April 05, 2021

Little Things That Mattered

 

Warren Grimes

As Coach VanDerveer has put it, it’s a national championship.  That’s in the record. That’s what will be remembered. 

It’s a bipolar result.  You either win – or you lose, with little solace to the loser.  In fact, in this NCAA tournament, there were five teams, and maybe more, that could easily have taken home the trophy.  In addition to Stanford, Arizona, South Carolina, U Conn., Baylor, and maybe Louisville could have easily ended up on top of the heap. 

So why did Stanford win?  Was it finally Stanford’s turn?  Were the gods of fortune finally on Tara VanDerveer’s side? 

I have a modest answer.  It’s the focus on little things.  When you do them well, your odds of winning a N/C increase.  Little things matter on both defense and offense, but the defense is what really characterized the final four games.  The final four teams were all great on defense.  Arizona and Stanford held high scoring teams to well below season averages, and so did their opponents.  It was the little things that finally determined victory. 

Let’s take the final moments as Stanford held on to defeat Arizona.  First, give Arizona credit for holding Stanford without a shot in Stanford’s final possession.  Then, with a bit over 6 seconds remaining, it was Stanford’s turn.  Everyone watching the game expected Arizona to put the ball in Ari McDonald’s hands.  They did. 

Stanford’s defense was unsurprising, but it was essential that it be well executed, without fouling this amazing three point shooter.  Stanford would keep Anna Wilson on McDonald and then, in the closing seconds, all nearby Stanford perimeter defenders would close in on McDonald, foreclosing a drive to the hoop and making a three pointer more difficult. 

By the time McDonald launched her three pointer with less than 2 seconds left, Wilson was in front of her, Lexie Hull was to her left, and Cameron Brink was to her right.  All were advancing with high hands on McDonald, who nonetheless got the shot away cleanly.  But the defense had worked.

McDonald missed and Stanford won the N/C.

Two days earlier, as Stanford eked out a narrow victory against South Carolina, It was again the little things that mattered.  Stanford had possession and a one point lead.  But as Stanford inbounded at half court with 9 seconds left, it went to Cameron Brink, who lost possession to Aliyah Boston (Brink may have been hacked).  As soon as the change of possession occurred, Ashten Prechtel closed on Boston, winning a few critical seconds.  Boston nonetheless managed to get the ball to Brea Beal, streaking toward her team’s basket. 

But Beal was not destined to get a clean breakaway lay in.  Instead, it was Lexie Hull who was going step for step with Beal, and forcing an awkward angled lay up from the left side.  It was off the mark.  In the last second, Boston tried to tip the ball in, but she too was surrounded by a gaggle of defenders (Prechtel, Brink and Jones).   Boston could and perhaps should have converted, but the defenders helped to lessen the odds.

None of these little things show up in the stats.  But the focus and determination showed by Stanford players were key to winning these one point games. 

A favorite tournament game?  I nominate the regional final against Louisville because of the third and fourth quarter comeback that ultimately put the game out of reach.  For Stanford fans, the last few minutes were relatively stress free.

Looking at Stanford’s last three tournament games (against Louisville, South Carolina, and Arizona), it’s easy to pick out statistical heroes. 

The stats would give first place to Lexie Hull, who averaged a double-double: 16.3 points and 10.7 boards; second place would go to Haley Jones, who averaged 17 points and 7.3 boards.  In terms of clutch baskets, particularly in the last two games, I would give first place to Haley Jones.  Either way, they are both heroes.

A really nice third place award would go to Ashten Prechtel, who came off the bench to average 10.6 points and 6.3 boards.  Against Louisville, Prechtel did not enter the game until half way through the third quarter, but then she made a spectacular difference, making all of her shots (three of them were 3-pointers) and chalking up 16 vital points.

