September 16, 2020

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


Warren Grimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiana Williams -#8                                                           Lexie Hull - #16

Maya Dodson -#11                                                          Jenna Brown- #20

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

Alyssa Jerome (Canada)


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

Haley Jones  -#1                                                             Cameron Brink - #3

Ashten Prechtel - #16                                                     Jana Van Gytenbeck - #39

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

Hannah Jump - #50



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

Brooke Demetre - #11

Kiki Iriafen - #19

Jzaniya Harriel  #78

Elena Bosgana  - (Greece)


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

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

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

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

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

-          The rating services cannot predict injuries.

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

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

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

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

July 02, 2020

Does the Road to Stanford Success Pass Through Bangkok?

A strange thought. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be done.

May 29, 2020

The Last Four Stanford Teams -- And the Next One

Looking back, before one looks forward, provides perspective.  So let’s do that.  The last four Stanford women’s teams are useful points of reference.

Stanford in 2016-2017  (Overall 32-6 record).  This team made it to the Final Four.  By that measure, this was the most accomplished of the last four Stanford teams.  The team had great outside shooting and a strong interior presence.  It was the senior year for Erica McCall (14.4 point average) and Karlie Samuelson (12.4 point average) who, along with Brittany McPhee (13.3 point average), provided offensive punch.  One problem was inconsistent offensive production from the point guard position (shared by Briana Roberson and Marta Sniezek). 

When it counted, as it did in the Elite Eight upset victory over Notre Dame, these players did their job.  In a classic Stanford come-from-behind win, Sniezek dished the ball to Samuelson, McPhee, and an emerging Alanna Smith for the second half surge to pull even with Notre Dame.  McCall provided the last second block that gave Stanford the win.  Of the four last teams, this one had the highest average margin of victory and held opponents to the lowest points per game.  Much of the defensive credit went to McCall and Smith–they led the team in blocks and contributed to the team’s highest blocks per game average in any of the last four seasons.

Stanford in 2017-2018.  (Overall 24-11 record)  This team was led on offense by Brittany McPhee (16.9 pt ave.), Alanna Smith (13.9 pt. ave.) and Kiana Williams (10.4 pt. ave).  The loss of Karlie Samuelson and Erica McCall weighed heavily.  The team’s two early season losses to Ohio State gave it a .500 record before the December exam break.  McPhee, the team’s top scorer, was unavailable in some of the early losses.  That team, however, showed its resilience, bouncing back to compile a 14-3 record in conference. 

The highlight was probably a late season road sweep of the highly ranked Oregon schools, the first such sweep in five years.  In the upset win over conference champion Oregon, McPhee took over the game in the second half, scoring a career high 33 points.  I’ve never seen one Stanford player dominate a really good team the way McPhee did in the fourth quarter.  She demoralized the Ducks with her creative shot making ability.

The team’s three point shooting and free throw shooting were down, but late season improvements allowed them to reach the the Pac 12 tournament final (losing to Oregon) and the Sweet Sixteen (losing to Louisville).  Bright spots, in addition to McPhee, included the emergence of freshman Kiana Williams and the continuing evolution of Alanna Smith as a post player who could score in so many ways.

Stanford in 2018-2019.  (Overall 31-5 record)  This was Alanna Smith’s senior year.  She led the team in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, along with Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington, provided a front-court back-court synergy that led them to an upset victory in the Pac-12 tournament final, frustrating regular season conference champion Oregon.  The team shot three pointers well and, with only 5 losses overall, came in second place in conference standings.  The team lost to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight contest.  This was truly Alanna Smith’s year to shine, and she did.  But Kiana Williams, now a sophomore, established herself as a go to player of All American caliber.  And Carrington seemed poised to make a major mark in her senior year.  Three point shooting and free throw shooting were up over the previous year.

Stanford in 2019-2020.  (Overall 27-6 record).. This season began with great excitement.  The team had the number two recruiting class in the nation and the number one overall recruit (Haley Jones).  And it had some impressive returning players, especially Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington, both top point scorers in the previous year.  By far, the team seemed to be the deepest of the last four (and arguably the deepest Stanford team ever).  The roster included nine high school All Americans, including five upperclassmen (DiJonai Carrington, Maya Dodson, Nadia Fingall, Anna Wilson, and Kiana Williams) and four underclassmen (Francesca Belibi, Jenna Brown, Haley Jones, and Ashten Prechtel).  This list did not include the Hull twins (both of whom had impressively started games in the previous year), top Canadian player Alyssa Jerome, and gifted three point shooting freshman Hannah Jump. 

