team in minutes off the bench.  She can help out in the post positions, as she did late-game against Indiana.

Jzaniya Harriel is a veteran guard also likely to get more minutes this season.  Harriel is averaging 15 minutes and 3 points per game so far. 

Now let’s talk about the freshmen, starting with Nunu Agara.  The preseason hype on 6’2” Agara was that she could play the shooting guard position well and help elsewhere.  That was an understatement, particularly with respect to her inside game.  So far, Agara is averaging 15.5 points (second highest on the team) and 5 boards in an average of just 18 minutes per game.  Wow!  Agara turns out to be quick, strong, and creative on the inside.  She can also shoot from distance (1 for 2 so far).  Although not the highest ranked of the three incoming freshmen (Agara was ranked no. 37 by ESPN Hoopgurlz), she may get more minutes (and a starting assignment) more quickly than her classmates.  Her teammate Cameron Brink says Agara can play any of the 1-5 positions.

Courtney Ogden, ranked no. 10 by Hoopgurlz, is a shooter, but at 6’1” also someone who can battle inside. Ogden is averaging 13 minutes and 3.5 points.  I see an upward curve for Ogden as she adjusts to the faster collegiate game. 

Chloe Clardy, a guard ranked no. 39 by Hoopgurlz, has a great handle and three-point shooting skills, also averaging 3.5 points in just under 13 minutes.  She can play the point and shoot the three (3-8).  Her future looks bright.

The chemistry seems exceptional.  The players play with intensity and support for one another.  The future looks bright for a team that has superior inside-outside potential.   

November 05, 2023

New Season Optimism: How Much?

Warren Grimes

Best Year Ever!

That’s the slogan for this year’s Stanford women’s basketball team in the final year of Pac-12 play.

Can that happen?  Here are two takes on the prospects for this year’s team.  The first lists some reasons why optimism should be guarded.   The second examines why the team could substantially outperform its preseason ranking of 15 (AP poll).

Reasons for Guarded Optimism

Stanford has lost versatile All-American Haley Jones.   A point forward who could lead the fast break, Jones led the team in assists and steals; she was a close second to Cameron Brink in points and rebounds.  She was a go-to player able to create her own shot in a crowded interior.. 

Jones was one of two #1 ranked high school recruits that left the team.  The other was promising post Lauren Betts, who transferred to UCLA.  Another transfer loss was Indya Nivar, an athletic and versatile guard who left to play at North Carolina.

The loss of Betts, Ashten Prechtel and Jones means Stanford has lost depth and rebounding in the post positions.  Once the conference’s leader in post depth, Stanford is now a bit thin in these positions.

Meanwhile, the road to a conference championship is as difficult as it’s ever been.  The conference’s top five rivals for Stanford have maintained a solid roster or even improved (UCLA being a primary example).  UCLA and Utah are ranked #4 and #5 in the preseason AP poll and three more Pac-12 teams are ranked behind Stanford in the top 25 (Colorado, USC and WSU).  Arizona, Oregon, and Washington also received votes.

Reasons Stanford May Exceed Expectations

Stanford brings back four of its five starters from last year.  Those four, and other veterans, will be better, more experienced players. Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen are probably the best four-five combination in the conference.  Brink is a candidate for the Naismith award.  Iriafen is an improving strong and athletic post player with solid moves and rebounding skills.  In addition, Hanna Jump, who has improved every year, will be back as a three-point shooting guard as good as any in the conference. 

Talana Lepola also returns as the team’s starting guard with a good handle and an excellent 2:1 assist/turnover ratio.  Lepola can increase the team's offensive diversity if she asserts herself from the three-point line. 

To replace Jones, there are several prospects, including veteran Elena Boscana.  Last year, Boscana shot at a 44% clip overall and 32% from distance.   Her defense is improving, and she can create shots.  Against Dominican, Boscana started and scored 19 points, including 2-4 from distance.  Three-point shooting is a skill that Jones did not demonstrate in her last year at Stanford.  If Jones’ replacement is a three-point threat, this could help open up the inside.    

Last season, Brooke Demetre had more minutes off the bench than any other Stanford player.  Demetre may or may not start, but she is destined again for major minutes.  She is steady, with 2:1 assist-turnover ratio, and can shoot from the outside (33% last year).  Against Dominican, Demetre had an off night shooting but pulled down 12 boards in 21 minutes on the floor.  Expect Demetre to be playing the post positions much more than last year when she was used mostly on the perimeter.  A post player who can shoot from the outside is always a major plus. 

In conference play, Stanford could also benefit from scheduling.  This season, Stanford plays only a single game against four of its top-five ranked opponents.  Stanford has only one home game each against UCLA and USC and only one away game each against Utah and Colorado.

