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!

January 03, 2023

Talana Lepolo: Stanford’s Stealth MVP

 

Warren Grimes

Stanford has ample MVP candidates – to begin with, two All American players (Haley Jones and Cameron Brink).  And don’t forget Hannah Jump, who may well be the best three-point shooter Stanford has ever had.

Rounding out the starting lineup, Stanford has Kiki Iriafen, an interior player who, averaging less than 16 minutes per game, still manages to be the team’s third leading rebounder and fourth leading scorer.  Iriafen converts her shots at a 58% rate, better than Cameron Brink. 

That leaves only one other starter: Talana Lepolo.  With an average of 5.5 points per game, Lepolo’s unlikely to win any MVP awards.  But her value to the team?  That’s worth a careful look. 

Lepolo came out of relative obscurity (a freshman with a solid high school record, but only the third highest high school ranking among the team’s incoming freshmen) to be a starter and an invaluable point guard for the nation’s second ranked team. 

No, Lepolo doesn’t shoot the way Kiana Williams did.  No, Lepolo doesn’t defend and steal quite as well as Anna Wilson did.  Lepolo, however, is a unique player with her own amazing skill set.  She gets the ball up court as fast as any point guard that I can remember.  Her pinpoint passes often lead to easy conversions on the inside (Brink, for example) or the outside (Jump, for example).  Against Arizona’s aggressive and trapping defense, Lepolo had 4 assists against 3 turnovers, but she proved her mettle by dribbling out of two-player entrapments. 

One feature that sets Lepolo apart from other storied Stanford point guards is her strength.  She can drive the basket with the momentum and stability to stay on course against large defenders.  She uses those same assets to dribble out of defensive traps.  Meanwhile, she does what all point guards are asked to do.  She dishes out assists.  Last year, Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson combined averaged around five assists per game.  Lepolo alone is averaging just less than five per game.   Meanwhile, Lepolo accomplishes this with a commendable assist/turnover ratio (2.09).

So, averaging only 5.5 points per game, does that mean that Lepolo lacks offensive punch?  Opposing coaches who make that assumption may regret it.  Against Creighton, Lepolo scored a team and career high 17 points, shooting 5 for 11 from distance.  Lepolo is converting three-point shots at a 41% average, second only to Hannah Jump.  Free thows?  Lepolo has 10 for 12, or 83% conversions. 

Does Lepolo benefit from having Haley Jones and three other starters who help with the ball-handling and are major offensive threats?  Of course, she does.  The important point is that Lepolo knows how to work in tandem with her teammates, taking advantage of defenders who are preoccupied with other Stanford players.

When asked about Talana’s playing, Haley Jones offered high praise at the post-Arizona game press conference.  Noting the excellent communication with Lepolo, Jones expressed “utmost confidence in Talana.”  Jones continued: “She’s growing so much in her leadership.”  For good reason, Jones and her mates enjoy playing with Talana. 

So, at season’s end, Lepolo may be without MVP honors, but she makes everyone else on the team better.  If overall statistics are honored, Lepolo’s a solid bet for the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.   

January 01, 2023

Stanford in December: Depth and Versatility

 Warren Grimes

In December, Stanford women played 5 home games.  One of those (Gonzaga) was played before the finals break.  Three more (Tennessee, Creighton, and California) were before the Christmas break.  The last was Arizona State, played on New Year’s Eve.

Stanford won all of them, four by 20-point plus margins.  That’s an accomplishment given that three of the five opponents are likely to be tournament teams.  Tennessee (a team that had lost six coming into Maples but still could end the season in the top 20) managed to limit Stanford to a 7-point margin.

In four of the five games, the top three scorers were Brink, Jump, and Jones, each of them averaging around 13 points per game over the season.  Brink is slightly in the lead. She has an impressive 61% shooting percentage.  Jump is just behind in scoring but is shooting threes at a team leading 50% rate.  And Jones, well she does it all, but should be singled out for her assists and her “full court” drives to the basket. 

Stanford has no player in the race for top conference scorer, but the team’s balanced scoring says a great deal about why Stanford is so tough to defend.  The December games stand out because players other than the top three have stepped up in various ways to add to the opponent’s difficulty in facing Stanford.