Then there is Kiana Williams, who had sub par scoring in these three games, but still held the team together with ball handling, assists, and clutch baskets.  Brink scored, rebounded, and blocked shots – lots of them.  She was a key to keeping the opponents’ points in the paint to well below seasonal average.  And Anna Wilson – wow, I’m so glad she stayed at Stanford for this extra year.  Her defense exemplifies the little things that matter. 

As for Tara VanDerveer, she told the press that winning national championships is not why she coaches.  She sees herself, first and foremost, as a teacher, motivator, and mentor for all the great players who have worn the Stanford uniform.  Of course VanDerveer still likes to win.  She does what she does for the players, for the fans, and for Stanford University. 

Thank you Tara!

March 10, 2021

Deep Depth: Why This Stanford Team is BAD, BAD, BAD!

 Warren Grimes

BAD, as in Balanced And Deep.

Speaking of his beloved Yankees, Yogi Berra once said that his team had “deep depth.” 

Sorry, Yogi. 

Your Yankees had nothin’ compared to Kiana Williams and her mates.   

There are 12 active players on this season’s squad.  Each of these 12 is good enough to start or be a major rotation player on the 11 other conference teams.  Let’s take the two freshmen that averaged under 10 minutes per game.

Agnes Emma-Nnopu – Stanford’s Australian freshman averaged the fewest minutes (5.9 per game) but showed unique capabilities as a defender and rebounder.  Quick to the ball, Emma-Nnopu was the fourth highest rebounder on a per minute basis.  That’s impressive for a perimeter player.  What’s more, she was especially effective as an offensive rebounder.  Emma-Nnopu was the only player on the team that had more offensive boards (19) than defensive boards (16).  No one else came even close to this ratio.  Tell me that Charmin Smith or Cori Close wouldn’t have mortgaged the house in order to have Emma-Nnopu playing major minutes for their team.

Jana Van Gytenbeek  - A talented point guard, Van Gytenbeek averaged 8.7 minutes per game and shot three pointers at a 39.6% clip.  She had 30 assists against just 12 turnovers.  Jana would have started for many Pac-12 teams.  And tell me that Colorado and Oregon wouldn’t have loved to have Van Gytenbeek to fall back on when their starting point guards fell injured.

The only other Stanford player that averaged below 10 minutes is senior Alyssa Jerome, a team leader and solid and reliable player who started many games over her career.  This season, Jerome started only once, but that is surely a sign of the depth of this team, not any fall off in Jerome’s performance.  In the OSU game in Corvallis, Jerome came off the bench and was a real difference maker, hitting four of five 3-point shots and totaling 14 points.  No Pac-12 coach would turn down an opportunity to add Jerome to the roster.

The rest of the team?  Well six of the nine remaining have received at least one season-ending award.  Here’s the list.

Kiana Williams – All conference team and most outstanding player in the Pac-12 tournament.

Haley Jones – All conference team and chosen once as conference, player of the week.

Lexie Hull – All conference team and all-tournament team.

Anna Wilson – Co-winner conference defensive player of the year (and shot 38.5% from the three point line).

Cameron Brink – All-tournament team, all-freshman team, and honorable mention, all conference team.

Lacie Hull – Chosen as sixth player of the year.

A seventh player, Ashten Prechtel, received no award this season, but was chosen as the media, sixth player of the year last season.  Prechtel was one of 9 players on this team that shot threes at 32.6% or higher. 

That leaves only Fran Belibi and Hannah Jump.  Belibi, nationally known for her dunks, was the second leading rebounder on the team (on a per minute basis), and had an enviable field goal percentage (54.2%).  Jump had the highest three point conversion rate (42.7%) and was second only to Kiana Williams in total threes made.  So which Pac-12 coach isn’t drooling to have these two players on the roster?

Here’s one more illustration of this team’s depth.  Coach VanDerveer likes to relate that in intra-squad practice games, the team with the Hull twins routinely wins.  This is apparently so even if the opposing team is loaded with starters.  The story illustrates the amazing intensiveness and competitive spirit of the twins, but it also shows something else.  There isn’t much fall off between those who start and those who come off the bench. 