The Role of the Three Freshmen

Its risky to draw too many conclusions from the exhibition game against overmatched Dominican, but the 126 point-performance is a positive.  With Elena Boscana in the starting lineup along with last year’s starters, that group scored 66 points while averaging just over 16 minutes each on the floor.  The group was scoring at .80 points per player per minute.  Not to be forgotten, Stanford’s three freshmen (Nuna Agara, Courtney Ogden, and Chloe Clardy) came off the bench for an average of just over 17 minutes each and contributed 40 points (or .78 points per player per minute).   That's exciting.  The full  story of these freshmen has yet to be written, but all seem destined for major minutes.  Ogden added 10 boards and 2 assists to her 16-point total, all in just 14 minutes on the floor.  Ogden’s ability to score inside and out while rebounding well makes her another promising replacement for Haley Jones. 

We will know more in two weeks, after four more games in a two week period, including one against higher ranked Indiana and another against highly respected Duke.

I'm excited.

September 04, 2023

Can the Non-Football Sports Recover From Chaotic Realignment?


Warren Grimes

Coach Tara VanDerveer has spoken of the grief of seeing the storied Pac-12 conference abruptly disintegrate.  As the conference’s number one WBB proponent, VanDerveer can rightly lament the undoing of what was probably the nation’s number one WBB conference. 

This was a money and football driven event.  Football provides the money, the money comes from big sports networks, and the networks care about their own bottom line and not much else.  Among college women’s sports, women’s hoops generates the most revenue, but it is a pittance compared to football.  Neither VanDerveer nor any of the other non-football college coaches had a meaningful say in what transpired.

Realignment is about the rich getting richer.  Schools fortunate enough to join the Big Ten or the SEC will get more revenue.  Those with the least leverage, such as Washington State or Oregon State, are likely to end up with less revenue. 

Realignment is a particular threat to many non-football college sports.  Instead of regional-based conferences, many of these teams (some playing 2 or 3 times as many games as football) now must reckon with the extensive travel involved in a national conference.  According to the Stanford press release, 14 sports will have to deal with significant scheduling changes. That likely includes major non-football sports such as basketball, volleyball, soccer, swimming, track and field, and gymnastics.

That hurts.

That hurts the student athletes.  They must spend substantially more travel time.  Their lives as students are more disrupted; stress and mental health issues could worsen.   

That hurts coaches and staff, who in addition to enduring expanded travel, must also reckon with more  complex scheduling.

That hurts fans, who lose traditional rivalries and have greater difficulty travelling to away matches. 

That hurts athletic departments that must pay costs for more expensive travel (perhaps chartering planes for some of this travel). 

That hurts recruiting for schools that lose out on revenue or prestige, and perhaps for schools that must endure the most disruptive travel.

And it even hurts the environment as hundreds of athletes log more time on planes travelling cross country on multiple occasions.

So what’s to be done?

Facing this challenge, the non-football coaches and staff should fight for their programs.  They should pressure their own athletic departments to make adjustments that will protect the integrity of their sport.  Doing so in coordinated fashion will increase their leverage.  The big winners among the Pac-12 schools are UCLA and USC, which have the most lucrative payouts from joining the Big Ten.  But the non-football sports at these schools face burdens similar to everyone else.   They are in this together.

The women’s basketball coaches of the soon to be former Pac-12 know each other and care about the future of their sport.  As VanDerveer leads her team through the final Pac-12 season, she can interact with her colleagues from other schools about how best to preserve the values of their sport.  Other non-football coaches will have a similar opportunity.  They have several points of leverage to influence future developments.

Let’s start with economics.  Since money is driving realignments, why shouldn’t budget-conscious administrators also seek to cut travel budgets by scheduling more regional games.  Of course, the advantages go well beyond money, as coaches know well the toll extensive travel takes on them and on their student athletes. 

The big sports networks probably don’t have much money in this game.  Yes, they would want to televise many of these non-football contests, but some of the best matchups will involve regional rivalries and schools that don’t necessarily excel at football (U Conn’s or Gonzaga’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, for example). 

The Pac-12 coaches will soon be split asunder (presumably in four separate conferences), but they can build a network with their colleagues in future conferences.  The interests of non-football coaches in the Big Ten, the Big 12, or the ACC are no different than those of the Pac-12 schools.

Coordinated appeals should focus on several ways of improving the sport and lessening travel burdens.

I.                     Football conference alignments could be separated from the conference alignments of other collegiate sports.  This would be the cleanest solution. Football is unique not simply because it generates the most revenue, but also because of the relatively small number of games played. Freeing the non-football sports from the link to football would allow more regionally based alignments.

II.                   To the extent that non-football sports remain in the same conference with football, several mitigating reforms could lessen the travel burdens.  The conference schedule, for example, could be reduced so that teams have discretion to schedule more regional games.  The conference championship would be based on fewer intra-conference games, perhaps placing greater emphasis on an end-of-season conference tournament. 

III.                 Another variation on this theme would allow each conference member to schedule a set number of games against worthy regional opponents that are not members of the same conference (these games could still count in the conference championship). 

IV.                Inter conference agreements could establish a system of cross conference games that would count toward the conference title, with these games designed to favor regional rivalries.

Realignments are unlikely to end with the demise of the Pac-12.  Other vulnerable conferences, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, are likely to see schools such as Florida State or Creighton bolt for greener (as in the color of money) pastures.  These moves are selfish, even to the point of being ugly, and certainly disrespectful of traditional alignments.  These developments have already sparked negative stories and commentary, including from Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, PBS, and NPR. 