Let’s begin with Gonzaga, a team with injuries and a very thin bench, but nonetheless a top 20 team with some significant wins.  Brooke Demetre had a season and career game, scoring a team high 17 points on 5 for 9 shooting from distance.  Demetre has stood out in other games as well in part because of her steady presence and ability to pile up the assists.  She has 20 assists for the season with a 2.1 assist to turnover ratio.  In the Tennessee game, Demetre scored no points but had a steal and 2 assists, not counting passes to the interior that led to free throws for Brink or other players. 

Against Tennessee, Brink, Jones, and Jump carried the critical load.  The team, however, could not have won without Demetre’s contribution and Agnes Emma Nnopu, who played 17 minutes with 2 assists (no turnovers), a block and a steal.

Creighton provided an opportunity for point guard Talana Lepolo, who stepped up with a team and career high 17 points, shooting 5 for 11 from three-point land.  Creighton managed to hold Jump without a three-pointer but paid a price when Lepolo took advantage.  Stanford held Creighton to 59 points, well below their season average.

Then came California, where both Lauren Betts and Elena Bosgana contributed 9 points in ten minutes or less.  Both of these players deserve further mention.  Betts has been averaging less than 10 minutes per game, but in those limited minutes has become the team’s fifth leading scorer and fourth leading rebounder.  On a per minute basis, Betts is in fact the leading scorer and leading rebounder on the team.  She seems certain to get more minutes.

Meanwhile Elena Bosgana has gradually added to her resume.  Averaging around 12 minutes per game, she has now become the team’s sixth leading scorer.  She shoots the three-ball effectively (35.5%), something she did not do last year.  And Bosgana is an impressive defender: she steals the ball, on a per minute basis, more than any teammate, although Emma Nnopu is a close second. 

Now we come to New Year’s Eve and the ASU game.  Once again, the firm of Jump, Brink and Jones stood out, but had substantial support from Lepolo (10 points on 2 for 3 shooting from distance) and from Betts (10 points and 6 boards in 15 minutes).  Add one more player to the list of substantial contributors: Indya Nivar played 18 minutes, part of the time at the point, and tallied 8 points.  Nivar looked confident out there.

What fun!  This depth and versatility will be tested as the conference season proceeds – next against Arizona on Monday.

December 06, 2022

As Good as it Gets?

 

Warren Grimes

Lisa Fortier brought her Gonzaga squad into Maples last Sunday with only seven players able to play.  But those same seven players were instrumental in defeating top-twenty Tennessee and top-ten Louisville in a November tournament.  Those two opponents have since fallen in the rankings, but there is no question that the Zags are well coached and talented – Coach VanDerveer rates them as a solid top 20 team.

It’s difficult to defend Stanford, but Fortier’s planned defense was well conceived – you might say, “as good as it gets.”   Fortier asked her team to clog the middle and keep track of Hannah Jump.  This defense could have limited Stanford’s interior players (Cameron Brink, Kiki Iriafen, and Haley Jones, not to mention all the bench reinforcements).  This defense could have held down Jump’s three-point barrage, and maybe Stanford’s other outside shooters would have an off day.

Well, the defense sort of worked for the first quarter. 

Jump was held in check early in the game, but Stanford ended up with 15 treys – 45 critical points that made up more than half of Stanford’s 84-point total.  Eight different Stanford players contributed at least one trey, and Stanford shot over 53% from distance.  Overall, with the non-conference season almost complete, Stanford is shooting 39.2% from outside the circle.    That’s impressive.  With three of Stanford’s best outside shooters gone from last year’s team (Lexie and Lacy Hull plus Anna Wilson), this year’s squad is so far 4 percentage points above last year’s 35% three-point percentage. 

Leading the 3-point charge, Hannah Jump has already made 37 at an impressive 52% clip.  Jump is doing it all.  She is in excellent shape and tied with Haley Jones for the most minutes per game.  Oh, and she’s tied with Cameron Brink for the team’s leading scorer (12.4 points per game). 