Early in the season, the team held the number one national ranking.  The team lost this ranking as the vaunted depth was undercut by injuries.  Maya Dodson, while recovering from stress fractures, did not play until after mid-season.  DiJonai Carrington was lost for the season after the first half dozen or so games.  And Haley Jones, after winning a regular starting spot (the only freshman to do so) was lost early in the conference season.  These were all players who had starting roles.  The team was fortunate to have a deep roster. 

The six losses in a Carona virus abbreviated season don’t accurately reflect this team’s accomplishments or potential.  Three of those losses came to what is most certainly the best team ever to play at Oregon.  To many, Oregon was the best team in the country and a strong favorite to win the NCAA tournament.  Moreover, at season’s end, the conference seemed easily the most competitive in the country, with five teams that ranked among the top 14 teams in country.  Five of six losses came against these teams(Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona).  Despite its losses, the team had established itself as a top ten performer (with six wins over the top 14 teams –three against OSU and one each against UCLA, Mississippi State and Gonzaga).  Stanford was a projected second seed in the NCAA tournament.

The team’s top offensive performers were, measured by game average, Kiana Williams (15 points), Lexie Hull (13.6 points) and Haley Jones (11.4 points).  The team’s three point shooting percentage (35.7%, improving to 37.6% in conference) was the best of any Stanford team in the last four years.  Thanks to the Hull sisters, the team also had the highest average steals per game of any of the last four teams.  Consistent post presence was an issue, but with the return of Maya Dodson and the emergence of freshmen Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi, opponents could not ignore the interior game.  In what was perhaps the team’s best overall performance, Stanford took down top ten opponent UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semi-final game, winning by a 16 point margin (Lexie Hull scored 28 points and had 9 boards).

So What’s Next?
There are obvious uncertainties generated by the Carona virus.  No one can be certain of the pandemic’s impact come November, but there is reason to hope that the 2020 season will be played, with or without restrictions on fan attendance.  As far as the basketball, things look good. 

Stanford loses one key starter - steady post performer Nadia Fingall.  And DiJonai Carrington, regrettably, has transferred to Baylor for her fifth year.  There remains, however, amazing depth on the Stanford roster.  Stanford’s highly touted recruits from last year will be back in good form, including (fingers crossed) Haley Jones.  Because of her ability to play virtually any position, and her creativity in generating shot-clock ending baskets and assists, Jones could be pivotal in creating a potential championship team. 

Of course, the team will build around consensus All American point guard Kiana Williams.  Perhaps the biggest uncertainty with respect to Williams is how much of the point guard responsibilities will be handed off to others, including Anna Wilson (whose late season performance was inspiring), Jenna Brown, or incoming freshman Jana Van Gytenbeek. 

The Hull twins can also be expected to start lots of games.  Lexie Hull is on a trajectory that puts her ahead of Brittany McPhee as an offensive threat.  Both Hulls shoot the three ball well, commit relatively few turnovers, and are amazing defenders with lots of steals.  They will get help in the two and three positions from, among others, Anna Wilson, and from freshman Australian recruit Agnes Emma Nnopu. 

A steady offensive threat in the interior may be the biggest question mark, but here again the talent is there for Stanford to be a dominant team.  Maya Dodson could be a real difference maker if she offers the offensive panache demonstrated at season’s end.  There’s lots more.  Ashten Prechtel was voted the conference’s best off-the bench player last year, demonstrating inside moves and outside shooting that will make her difficult to guard.  The second coming of Alanna Smith?

Fran Belibi, with her quickness and jumping ability, can be a terror on the offensive boards and a real headache for opponents to guard.  Belibi, more than most, has the potential to improve markedly, perhaps becoming a dominating player.  No one should forget the steady and reliable play of senior Canadian Alyssa Jerome.  And then there is incoming freshman Cameron Brink.  She is the team’s highest ranked recruit and has played on junior national teams.  If Brink can take playing time away from the likes of Dodson, Prechtel, and Belibi, that will have to be because Brink is a major force.

Uncertainties?  Of course, there always are. 

But exciting potential?  Even more of that!