Do non-profit educational institutions really want to be seen as cut-throat money grubbers who place the dollar above the interests of their own student athletes?  The selfish and decidedly unsavory conduct of schools raises the possibility that one or more committees of a dysfunctional Congress may decide to hold hearings on the realignments.  Members of Congress may disagree on a solution, but they could join hands in holding a hearing that will generate national publicity.  They have done so in the past and it is not unlikely that they will do so again.

A member of Congress from a state or district where a school has suffered revenue or prestige loss from realignment would enthusiastically support such a hearing.  While perhaps unlikely to result in legislation, a hearing could shine a light on the issues and generate indirect pressure for universities to rethink how they deal with each other and with their student athletes.

August 15, 2023

Realignment Chaos: Can the Non-Football Programs Preserve Traditional Rivalries?


Warren Grimes

With conference realignment foremost on our minds, it is appropriate to ask what will befall the non-football programs – programs that are central to Stanford regularly winning the Directors Cup and supplying the Olympics with gifted athletes.  A focus on football money streams is, unfortunately, unlikely to adequately address the interests of non-football programs and their student athletes.   

Stanford’s realignment has yet to be resolved, but most possible outcomes will raise concerns for Stanford Women’s Basketball as well as 30 plus other non-football programs, including men’s basketball, baseball, softball, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s soccer, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, and track and field.  Realignments may force time-consuming and expensive travel and the loss of traditional rivalries that motivate fans and players. 

Dismantling the Pac-12 conference will make it difficult to preserve regular contests with traditional opponents.  Stanford has decades of storied contests with the three other California-based Pac-12 members: California, UCLA, and USC.  And four other Pacific Coast schools (each a member of the old Pac-8) are regular rivals (Oregon, OSU, Washington, and WSU).  

Why is it important to maintain these traditional rivalries? 

Well, for one, the fans and the players value these rivalries.  Historical ties make for sharper focus and more intense competition.  The regional rivalries also make economic and environmental sense.  Why spend the time and money on long-distance cross-county treks when the competition is as good or better close to home.  Finally, there is the recruitment value of playing in a region where Stanford finds most of its recruits.

To be sure, Stanford recruits nationally and internationally.  For WBB, all three of our incoming freshman recruits are non-West Coast people.  Two others on the roster are from Greece.  That said, seven of the team’s upperclassmen are West Coast people – one from Oregon and six from California.  This season’s starting line up could well be made up solely of Pacific Coast players (Brink from Oregon and Iriafen, Demetre, Lepolo and Jump from California). 

There is an advantage in recruiting players who feel at home on the West Coast.  Was it an accident that all three players who transferred out of the program last year were non-West Coasters?  I can’t answer that, but it’s simply good advertising to have Stanford perform in areas where most potential recruits live.  Southern California has long been a key recruiting ground for Stanford WBB.

Football and men’s basketball provide most of the revenues for college athletics, but the bulk of an athletic department’s personnel are involved in non-football sports.  These coaches and staff are not just potted plants.  For any given sport, coaches have close ties to others in their sport, especially their in-conference colleagues.  These non-football coaches, while acknowledging the need for football generated revenues, will push for what is best for their sport and their program.   One might expect that they will push in the direction of freeing their sport from the ties of football conferences.  Failing that, if a conference schedule requires long and expensive journeys to faraway places, they will push to lighten the conference schedule, broadening their discretion to schedule nearby rivals.  These coaches and administrators already have substantial control over scheduling non-conference contests.

What’s good for Stanford is also good for our rival schools.  UCLA and USC, for example, doubtless see advantage in maintaining a non-football sport rivalry with Stanford, including the relatively short one-hour flight from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.  It is likely that every school leaving the Pac-12 will share Stanford’s interest in maintaining regularly scheduled contests among Pac-12 rivals.

Taking one additional step, it may be in the non-football programs’ interest to formalize these rivalries in a way that can ensure their long-term survival.   Schools in different conferences could still agree to regularly schedule games with one another.  For example, UCLA and USC could still agree to play one women’s BB game against Stanford each year, alternating home and away.  More broadly, an agreement between women’s BB programs could keep all the original Pac-8 schools on a once-a-year contest schedule.  Assuming Stanford was in a different conference from each of the other seven schools, this would mean 7 non-conference games each year, each against a traditional rival and each involving relatively manageable travel (If Cal, OSU, and WSU end up in the same conference with Stanford, that will mean only four non-conference games). 

This kind of agreement would preserve longstanding relationships among the schools and their coaches.  The agreements should be sport specific.  Baseball or women’s soccer, for example, would have to work out scheduling arrangements suitable for their sport. 

Stanford could take the lead in proposing such agreements, which arguably are in the interests of all the Pac-8 schools (and could even be broadened to include all schools currently in the Pac 12).  Cooperation among the Pac-12 coaches and administrators in non-football sports, in the longer term, could pave the way for separating football and non-football conferences.  There is precedent for that separation.  Stanford sports such as men’s volleyball, soccer, and water polo are part of conferences that have participants not conforming with Pac-12 membership. 