So, who else is making the threes?  Well, Ashten Prechtel for one.  She’s the second most prolific outside shooter, with 14 conversions at a 46.7% clip.  Next in line is a second-year player who had only 8 three pointers last year.  Brooke Demetre has already eclipsed that mark with 13 conversions at a 36.1% rate.  Against Gonzaga, Demetre made 5 of 9 three-point attempts and had a game and career high 17 points.

Demetre’s emergence is of great value because, at 6 foot 3 and with a high release point, she joins Prechtel as a tall perimeter shooter difficult to guard.  Demetre is also a steady player with lots of assists and few turnovers – an outstanding 2.8 assist to turnover rate. 

And we are not done yet with outside shooters.  Elena Bosgana was 0 for 10 from three-point land last year.  This year, she’s already made 9 of them at a 33% clip.  That means that Bosgana is not just a slasher and driver, but also an outside threat.  At 6 foot 2, she’s another difficult player to guard.  Agnes Emma Nnopu and two of the freshmen, Indya Nivar and Talena Lepolo are also shooting threes at above a 30% clip.   So too is Cameron Brink with a 35% conversion rate.  Altogether, that gives Stanford eight players (3 starters and 5 off the bench) who are shooting threes at above a 30% clip.  Who knows, maybe Haley Jones can join the 30% club.

Stanford’s two-week final exam break offers a time for reflection on the first third of the season.  The team’s biggest surprise so far is Telana Lepolo’s performance at point guard.  She was not the team’s highest ranked incoming freshman, but she is the only one to break into the starting lineup.  She came off the bench in Stanford’s first three games, but now has started 8 games in a row, including tough contests against South Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast, and Gonzaga.  Her most impressive stat is a team leading 62 assists with a 2.5 assist to turnover ratio.  She gets the ball up court in a hurry and knows how to pass.  Not a prolific scorer, Lepolo is still a threat to drive the basket or convert the three.

Stanford’s higher ranked freshmen are also showing well.  Lauren Betts is the real deal on the inside.  She is the team’s 5th leading scorer (7.3 points per game), achieving this number while averaging less than 10 minutes per game.  Her field goal percentage is a team high 65.2%.  Meanwhile, she’s a formidable rebounder (team high in rebounds per minute) and the second-best blocker on the team.  Indya Nivar is playing great defense and shooting 35% from three-point range.  She is averaging almost 12 minutes per game.

So here are the nominations for the most improved veteran player.

Most improved senior – Hannah Jump gets this award.  Haley Jones remains the team’s best player, but her improvement over last year is less evident.

Most improved junior – Cameron Brink gets this award, in large part because she is drawing fewer fouls and is shooting a commendable 76% from the foul line.  That matters greatly because Brink draws more fouls than any other player on the team.  Brink has contributed to the team's 76% free throw shooting percentage, well above the 68.7% for last year.  Honorable mention goes to Agnes Emma Nnopu, an amazing defender and rebounder who is shooting more threes.

Most improved sophomore – A three way tie – Kiki Iriafen for improved confidence and skills on the interior; Brooke Demetre for her steady play and emergence as a killer from outside the three point line; and Elena Bosgana for both her improved outside shooting and improved defense (Bosgana leads the team in steals per minute).

As good as it gets? 

Not likely, this team has more to show and a long way to go.

November 13, 2022

What's Exciting About This Year's Stanford Squad?

 Warren Grimes

Last year’s Stanford women’s basketball team was excellent.  They won all of their conference games (a major accomplishment) and made it to the Final Four.   A key to their success was the three starting perimeter players (Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson). 

Those three players were valuable on both offense and defense.  Lacie brought the ball up court and, after Haley Jones, was the leading assist maker.  Anna and Lexie weren’t far behind.  Collectively, the three made over 40% of the team’s three pointers, shooting at 37% rate.  The Hull twins were also excellent free throw shooters.

On defense, the three were again leaders, with just under 60% of the team’s total steals.  The Hulls were the top theft artists on the team, with Wilson not far behind. 

You won’t see any of these three playing for Stanford this season.  So who will replace these gifted starters?

Based on the first four games for this season, there are at least partial answers, and some are quite exciting.

It looks as though Haley Jones will be sharing point guard duties with freshman Talana Lepolo.  Lepolo started against Portland and handled their full court press well.  In all four of the games, she has pushed the tempo of the game by moving the ball rapidly up court.  She is the team leader in assists and steals.  Lepolo has missed all 4 of her three point attempts, but has impressed with her drives to the basket.