You got it, Yogi.  It’s deep depth.

This dynamic dozen should receive one of the two top overall seeds in the NCAA tournament.  Winning six games in a row against really good teams is a tall order.  But this team has BAD.  Stanford is Final Four material.  They will be a challenge for any opponent, even in potential fifth and sixth games.  

Bring it on.

And stay safe.

March 01, 2021

A Superb Conference-Winning Team -- How Good Are They?

 

Warren Grimes

The regular season is over.  Stanford has won the conference championship for the first time since 2014.  Stanford accomplished this in a unique and very trying season in which the team played no home games, and had no home practice facilities, for two uninterrupted months.  But just how good is this team?

The conference statistics show that, after a lapse of years that began with Chiney Ogwumike’s graduation, Stanford is once again, by a significant margin, the preeminent team in the conference.   

Stanford was the number one conference team in a variety of offensive categories, including average points per game (78), field goal percentage (46.9%), average margin of victory (25 points per game) and rebounding margin (10.5 per game).  The team also had a number of conference leading totals on defense, holding opponents to an average of 53 points per game and to conference lows for opponents’ field goal shooting (32.9%) and 3-point shooting (26.9%). 

When compared to great Stanford teams of the past, this season’s team still looks very good indeed.  Of course, the proof will lie in post-season performance.  The team’s defensive prowess is particularly impressive.  Here are some comparisons of this season’s defensive stats with past Stanford VanDerveer-coached teams.

Opponents average points – Holding opponents to an average of 53 points per game, this is the second best showing ever during the VanDerveer era (the 2012-2013 team allowed only 51.9 points per game). 

Margin of victory - This year’s squad was the second best in the VanDerveer years (25 point margin this season compared to a 26.6 point margin in 1989-90).

Opponent’s 3-point percentage – Stanford limited opponents to 26.9%, the best since 2012-2013 (23.5%).

Offensive stats also compare favorably with past great Stanford teams.   

Field goal percentage – At 46.9%, this year’s team was the best since 2014 (47% and a final four team).

Points per game – At 78, this total was the highest since 2011 (79.3 points per game and a final four team).

Rebounding margin – At 10.5, the margin was the best since 2011 (11.6).

These comparisons may understate the quality of this year’s team.  Many of the old records were set during a time when Stanford tended to dominate the conference.  No more of that – as demonstrated by 6 consecutive seasons when Stanford failed to win the conference. 

How does Stanford stand up to last year’s Oregon team?  Last year’s Ionescu-led team was the best conference team in memory, and would have bested this season’s Stanford team in offensive categories (points per game, field goal percentage, and margin of victory).  Interestingly, this year’s Stanford team showed better in defensive categories, holding opponents to fewer points and also besting the Ionescu-led squad in rebounding margin.  We’ll never know the results of this imaginary matchup, but it would have been a great contest to see.  

High school coaches who have experience with both boys and girls teams often comment on a key difference: the boys support the team in order to win: the girls win in order to support the team.  What happens when a high school coach yells at a player?  On a boys team, teammates stay silent and think to themselves: “Glad it wasn’t me.”  On a girls team, the player’s teammates are likely to rally to the player’s defense. 

The girls/womens squad’s greater focus on the team may be particularly apt for this season’s Stanford squad, where mutually supportive athletes have played through the Covid 19 pandemic (still going) and won a regular season title by a two game margin in what is probably the toughest conference in the country.

In the final season games, Stanford played especially stout defense.  Over the past 11 games (since losing to UCLA), the average points allowed was 49.2.  Stanford held its last three opponents to an average of 40.7 points.  This was accomplished with one of Stanford’s stoutest defenders (Lacie Hull) not playing against Arizona or California.  Part of this defense was a full court press implemented in the third quarter against California (Stanford outscored Cal 27 to 2 during that quarter).  The press is one more weapon that can be employed in the post season. 