August 08, 2023

Demise of the Pac-12 and Other Off-Season Events

Warren Grimes

For women’s hoops fans, it’s been an interesting summer – not to mention the spring that preceded it. 

We learned at season’s end that the two top-ranked recruits from last year’s freshman class were transferring.  Lauren Betts, the #1 ranked high school recruit from last year, decided she preferred to play at UCLA.  Indya Nivar, another top 20 recruit, wanted to play closer to home in North Carolina.  On top of that, rising senior Agnes Emma-Nnopu opted to transfer to Texas. 

If there was a positive to be found anywhere in the off-season events, it was that Talana Lepolo, well behind Betts and Nivar in high school ranking, had become Stanford’s starting point guard and started for the U19 USA team that won the championship this summer.  Oh, and Cameron Brink – yes thank goodness for Brink – was the MVP of the champion USA team in the three-on-three WBB world competition in Vienna.

But in terms of what’s happened lately, it’s all about the disintegration of the Pac-12 conference.  After USC and UCLA announced their intention to join the Big Ten last year, the future of the conference was uncertain at best.  It’s worth noting, however, that even without UCLA and USC, the conference still could have been the best women’s hoops conference in the country.  

Three-time NCAA champion Stanford, with the winningest coach in BB history, was still there.  So was Arizona, which played in the NCAA championship game against Stanford in 2021.  Oregon could have won it all in 2020 if the NCAA tournament hadn’t been cancelled.  Then there was Utah, which shared the conference title with Stanford in 2023.  And not so lowly WSU, which pulled the most startling upset by winning the conference tournament last March (WSU still hasn’t bested Stanford in women’s hoops).  And that leaves out Colorado, which has become a no-nonsense team capable of beating Stanford and anyone else in the conference. 

So why take apart the best women’s hoops conference in the country? 

Well, the demise of the Conference had absolutely nothing to do with women’s hoops. 

It was all about money, money, money, and that money came primarily from football.  Each school that has chosen to leave the Pac-12, and that includes eight of the twelve members, has done so for a selfish reason – to maximize its television revenues.  In doing so, the schools showed little or no concern for the remaining conference members.  Nor have they paid much attention to women’s basketball or to any of the other non-football sports.  My hunch is that none of the eight women’s hoops coaches from the departing schools, while they will make the best of their opportunities, would have found this decision to be in the best interests of their program. 

So, the remains of the “Pac-4 Conference” are Stanford, California, OSU, and WSU.  The athletic directors at these schools can understandably ask: “what did we do wrong?” 

I cannot predict what will happen next.  A four-school conference is untenable, although the schools could agree to continue to cooperate in the short term, or even attempt a collective negotiation that would allow all four to join another conference.  The school with the most leverage may be Stanford, in part because of its storied record in many sports (winning the Director’s Cup consistently).  Stanford and California also have leverage because of their location in a populous Bay Area media market. 

Rather than try to predict, let me end by just suggesting what kind of a solution would be best--best for Stanford, but also best for the other three schools and college athletics generally.   That would be to separate football from the other sports.  As the UCLA football coach has suggested in an LA Times interview, there could be further consolidation of football conferences, perhaps even to the point of having a single national conference for football (with various regional divisions).  That conference could then negotiate lucrative media coverage contracts.  Other sports could be left to organize in smaller regionally based conferences (bring back a Pac-8 of the four schools in Washington, Oregon, and California?).  They could still sell media rights and bring in revenue, but money would no longer dominate decisions about what is in the best interests of the athletes and fans.  

March 21, 2023

Putting the Pieces Together


Warren Grimes

I find it difficult to write after a tough loss.  And the second-round loss to Mississippi, on the Maples home court, was as tough as they come.  It was not wholly unexpected, but nonetheless a gut punch for the Stanford players, coaches, and fans.   It ended the Stanford career for at least some of the four extraordinary seniors, each of whom played key roles in Stanford’s first national championship in over two decades.   Going out in the second round was not how Haley Jones and her mates wanted to write the script.

My immediate response to the loss was to be sad, even a bit depressed, and to spend a sleepless night wondering what if.  Others responded differently.   Over on the Cardboard, a few posters unleashed harsh criticism of Coach Tara VanDerveer, some of it in angry and disrespectful tones. 

VanDerveer has coached more teams to victory than any coach in WBB history.  She has three national championships to her credit, long strings of sweet sixteen and final four appearances, and numerous conference and conference tournament titles.  VanDerveer is not above criticism, but she’s entitled to respect because she is a person of principle and because of her amazing and durable record.

One of the criticisms on the Cardboard is that VanDerveer did not use and develop the right players.  As an example, one critic argued that the coach should have played Indya Nivar and Elena Bosgana more because of their superior offensive potential.  I am high on both players, but respectfully disagree.  Nivar, for example, could have seen more minutes by replacing Talana LePolo or Agnes Emma-Nnopu.  But VanDerveer and her staff watch these players every day in practice.  They are going to know far more than outsiders how consistently and intently each of them performs.  The coaches are not wearing blinders – if a player excels in practice, that player is going to get more minutes. A coach who does not follow these rules should switch to coaching nursery school dodgeball.