On three point shooting, Hannah Jump is predictably leading the way (12-19), helped by Ashten Prechtel (5-10).  A number of different players have stepped up.  Brooke Demetre is 7-14; Indya Nivar is 5-10; and Elena Bosgana is 5-13.  Although the team has yet to play against a conference level opponent, the team’s overall 42% shooting from the three-point line is impressive.

Free throw shooting seems also to be improved.  The team is shooting 73% with players such as Kiki Iriafen, Demetre, Bosgana, and Nivar all shooting well above 70%.

The biggest difference from last year may be the improved play of Kiki Iriafen in the post and the high tempo offense that, at least against weaker opponents, has resulted in lots of points on high percentage shots (field goal percentage is 56%).  The team’s average score for the first four games is 93.8.  Number one-ranked high school recruit Lauren Betts has played only in reserve so far, but she’s averaging 9.8 points per game (at a 69% clip), the fourth leading scorer on the team. 

Those numbers will decrease as Stanford enters the tougher part of its schedule.  No reason to fret -- this year’s edition of Stanford women’s basketball seems destined for an exciting and very successful season.  There are still questions to be answered and not a little suspense in seeing who will be the key players at season's end. 

August 24, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Dominance and Depth at the Post Positions

 

Warren Grimes

This post is on the posts: the seven players on the upcoming season’s roster most likely to play in the post positions.  That would be the four and five positions, or power forward and center.

By whatever label, Stanford has more talent and depth in these positions than any prior Stanford team.  That’s saying something – past Stanford teams had the likes of Alanna Smith, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen, Jayne Appel, Kristen Folkl, and Val Whiting, among others.

Here are the seven, listed by seniority: Fran Belibi, Ashten Prechtel, Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, Brooke Demetre, Kiki Iriafen, and Lauren Betts.  Each is listed on the roster as a forward or center with the exception of Haley Jones (listed as a guard).  ESPN Hoopgirlz listed each as a top 20 recruit for their high school graduation year.  Two (Haley Jones and Lauren Betts) were listed as the #1 recruit in the country; a third (Cameron Brink) was the #3 recruit for her year.

There is height – Betts 6’7”; Prechtel 6’5”; Brink 6’4”; Iriafen and Demetre 6’3” – and  this does not count Belibi who, at 6'1", has a long reach and leaping ability that allows her to dunk.

The depth is phenomenal.  Even the two players ranked lowest as high school recruits (Belibi and Iriafen were both ranked 19th) have proven amazing talents.  Belibi has started games, has high energy and is often the first off the bench.  She scores, blocks and rebounds – and she dunks the ball, which by itself puts her in an elite category.  Iriafen has played only one year, but was a clear difference maker in games such as the come-from-behind victory against Oregon in the final weeks of the regular season.  She already shows great defensive skills and refined post moves.

Then there is Ashten Prechtel.  The best three point shooter in the group, Prechtel can also board, defend, and block.  Who can forget what she did in the elite eight game against Louisville en route to the NCAA championship in 2021.  In that game, with Stanford trailing by double digits, Prechtel entered the game for the first time midway through the 3rd quarter.  She was perfect from the floor, 3 for 3 from long range, and scored 16 points in all, demoralizing Louisville big time and sealing the comeback victory. 

The two players most likely to start this coming season, Haley Jones and Cameron Brink, are (or should be) All Americans.  Jones is listed as a guard and will often be called upon to bring the ball up the court, but should not be asked to play point guard full time.  Stanford opponents will try to take advantage of Stanford ball handling, and Jones should not regularly expend her energy playing the point.  Jones creates shots and assists, often with creative drives to the interior and amazing post moves; the team needs her to save energy to do those things.  Jones has and will continue to play the four position occasionally, but is probably best suited as a versatile three.

Cameron Brink is an amazing post defender and shot blocker with great post moves.  But she too is a versatile player and may be asked to add outside shooting to her interior offense.  I can see Brink moving freely among the four and five positions (and maybe occasionally the three).