March 11, 2020

The Ionescu Massacres of 2020

Two separate massacres, in two distinct locations, occurred during an eight week period in the Winter of 2020.  The perpetrators were the same six individuals, led by a charismatic young woman named Sabrina Ionescu.  Her fellow assailants were five other young women, all bearing the “Ducks” logo.  
A strange moniker for participants in a double massacre?  Indeed!  But those were no ordinary ducks.  They were an elite group of athletes that had carefully selected and scouted their intended victim: the Stanford women’s basketball team.
An obscure nineteenth century statistician, Covid Ardvaark, developed a measurement for assessing the severity of these sports-related massacres.  The unit of measurement might have been called a “Covid-Aardvark”, but that label was awkward.  So folks just settled on the term “points.”  By this measure, the January 16 massacre in Eugene, Oregon was a 32 point disaster.  Eight weeks later, a 33 point debacle occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Just who are these massacre-perpetrating Ducks?  
Sabrina Ionescu might be the best female basketball player in the world today.  If the WNBA were to start over, with each team building a completely new roster from all available pro and amateur players, Ionescu could well be the first player drafted.  I can’t think of anyone I’d pick ahead of her.
In this year’s WNBA draft, Ionescu will be the first selected, but two other Oregon players (Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard) could also be among the top five selected.  If that happens, it would suggest that three of the five best draft eligible college players in the country played for the same team.  The Ionescu-Sabally-Hebard trio does not include another player with draft potential, Minyon Moore, who in Las Vegas laid 21 points on Stanford while shooting 4 for 5 from three point land.  Nor does it include Erin Boley and Taylor Chavez, both among the top three point shooters in the country.  
Yes, the Ducks are a pro quality team, and probably a superior pro-quality team.  In the preseason, Oregon convincingly defeated team USA, made up of some of the best pro players in the WNBA.  The Ducks should be the odds on favorite to win the national championship.  
The best defense against Oregon?  Maybe the Covid 19 virus.  This edition of the Ducks is the best team ever to play at that school, and could be the best women’s college team of the decade.  To definitively establish this, however, Oregon must win six more games.
If the Pac-12 conference really is the best, it’s time for the conference to win a national championship, something that has not happened for 28 years (Stanford won it in 1992).  Five Pac12 schools are projected to be top four seeds in the various regionals: Oregon #1, Stanford #2, UCLA #2, Arizona #4, and Oregon State #4.  More than one of these teams could make the final four.  But Oregon, by far, has the best chance of taking home the bacon.

Looking beyond next year, Oregon will likely continue to be a class act, with an excellent recruiting class coming in the Fall.  But they will lose four of five regular starters, among them Ionescu and two other All Americans.  
Meanwhile, the season is not over for Stanford.  They are a projected number two seed in the NCAA tournament.  Stanford is actually a very good team this year, having lost only six games, three of them to Oregon.  The team has performed well despite losing two of its very best players to long term injuries.  Both Dijonai Carrington and Haley Jones would have diversified and increased offensive output.  What if Jones or Carrington, or both of them, had been available in the tournament final?  Oregon may still have been the better team, but no more losses by 33 point margins.
Did Stanford make a mistake in its game plan against Oregon?  That plan called for Maya Dodson to guard Hebard - an approach that worked well in last year’s upset tournament victory over Oregon and in this season’s game at Maples.  The plan also called for sagging off Minyon Moore to pack the interior against other Oregon scorers.  The plan obviously didn’t work.  Minyon scored 21 points and Hebard 24 points.  
There is no evident defensive strategy that would likely have unravelled a team with such gifted and diverse offensive potential.  Ashten Prechtel played for 19 minutes and made two of three long range shots in the process of chalking up 14 points.  Her presence for more minutes might have increased Stanford’s offensive output, but Prechtel seemed no more effective in stopping Hebard than Stanford’s other post players.
Oregon’s statistical dominance over Stanford is clear.  In the two massacres, Oregon averaged a 32.5 point margin, more than the Ducks’ season average 28.1 margin built up against lesser opponents.  Oregon clearly played its best in these contests. 
As humbling as these statistics are, it is worth noting that Stanford was, at season’s end, the second best team in the most competitive conference in the country.  Over the course of the season, Stanford had victories over #9 Mississippi State, #10 UCLA, #11 Gonzaga, and #25 Arizona State, not to mention three victories over #14 Oregon State.  Stanford’s only loss to a non top 15 school was on the road against Texas, another NCAA tournament-bound team.  
Further proof of Stanford’s mettle?  Stanford took down #10 UCLA in the semi-final game.  In that game, UCLA was held to 51 points, well below its season average.  Michaela Onyenwere was held to 16 points on 6 for 16 shooting.  Onyenwere got six rebounds, not enough.  These were very good numbers for the Stanford defense.
To make a deep run in the tournament, Stanford must continue playing defense the way it did against UCLA.  And the team must find a way to share the scoring burden with Kiana Williams and Lexie Hull.  Ashten Prechtel and friends need to step it up.

March 02, 2020

Regular Season Roundup: What’s Surprising, What’s Not?

Warren Grimes

Stanford ended the regular season with a 25-5 record, and a tie for second place in the conference.  UCLA gets the higher seed in the tournament based on the head-to-head win, but Stanford’s three seed avoids a potential Oregon match before the final.  

Looking back to the season’s start in November, how much of this was predictable?  What are the surprises?  The disappointments?  The unexpected triumphs?