The season stats also do not support the critic’s views.  For one, Indya Nivar DID get substantial playing time: Nivar was tied with Emma-Nnopu for the sixth most minutes on the floor and ahead of 8th place Kiki Iriafen.  When on the floor, Nivar was at times impressive, but shot threes at a modest 23% rate.  Emma-Nnopu, playing the same number of minutes as Nivar, shot threes at a 42% rate.  Emma Nnopu also was equal or better than Nivar in rebounding, free throw shooting percentage, and in steals. 

Lepolo, who had roughly twice as many minutes on the floor as Nivar, shot threes at 37% and had a superior assist to turnover ratio (2:1 compared to Nivar’s 1;1).  The truth is, none of these three players (Lepolo, Emma-Nnopu, or Nivar) was the kind of offensive threat that would challenge defensive schemes that collapsed around the team’s key scorers. 

Perhaps the statistics provide a somewhat stronger case for more minutes for Bosgana, who was the 11th ranked player in team minutes.  Bosgana is a player ready and willing to put up shots and she shot threes at a respectable 32 % and field goals at an overall 44%.  Bosgana, like the other three, was not a consistent difference maker in key games.  Perhaps each of these players needs more time to develop, and that’s a reason for hope for next year.

Another criticism of VanDerveer is said to be her failure to recruit a top ranked point guard.  It’s easy to provide a list of highly ranked point guards who were recruited by Stanford but chose other schools, including Skylar Diggins, Paige Bueckers, and Kiki Rice.  These were indeed recruiting disappointments, but the picture is not fully revealed by focusing only on failures.  Over her career, there is a long list of star point guards that VanDerveer has brought to Stanford, including Jennifer Azzi, Sonja Henning, Susan King Borchardt, Jamila Wideman, Amber Orrange, and Kiana Williams.  Nonetheless, I would agree that Stanford has had difficulty in consistently filling the point guard position with top-flight talent, often forced to turn the position over to talented but not natural point guards, including Lacie Hull (last year) or Jeanette Pohlen or Nicole Powell in years past.   Indeed, Haley Jones has been performing point guard functions during her entire four years at Stanford.

A top ranked high school point guard is a valuable commodity for every college basketball team in the country.  It should surprise no one that Skylar Diggins or Kiki Rice was intensely recruited.  Those two candidates, in particular, were major disappointments because Stanford seemed to have a recruiting advantage.  Diggins had already tentatively committed to Stanford, only to be won over to Notre Dame at the end.  But Diggins had a natural South Bend connection, so maybe that should be less surprising.    As for Rice, we had the Susan King Borchardt family connection, but that turns out not to be decisive in many recruitments (Bonnie and Karlie Samuelson chose Stanford, but their even more highly regarded sister, Katie Lou, chose the evil empire).

I see no basis for concluding that Stanford, under Coach VanDerveer, is somehow inherently disadvantaged in recruiting top point guards.   One theory about this is that the Stanford style of offense tends to cripple the freedom of action of freewheeling point guards.  This theory is 90% hooey.   All coaches put limits on point guard behavior.  It’s true that some offenses emphasize fast break creativity while others focus more on a half court set up.  But VanDerveer has always taught her teams to run whenever possible.  Since Haley Jones joined the team, fast break creativity has been a focus.   

Are fans frustrated when Kiki Rice chooses to attend UCLA?  Of course.  But laying the blame on the coach for most of these individualized decisions is suspect, particularly when VanDerveer has succeeded in recruiting so many other top-flight players.

The focus of Stanford coaches is (and ought to be) next season.  With Haley Jones gone, the team urgently needs balanced perimeter scoring to complement Cameron Brink and Lauren Betts.  Anything that Stanford can do to enhance player development is a top priority.   And there’s lots to work with, even if none of the four seniors return for a “Covid” year (yet to be determined). 

Eight of the eleven players with the most minutes are underclassmen and should be returning.   Brink is obviously pivotal.  One other player who will be back is perhaps a diamond in the rough.  She is a player who, although yet to start a game, had the 5th largest number of minutes on a per game basis.  She shot 36% from three-land and had an enviable 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.

Who is it?  

Brooke Demetre. 

 Lets hope that Demetre can diversify her offensive skills and become a major scoring threat.

March 06, 2023

The Pac-12: The Nation's Best WBB Conference, But Is There a Dominant Team?


Warren Grimes

The Pac 12 is the best WBB conference in the land, but with a major question mark.  There is talent, depth, and balance in the conference.  That was illustrated by the recently completed topsy turvy conference tournament.  Here are some of the difficult-to-get-your-head-around facts of that tournament.

Of the 11 games played in the tournament, 7 were won by the lower seed (that’s 63% of the games)

Counting only the 7 games played starting with the quarter finals, 5 of those games were won by the lower seed (that’s 71% of the games).