Lauren Betts is a potential future All American because of her height, interior moves, defensive skills, and ability to run the court.  There was a reason that she was the top ranked recruit in the country.  But Betts has some pretty stiff competition and must prove herself.  She will have to battle for playing time, but will be a potential major force in the five position. 

That leaves only one other post – Brooke Demetre.   Another top ranked high school recruit (Hoopgirlz No. 11), her freshman year was relatively quiet.  Demetre is 6’3” and a good outside shooter.  While she can play inside, her best opportunity may be playing in the three position.  With the departure of the Hull twins, the door is open for Demetre to assert herself.

With this post-dominant team, who will play the two guard positions?   In contrast to the seven post players, each of whom were in the top 20 high school recruits for their year, Stanford has only one player likely to play one of the two  guard positions who made the top 20.  That would be incoming freshman Indya Nivar, ranked number 20 overall and number 4 for her position.  Nivar has to be a contender for the point guard position.  Hannah Jump will be the player to beat for the shooting guard position.  Junior Agnes Emma Nnopu (as a number one defender and shooting guard?) could get lots of playing time.  Elena Bosgana, if she can defend, could get substantial playing time as a shooting guard.  These positions, however, are wide open for others as well, including red shirt freshman Jzaniya Harriel and three other freshmen (Telana Lepolo, Stavi Papadaki, and Lauren Green).  

July 11, 2022

Conference Realignment - Bad News for Non-Football Sports?

 Warren Grimes

When the decision was made that UCLA and USC would bolt the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, imagine a candid telephone conversation between the two women’s basketball coaches: Cori Close (UCLA) and Lindsay Gottlieb (USC).  It’s hard to see how either coach was ecstatic about this realignment.

The tradeoffs for the two women’s programs are largely negative.  The LA schools were already part of the top women’s basketball conference in the country.   Although the Pac 12 didn’t do so well in the most recent NCAA tournament (Stanford did make the final four), the case for the conference’s elite status is compelling.  Look at national rankings, look at the previous year’s Final Four (Arizona and Stanford played for the championship) and look at the list of incoming recruits (the Pac-12 was easily the favored conference for players in the McDonald’s High School All America game).

So leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten cannot improve the competition.  And there are other downsides.  Travel time and expenses become bigger factors.  Yes, the Big Ten will place the LA schools in the western division, but travelling from LA to Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin is a major undertaking.  And basketball teams play at least double the number of games that football teams play, so the travel burden is substantial.  If schools are serious about players’ ability to attend classes and study, these are non-trivial matters.

There are lots of stresses on a student athlete’s life.  For the LA schools, the realignment just made all of these worse.  And the impact is not limited to women’s hoops.  Think of all the other non-football sports where hundreds of athletes compete in the Pac-12 because the conference is either the best, or one of the two or three best, in the country.  Among others, these sports include men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball. 

Coaches and athletes in the non-football sports will have varied reactions to realignment.  Some may welcome the additional television revenues that flow to the athletics programs, but one thing is clear.  They were all secondary actors.  The controlling factor was television revenues – mostly from football.    No matter your sport, you must pay homage to the money flow.

The Pac-12 and its remaining members cannot ignore the revenue issue, but they are still in a position to do something to protect the interests of their non-football programs.   There are options. 

A key feature should be divorcing football league alignments from the rest of the athletic programs.  The conference can keep the integrity of non-football programs while allowing flexibility for football-only scheduling that enhances revenues.  For example, the Pac-12 could consider a merger with another conference only for football, leaving the rest of the conference sports unaffected.  Or, in a more extreme option, the conference could cut loose its restless members to make separate arrangements for football scheduling.   Either of these approaches has costs and will require working around existing or possible future television contracts, but they should allow enhanced television revenues for the schools with leverage without the same deleterious effects on non-football programs.  

In addressing the current challenge, athletic directors should be made aware that loyal fans of the non-football programs do not want to see football-generated television revenues dictate how their favorite sport is played.  At least before the Southern California schools departure, the Pac-12 could accurately market itself as the premier non-football conference in the country.  That now is at risk.  The options confronting the conference all have downsides.  But doing nothing will likely be worse, perhaps resulting in a total disintegration of the conference that further degrades both football and the non-football sports. 