So who is it on the team that plays defense? 

The answer: Everyone.

On a Tara VanDerveer team, no one gets playing time without playing D. 

But certain players do stand out.  On the perimeter Anna Wilson is a strong candidate for conference defender of the year.  The Hull sisters are also highly focused and effective perimeter defenders.  Inside, Cameron Brink leads the conference in blocks.  Brink and other interior defenders play a substantial role in keeping down the opponent’s shooting percentages.  Shots that are not blocked tend to get altered.  

Stanford has depth; Stanford has balance; Stanford has the defense; Stanford has the offense; and Stanford can bring the moxie.  If it does, it should win the Pac 12 tournament.   

Starting with 2013, Stanford has won the tournament every other year (2015, 2017, and 2019).  2021 fits nicely into this pattern.  

Stay safe.

February 09, 2021

Weekly Conference Awards -- Weakly Relevant to Team Performance

 

Warren Grimes

In women’s hoops, as in a number of other team sports, the Pac-12 conference honors players for their performance during the week – the Player of the Week (PoW) and the Freshman of the Week (FoW) awards.  The conference has dispensed 22 awards over the last 11 weeks.  These awards are a way of promoting the sport and building fan interest – so far not much to dislike. 

Washington State has won the FoW award six times.  Each went to Charlisse Leger-Walker.   UCLA has won the PoW award 4 times (Charisma Osborne has won twice).  Both of these teams are very good – but lack the depth and balance of other top teams. 

Meanwhile, the top two teams in the conference (Stanford and Arizona) plus another team in the top four (Oregon) have each won an award only once.  For Stanford, the sole award recipient is Haley Jones, who won the PoW award in the second week of the season.

Although rebounds, assists, and steals are frequently mentioned in announcing the winner, the chief criteria for the awards is points scored.  Charlisse Leger-Walker does a lot for the WSU team, but it is her point-scoring that has given her six FoW awards.  It is standard for any weekly award winner to have had at least one 20 plus-point performance during the week. 

To win games, a team must score points and play defense to limit an opponent’s points.   The weekly awards honor offensive performance but almost totally ignore defense.  In season-ending awards, the Pac-12 does recognize defensive performance, but this sensitivity is nowhere to be seen in the weekly recognitions.  If it were, a player such as Anna Wilson would have been recognized.  Consider, for example, Wilson’s performance in holding Charlisse Leger-Walker to season low numbers during Stanford’s back to back victories over WSU.

Another idiosyncrasy is the treatment of players who don’t play 30 plus minutes on court.  Stanford is blessed with depth that keeps many of its top players on the court for fewer minutes (Kiana Williams is the only Stanford player averaging over 30 minutes).  

Cameron Brink is a great example.  Since joining the starting lineup, Brink has averaged just over 20 minutes per game.  Despite this, Brink leads the conference in at least three categories: (1) field goal percentage (60.7%); (2) rebounds (Brink is 6th in the conference in rebounds per game, but first in rebounds per minute); and (3) blocks per game.  Two of the categories are defensive (Brink’s defensive boards and blocks).  Brink was nominated for the FoW for the week ending Feb. 7.   Averaging just over 20 minutes per game, Brink had a double-double against Utah (10 boards, 12 points and 3 blocks) and was equally impressive against Colorado (8 boards, 13 points and 6 blocks).  But Brink lost out to Leger-Walker’s 20 plus point performances against USC and UCLA. 

The award system leaves players like Brink under recognized.  It also leaves teams with depth and balance under recognized – and that would be Stanford and probably Oregon as well.   As a team, Stanford leads the conference in a long list of categories, both offensive (points scored, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding offense, and rebounding margin) and defensive (scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, blocked shots, three point percentage defense, and rebounding defense).  These category wins are team wins.  Stanford does not have players (other than Brink) who lead the conference in any individual category.

Stanford’s statistical dominance is more pronounced than any Stanford team within recent memory.  That statistical balance is a strength – it gives Stanford more options in critical moments of a close game.