Stanford did not make the final.  That’s not unprecedented, but it is unusual.

Stanford was not alone.  None of the other top 4 seeds made the final.

Seeded number 7, Washington State was the lowest seed to make the final and the lowest to win the tournament.

The champion team, Washington State, has never (as in never-ever) defeated Stanford in WBB.

In the first tournament game, the lowest seed in the tournament, Arizona State, took finalist UCLA to overtime before bowing to the Bruins.

Conference Co-Champions Stanford and Utah collectively lost 2/3 of the 3 tournament games they played.


All of this suggests balance in the league.  And the out-of-conference records of these teams suggest their relative superiority over other conferences.  But is there a dominant team in the conference capable of winning it all?

If there is such a team, a prime candidate would be Stanford.   But Stanford lost 2 of the last 3 games it played, hardly an indicator of dominance.  And Utah, in the conference tournament, couldn’t get beyond its game-one loss to number-7 seeded Washington State.

All of this presents intriguing questions for the upcoming NCAA tournament.  I expect the Pac-12 to do quite well in representation (7 or 8 teams?).  And these teams should do well in the first 2 or 3 rounds.  But will any of them make the Final Four?  The Pac 12 could plausibly land 3 teams in the Final 4, but it could also end up not sending anyone.  The up and down performances of every one of the conference’s teams makes one pause.

As for Stanford, the season-ending games exposed vulnerabilities that last season’s team did not have.  This year’s Stanford team lost three of its late season starters with the graduation of the Hull twins and Anna Wilson.  Collectively, those three players provided last year’s team with 28.4% of its points, 41% of its three pointers, and an impressive 58% of its steals.

Four different players have stepped in to fill most of the minutes played by last year’s triumvirate.  They are Lepolo, Demetre, Emma-Nnopu, and Iriafen.  Collectively, playing slightly fewer minutes than last year’s graduated trio, these replacements have put up roughly the same number of team points (28.4%), but fewer of the team’s 3-pointers (37%) and a lot fewer of the team’s steals (30%).  Of these four players, only one (Lepolo) is averaging over 20 minutes per game.  Demetre, Emma-Nnopu and Iriafen are all in the 12 to 14 minute range (so is Nivar).  That could mean amazing depth.  Less optimistically, it means that the coaching staff has not found a player that consistently contributes and scores the way last year’s trio did.  Although each of the four replacement players has had very productive offensive games, none so far can consistently and productively occupy the fifth spot on the floor.     

When you compare this year’s with last year’s stats, the current team is shooting free throws much better, is averaging a few more points per game, and also has the edge in field goal shooting percentage (thanks to the “B” players – Brink, Betts, and Belibi – all shooting near or above a 50% rate).  Last year’s team was shooting threes a bit better, had a substantially higher average of steals (3 more per game) and had a more consistent record that brought them both an undefeated conference season and a conference tournament championship.  One reason for last year’s success is that Lexie was a creative and effective inside-outside scorer (third highest on the team) while her sister and Anna Wilson were threats from the three-point line.   Collectively, those three players were averaging 37% from three-point land.  Wilson proved extremely deadly from distance in tournament play.  Any team that based its defense on sagging to the middle would pay a heavy price. 

To get to the Final Four, Stanford must find someone other than the big three (Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, and Hannah Jump) to be a consistent offensive threat.  Probably that player must show inside-outside scoring ability to make a sagging offensive team pay the price.  Indeed, impressionistically, the comparison of this season with last season leads to this: last year Stanford excelled at perimeter guard offense.  This year’s team, with the addition of Butts, has superior inside play, but probably needs improved perimeter play from the guards to have a chance to win it all.

Stanford can still be a dominant team, but it must prove it.

February 19, 2023

Coaching Perspectives on the USC Game


Warren Grimes

Coaches map out defensive and offensive strategies before each game.  Playing USC for the second time (after a humiliating loss in Los Angeles), how did Stanford coaches adjust their strategies?  And how did USC coaches adjust to the loss of Rayah Marshall, a key big who boards, blocks and scores? 

Without actual knowledge of the game plans, these comments are based on what I saw in the two games and on two basic rules of thumb: (1) that on the defensive side, a coach tries to make it difficult for the opponent’s primary scorers to succeed; and (2) on the offensive side, a coach tries to design an offense most likely to succeed against the opponent’s defense. 

Stanford and USC are the two best defensive teams in the conference.  USC allows opponents (on average) just under 54 points a game; Stanford has an opponent average of just under 57 points.  On field goal percentage defense, Stanford comes out on top with .328 with USC number two at .353.

Both teams did their defensive jobs well.  A total of 101 points were scored by the two teams in the USC victory; only 97 points were scored in the second matchup.  These low scoring totals, well below each team’s average, are often seen in the NCAA tournament when top teams meet one another.

Lindsay Gottlieb’s strategy for USC – USC matches up well against Stanford, both in terms of height and athleticism. Gottlieb succeeded in limiting Stanford’s top scorers in both games: Brink, Jones, and Jump had their points, but each had a low percentage of conversions.  Brink, for example, had 11 points in the first game and 12 points in the second.  But her conversion rate was 21% in the first game and 33% in the second, well below her season average of 49%.  Jump’s combined performance in the two games was 2 for 11, or 18%, well below her 45% average.