April 03, 2022

Stanford: Final Four One-Possession Games

Warren Grimes

Sports fans are tribal, passionate, and sometimes unforgiving.   This spring, 66 women’s hoops teams were chosen for the NCAA tournament.  That’s an honor – to be among the elite in the sport – roughly the best 66 in the sport.  But 65 of these teams ended with a loss and disappointed fans.  Even among the Final Four teams, three of them had to deal with fans disappointed by a loss.    

Stanford fans had a special team to support, one that had won over fans with their heart, talent, and resilience.  But Stanford fell two days and two wins short of a repeat national title.  I was disappointed, but not to the point of overlooking what this team accomplished.   

Stanford was the national champion a year earlier.

Stanford had completed an undefeated conference season.

Stanford won the Pac-12 tournament.

Stanford won the Spokane Regional on the way to the Final Four. 

Stanford has played three Final Four games in the past 2 years.  All three were one possession games – games in which one possession could have altered the result.  Stanford won two out of three of these games.  Last year, Stanford won two games by one point in the championship run.  This year’s loss to U Conn was also a one possession game.  That in itself was a major accomplishment.  With 1:26 left on the game clock, Stanford trailed by 8 points and had only 44 – a season low in terms of points scored. 

Stanford went on to score 14 points in the final 86 seconds, putting fear in the hearts of Geno and his lot.  Haley Jones scored six of these, Lacie Hull and Ashten Prechtel added three pointers, and Brink added two.  Stanford’s productive spurt was helped along by Connecticut turnovers (the Huskies had 8 turns in the 4th quarter).  Twice during the final 86 seconds Stanford closed to within 2 points.  With 24.4 seconds left, Jones converted an acrobatic shot in the paint to close the gap to 58-56.  Then, after U Conn guard Azzi Fudd was fouled and converted two free throws, Stanford called time.  With 18.4 seconds on the clock, Jones inbounded from the sidelines directly to Cameron Brink standing in the paint near the hoop.  Brink quickly converted to close to 60-58.

Give the Huskies credit.  U Conn converted 9 of 10 free throws during the final 86 seconds to seal the deal.  For the game, they also out rebounded Stanford 46 to 37, helped along by Stanford’s terrible shooting percentage.  As has become a pattern in Final Four games, intense defense limited scoring and shooting percentages for both teams.

So which team has the best final four record over the past two years?  South Carolina has a semi-final appearance and a championship.  Stanford can match this with its own championship and semi-final appearance.  U Conn?  They fall behind with one semi-final and one final game appearance.  Sorry Geno.

So Stanford, like every other team in the Division IA, can look forward to next year.  But before we turn our gaze to the future, I doff my hat to this wonderful 2021-22 team that brought so much fun to Stanford fans.

March 28, 2022

Texas Two-Step: For Stanford, the Second Step's the Best

 Warren Grimes

Stanford Women’s Hoops faced Texas twice this year.  Stanford lost in November, but won in the Elite Eight when it mattered most.  Hard to script it better.  The revenge came in Sunday’s hard fought regional final.  The game was physical and intense from start to finish.

But it was almost a déjà vu.

Stanford had 20 turnovers in the November game.  Had to improve, right? 

Sorry, same 20 turns in the March game.

Stanford converted only 4 of 27 three point attempts (14.8%) in the November game.  That couldn’t happen again, right? 

Actually, it didn’t happen again, but in some ways got worse.  In the Elite Eight, Stanford converted one less shot and barely improved the percentage -- only 3 of 17 three point attempts (17.6%).

Despite these miserables, Stanford won a hard fought game. 

Stanford won because the team defended better and held the Longhorns to just 50 points, 11 fewer than Texas scored in the November game. 

Stanford won because, despite the 20 turns, Stanford gave up ZERO fast break points to Texas (compared to 12 fast break points in the November contest).

Stanford won because, despite the turns, they improved assist/turnover ratio from a miserable .35 in November to a markedly less miserable .70 in March.

Stanford won because Lexie Hull defended with focus and intensity while scoring 20 points, including a key fourth quarter three-point shot.

Stanford won because Cameron Brink swatted away 6 Texas shots, limiting Texas to 16 points in the paint (compared to 24 points in the November contest).