Statistical dominance, however, does not assure victory.  In the two losses, UCLA and Colorado bested Stanford despite these two teams far weaker showing in overall conference statistics.  And Oregon, which shows well in conference stats, has two lopsided losses to Arizona, which lags a bit in conference stats. 

The Pac 12 is a tough conference.  So matchups, game strategy, and motivation are wild cards that will determine the outcome of many a game.  On paper, Stanford should win out in the conference.  But in practice, Stanford will be threatened in most if not all of its remaining conference games.

As far as the conference’s player of the week awards, they do leave a balanced and deep team like Stanford under recognized.  When Stanford wins, that lack of recognition matters little.  The wins are the best form of recognition.   Any day of the week, I’d take a conference championship over all the player of the week awards.  Perhaps, however, the conference should consider a weekly award for defensive prowess.  

Stay safe!

February 01, 2021

The Essence of Hull: How Many Hull Sisters Are There?

 

Warren Grimes

Coach VanDerveer reportedly told Lexie and Lacie Hull’s parents that, after watching the twins in action, triplets would have been preferred.  Indeed, a third Hull on the team would be a blessing. 

It got me to thinking – perhaps Stanford already has a third.  Take a look at the essence of a Hull basketball player.

A Hull is a gym rat.

A Hull is a tall slender player from the Pacific Northwest.

A Hull is a player with a high basketball I.Q., always with her mind in the game.

A Hull can shoot the three ball, but can also battle to rebound and score inside.

A Hull is a top notch defender, always trying to steal or block the opponent’s shot.

A Hull is an energizer bunny – that keeps going, and going, and going.

A Hull quietly leads by example. 

 The essence of Hull is really the essence of the Stanford team.   The Hull twins set an example that others follow.  All of the team’s players meet most of these criteria.  There is, however, one player (other than Lexie and Lacie) that meets all of them. 

Look carefully at the essence of Hull, and tell me that Cameron Brink does not possess each and every one of these traits.  Perhaps Cameron is the twins’ long lost little sister.  Little is not the right word – try “younger and taller” sister.   Indeed, one might say “a Hull on steroids.”  Henceforth, she could be known as “Cameron Brink-Hull.”

Mind you, if Brink is a Hull sibling, I cannot explain how it came to pass that Cameron grew up in a different city, a different state, and with different parents.  A mix up in the hospital nursery?  A severe case of parental amnesia?  Fake news?

Whatever the explanation, the identity of basketball traits cannot be denied.  Brink has come off a fine Sunday to Sunday run, starting the last four games and putting up numbers that make her the talk of the conference.  In those four games, Brink averaged 4.25 blocks, 8 boards, 8.25 points, and 2 assists – all of this while playing an average of only 21 minutes per game.  Brink remains the conference leader in field goal percentage, the conference leader in blocks, and the conference leader in boards per minute.  Not bad for a freshman.

Of course, Brink still has some freshman kinks to work out, among them avoiding fouling herself off the floor, learning to deal with stronger interior players, and refining her free throw shooting.  In the last four games, she’s already improved on the fouling.

Stanford has won the last four games, three against strong teams (WSU and USC) by an average of 27 points.  The team has held these opponents to an average of 51 points.  While only playing roughly half of the minutes, Brink’s blocks and rebounds have been a significant part of these decisive outcomes. 

I hate to sound greedy, but could there be another missing Hull sister out there somewhere?

The team will be back in Maples on Friday – That’s a blessing.  The team’s peripatetic adventure (hopefully) is at an end.

The pandemic has created skewed results for the conference.  Stanford has played 14 conference games, the most of any team.  California has played only 8 conference games, and chief rivals for the championship are behind Stanford (Oregon 12 games, Arizona 11 games, and UCLA 10 games).  Potential controversy lies ahead in picking the conference champion and the seeding for the conference tournament.

Meanwhile, Stay Safe.

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.