Offensively, USC is the second lowest in the conference in field goal percentage (35%).  These percentages were even worse in the two games (27% in the first game and 22% in the second), but Gottlieb’s team maintained or surpassed its average in 3-point shooting.  Without Rayah Marshall in the second game, Gottlieb may have redesigned her offense to rely less on interior scoring and more on three-point shooting.  Her team launched 23 long distance shots in the game, and converted 8 of them for a respectable 34.8% conversions (USC averages 34% on its three-point shots).

An impressive facet of Gottlieb’s game plan was how to use the natural incentive to play hard against Stanford, the team most Pac-12 opponents most want to beat.  One sign of this motivation was the bench response when USC teammates made a good play.  Rebounding was something USC did with passion and focus in the second game.  Gottlieb must have reached out to her players to make maximum rebounding efforts in lieu of an absent Rayah Marshall.  The team responded by tying Stanford with 43 total rebounds, but impressively gathering 20 offensive boards (USC averages 13 offensive boards, but that's with Marshall playing).  When second half shots weren’t falling for USC, time and again their players responded with offensive boards.  This was a team effort, with 6 players contributing offensive rebounds and with 3 of those players gathering more offensive than defensive boards (an unusual result and a demonstration of USC’s determination).

Tara VanDerveer’s strategy for Stanford – In January, the Stanford coaches had only a short time to prepare their team for a Sunday matchup with USC at the Galen Center.  Stanford had played a then top-10 ranked UCLA team on Friday.  The coaches had no such excuse for the Maples game, although they did lack one piece of knowledge that Gottlieb had.  Gottlieb knew that Marshall would be unlikely to play.  The Stanford coaches doubtless knew of Marshall’s injury the previous weekend, but they lacked any sense of whether Marshall would be sufficiently recovered to play.  Stanford had no choice but to plan a game strategy focusing on the interior, assuming Marshall would play.  That they did well.  They held USC to 2 points in the paint.  Although USC made 35% of its three-point shots, the Cardinal defense held USC to a 15% conversion rate (6 out of 40 attempts) on two-point shots.  Although Destiny Littleton (the high scorer with 18 points in the first game) had a hot first quarter, her overall shooting was not impressive (4 for 20 and 1 for 8 from 3-point land). 

Offensively, Stanford had 8 fast break points (compared to none in LA) and had major contributions from players other than the big three.  From off the bench, Indya Nivar had 9 points and Lauren Betts had 4.  Starter Kiki Iriafen played only 16 minutes, but had 9 points and 6 rebounds.  Each of these players was converting their shots at an equal or higher percentage than were the big three.

In the last minutes of the game, Stanford saw its lead, as high as 11 points in the third quarter, whittled down to 3 points.  Jones missed an uncontested layup and twice the team turned the ball over on inbound passes.  The inability of the team to inbound the ball in crucial minutes almost did Stanford in during the semi-final NCAA game against South Carolina two years ago.  The defense, however, held up.  USC  was 0-7 in three point attempts in the final quarter.

There are still things to work on, and three games against NCAA-bound teams to play.  The conference title hangs in the balance. 

February 10, 2023

The Story of Two Games: “Hullsling” Your Way to Victory


Warren Grimes

On a February Sunday, Stanford endured a disappointing 72-67 loss to Washington, an unranked team that probably won’t get invited to the Big Dance.  Stanford played well enough to win, but Washington had what was likely its best overall game of the season, including a potent offensive showing that Stanford’s defense couldn’t squelch.  Four days later, on a Thursday, Stanford held 17th ranked Arizona to 60 points in their home arena and easily prevailed by a 24-point margin.  At one point, Stanford had a 37-point lead over the Wild Cats.  What a difference.  And how does one explain it?

It all comes down to “hullsling.”

 I looked up the word in my basketball dictionary: To hullsle: to play like a Hull, as in a Lacie or Lexie Hull. 

When a Hull plays basketball, she has her mind on the game every second.  She is always thinking, always anticipating, always mentally there for the team making the little plays that matter so much.  She is focused and aggressive all the time.     

One measure of this hullsling skill is the number of steals on defense.  When Stanford played Washington in last season’s final conference game of the season (and the last conference game for Lexie, Lacie, and Anna Wilson), the Hulls and Wilson combined for 11 steals.  In this season’s loss against the Huskies, the entire team had just 3 steals.  Last season, the match was close, but still resulted in a  63-56 win for Stanford.  Last season, Stanford had 19 offensive boards; this year, only 2.  That must be a season low for Stanford.   Last year, Lexie Hull scored 15 points, had 8 boards, and 5 steals. This year, Brooke Demetre scored 15 points, but could not make up for Stanford’s overall lack luster performance.  