Stanford won because Haley Jones had a double-double (18 points and 12 boards) and converted 10 of 11 free throws.

Stanford won because Lacie Hull played 40 minutes, scoring no points but contributing intense defense, a positive assist/turnover ratio (4/3) along with 5 boards and 2 blocks. 

Stanford won because Fran Belibi came off the bench and grabbed 11 boards and added 7 points.

Arguably, Stanford, of the #1 regional seeds, faced the most challenging opponent.  Yes, the North Carolina/Connecticut game put two top teams against one another, but neither of those teams could match the Texas 14-game winning streak. 

Getting to the final four saves a bit of face for the Pac-12 Conference.  The Conference tournament record was, uhm, . . . awful.  Of the six Pac-12 teams in the tournament, three were upset in the first round (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State).  Fourth seeded Arizona was upset in the second round by fifth seeded North Carolina.  That meant that only one Pac-12 school (other than Stanford) played to seed (Seventh seeded Utah lost in the second round to second seeded Texas).

Another measure of the status of the Pac-12 conference is the recruiting successes for next year’s incoming class.  Schools like UCLA, Oregon State, and USC that did not make the tournament all have very strong incoming classes.  The Conference has great potential, but it will have to prove it in the coming seasons.

Meanwhile, Stanford’s very special team has at least one more game to play.  The talent and chemistry of this year’s team make it unique.  Coach VanDerveer was quoted as saying that making the Final Four is always special, but added a superlative for this year’s squad.  

 I’m looking forward to watching this gifted team this weekend.

March 07, 2022

A Better and More Balanced Team - Appreciating Stanford Excellence

 Warren Grimes

During her press conference after the Pac 12 tournament championship game, Utah Coach Lynne Roberts declared the Stanford team “better” and “more balanced” than last year’s NCAA championship-winning team.  According to Roberts, when the shot clock is winding down, opposing coaches don’t know who will be given the ball.  The loss of Kiana Williams, she conceded, was a big loss for Stanford, but the team has now learned to more than compensate for that loss.

It's difficult to argue with Roberts.  While Haley Jones may be the top “go to” player in a crunch, any player on the floor could be counted on to convert when it matters.  That includes the five starters and at least another five who saw substantial minutes during the Pac-12 tournament (Belibi, Jump, Iriafen, Prechtel, and Emma-Nnopu). 

This year’s team is exceptional for running off 20 non-stop victories since the beginning of January. This includes the entire conference season and the conference tournament.  It is a remarkable achievement, something last year’s team could not muster.  All the while, Stanford has shown steady improvement throughout the season.

Early in the season, a Stanford vulnerability was bringing the ball up the court.  Turnovers generated easy baskets for opponents.  The team, however, did not stand still.  Here are three measures of the team’s assist turnover ratio as the season progressed.

A/T for all games: 1.16

A/T for conference games: 1.22

A/T for the three Pac-12 tournament games: 1.91

Using a similar metric, one can chart the progress of the team in other offensive and defensive areas.

                                                      All Games           Conference Only       3 tourn. Games

Opp Total Points/Game              56.9                        58.67                                     45.67

Scoring Margin                           +16.9                     +18                                         +21.33

3 point FG %                                35%                        36.7%                                    46%

3 point FG % defense                 32%                        34.1%                                    29.23%

Field Goal % defense                 35%                        36.8%                                    30.77%

These statistics do not always flow in a positive direction.  During conference play, Stanford managed to up its free throw percentage to 72.6%, only to see it drop to 69% for the three tournament games.  Still, the overall picture painted by these statistics is a positive one for Stanford.  In the Pac-12 tournament, the team showed the ability to up its game for single elimination, post-season play.  Each of Stanford’s three opponents had won at least one previous matchup (Utah had won three in a row).  Stanford achieved its three-game statistical superiority against very good teams.

What the statistics don’t show is the chemistry that this team possesses.  With the Hulls leading the way, there is a special edge to this team that sets it apart from other Stanford teams.  These players play for each other, and do it with unprecedented focus, talent, and resilience.  Stanford will be a difficult out – actually a very difficult out -- for any opponent in the NCAA tournament.