So a team that hullsles gets steals, gets blocks, gets offensive boards, gets fast break opportunities, disrupts the offensive flow of the opponent – and wins.  Exhibit number one is how Stanford played against Arizona, perhaps its best overall game of the season.  Stanford had 9 steals (Indya Nivar led with 3), 10 blocks (Lauren Betts had 4), 24 assists, 22 fast break points, and out-rebounded the Wildcats 45 to 27.   

My sense is that this year’s team too often relies on a few people (Brink, Jones, and Jump) to do too much.  Everyone must be involved in the offense and the defense for every minute of the game.  Two freshmen announced themselves against Arizona: Lauren Betts had 12 points, 4 blocks, and 2 nice assists; Indya Nivar had 8 points, 4 boards, 3 steals, and 2 assists (0 turnovers).   Everyone, not just the All Americans, played intensively, aggressively, and focused.  That’ s how Stanford scored 84 points against a highly ranked team that typically has a disruptive defense. 

Returning to the (probably unanswerable) question of which Stanford team (this year’s or last year’s) is the better team, I’d have to say that last year’s team wins the mark for consistency.  They went undefeated in the conference season, an amazing achievement.  But in terms of which team will be the best at the end of the season, the question is still open.  If Stanford hullsles the way it did against Arizona, they could easily win out the conference season and be a serious contender for the national championship. 

Stanford has 3 more games against tournament-bound teams (UCLA, Colorado, and Utah) and another against the USC team that humiliated Stanford in Los Angeles.  Let’s hope that Stanford’s team is inspired by the Hulls, wins the conference, and continues with that momentum into the post-season.

January 16, 2023

Takeaways from a Tough Loss


Warren Grimes

Call it a debacle.  Or merely a disappointing letdown.  Either way, this last Sunday, Stanford could not execute its offense against a motivated USC squad and went down almost meekly by a 55-46 score.

The demise of the offense could not have been more dramatic.  Stanford managed only 4 points in the first quarter and finished with just 46 points.  If those were not record low numbers for a VanDerveer coached team, they had to be close to it.

Why did this happen?  There are inevitably two points of view when there is a major upset.  USC Coach Lindsay Gottlieb talks about how well her team played.  On the defensive end, there is no doubt that USC deserves major credit.  USC did what South Carolina could not do -- hold Stanford to 46 points. 

Coach VanDerveer spoke about poor screening, poor ball control and disappointing shooting performances.  True enough, although I think there is more to be said.

Stanford did not experience a major defensive let down.  It held a very good offensive team to 55 points, limiting them to 27% overall shooting percentage (but could not stop productive 42% three-point shooting).  It outrebounded that team 40-36.   Stanford’s defensive effort should have been good enough to win.

On the offensive side, Stanford shot 30.9%, and a much worse 19% (4-21) from distance.  It had no fast break points. And it had 13 turnovers.

VanDerveer remarked on the poor screening effort, and that could have affected the long-distance shooting.  Hannah Jump was 0-3; Cameron Brink was 0-5; and Ashten Prechtel was 1-4.  Particularly for Brink, the long-distance shots seemed relatively uncontested.

There is a link here to USC’s defensive game plan.  That plan, not unlike other Stanford opponents, was to follow Jump everywhere she went and clog the middle while leaving other Stanford perimeters relatively unguarded from distance.  So Haley Jones and Cameron Brink, for example, were not closely guarded from outside. 

By clogging the middle, USC made it extremely difficult for Jones to penetrate and for Brink to dominate – Brink converted only 3 of 9 from the interior.  This game plan would have failed miserably if Stanford had found its long-range shooting.  Talana Lepolo and Agnes Emma-Nnopu both converted their only three-point shots.   Brooke Demetre was 1-3.  Why not more of that?

Stanford may have become too predictable in its offense – too reliant on the big three (Brink, Jones, and Jump).  To be sure, these gifted players are hard to defend, but USC had the personnel, the game plan, and the motivation to do just that.  No one can totally stop Cameron Brink from scoring but limiting her to 3-14 shooting helps a great deal. 

Last year’s team might well have done in the Trojans.  With reliable outside shooting from three other players -- the Hull twins and Anna Wilson -- Stanford’s three-point percentage would likely have been respectable, and USC’s defensive game plan would not have worked as well.  Outside shooting opens up the interior game.

So what adjustments, aside from more effective screening, could the team make?  Players such as Lepolo, Emma-Nnopu, and Demetre should be given the green light to shoot from distance when they are left open.  Demetre has suffered from a recent shooting draught, but, I understand, is still lights out in practice.  Stanford’s interior game is one of its strengths, but when an opponent gambles on leaving open perimeter players, the watchword should be: “make them pay.”  For all of the listed players (and perhaps Indya Nivar and Elena Bosgana should be added), the coaches need to encourage perimeter players to walk, talk and execute with swagger.  When the shot clock is below 10 seconds, if the shot is there, take it!

As far as Haley Jones, the best approach may be for Jones to be less predictable when faced with a clogged interior.  Rather than take on two or three obstructing players, perhaps Jones can rely more on a pull up jumper that she can shoot very effectively.

The USC game should be motivation for the team to make some of these offensive adjustments.  Take the bitterness of this loss, learn from it, and make them pay!