It’s not a surprise to this writer that Oregon won the conference title, nor that Stanford got second place.  Having to share that place with UCLA is a bit of a surprise, as was the loss to UCLA at Maples.  

Still, the biggest disappointments, by far, were the loss of two key players to serious injuries.  Both were potential all conference or even all American players.  In the five games that DiJonai Carrington played, she established the highest points per minute rate on the team (.507).  That number might have gone down a bit as opposition intensified.  But Carrington was a go to player who could score points creatively as the shot clock wound down.  She was also an astonishing rebounder.  At .35 boards per minute in the first five games, Carrington would have been the team’s most efficient rebounder had she kept up this pace.

Haley Jones?  She had worked herself into the starting lineup based on her creative scoring and assist making.  She ends the season with an 11.4 points per game average, third highest on the team.  She was on an upward trajectory, and could well have finished as the team’s top scorer.  Jones was fun to watch on the fast break.  She was also a strong defender, chalking up many blocks and steals.  Jones would have been a strong candidate for conference Freshman of the Year.  

The loss of both Jones and Carrington has meant a greater burden on Williams and Lexie Hull, who have been the two go to players for the second half of the season.  To a considerable extent, opponents have been able to focus defensive strategy on these two. 

As for triumphs, the team has shown resilience and the ability to survive in close games.  Stanford fell short against Arizona in a one possession game, but came out on top against Oregon State and against Colorado in two games that were wonderful comeback stories.  The team is at its best when the three point shots are falling, and Stanford’s season 36.1% rate is more than respectable.  The team leaders in percentage are Hannah Jump at 41 % and Lexie Hull at 39 %, but there’s not much fall off when the ball is in the hands of Williams, or Fingall, or Prechtel, or Lacie Hull, or Jerome.  When the threes are falling, Stanford is capable of beating anyone.  

Team defense is a standard feature of a VanDerveer team, and this year is no exception.  Opponents have averaged 59.6 points per game, a figure that is all the more impressive in the context of a Pac 12 conference that is loaded with offensive firepower.  Stanford is out stealing its opponents (235 to 214), a result not achieved by many Stanford teams of the past.  

Kiana Williams is Ms. Clutch Performer.  That’s not a surprise.  She had already done this in two previous seasons.  Williams leads the team in both points and assists.  Her 1.77 assist/turnover ratio is the best on the team.  With Williams, the raw stats don’t tell the full story.  She converts when it matters most.  In Boulder, she scored 6 points in less than 13 seconds to overcome a deficit and win the game, including a last second three pointer launched from the parking lot.  A memory worth savoring.

In different ways, the Hull twins have both triumphed.  They both excel on defense.  Lacie typically draws the opponent’s best scorer. The twins lead the team in steals per minute (Lacie has a team leading .055 thefts per minute, with Lexie not far behind at .51 per minute).  Lacie has the lowest points per game average of any starter, but cannot be left alone.  She converts threes at over a 36% rate.  Lacie takes care of the ball and generates assists (her 1.76 assist to turnover ratio barely trails Williams’ team leading 1.77).

Lexie Hull is the team’s second leading scorer.  Lexie is tied with Williams for the most three point shots, and her conversion rate (39%) is second only to Hannah Jump.  Although troubled with turnovers in some recent matchups, Lexie’s assist total is second highest on the team.  My thought is that Lexie has pushed a bit to score in the interior when the shots weren’t there.  But even on off days, Lexie is present for every moment of the game, getting boards, stealing the ball, and always a pest to the player she’s guarding. She’s invaluable.

Let’s talk about the freshman class.  Back in November, there was speculation about how many of the four outstanding freshmen would be starting by season’s end.  We now have the answer.  In the last half dozen games, the answer is ZERO.  That number, however, is misleading.  Haley Jones had a substantial run of starts before her knee injury.  If healthy, she would almost certainly be a regular starter.  Two of the other three freshmen have started 6 games (Belibi and Prechtel), and all three are part of an extraordinarily deep rotation.  Ten players, not counting Carrington, have averaged more than 10 minutes per game.  

So yes, the freshman class is pivotal to the success of this team.  On a boards per minute basis, Prechtel (at .333) and Belibi (.331) are the team leaders.  Blocks?  Prechtel leads the team with .069 per minute.  In points per minute, Prechtel’s .493 is second only to Carrington.  And Belibi leads the team in field goal percentage (59%).  Prechtel gets my vote as the biggest surprise.  Her interior game, while still a work in progress, is already formidable.  She boards, she blocks out, she blocks shots, and she scores consistently down low.   Then, just for fun, she moves out beyond the three point line, where she converts at a 32% rate.  

Even without Jones, the three freshmen will have a chance to make a difference in this weekend’s Pac-12 tournament.  May they continue to refine their games for the Big Dance!    

February 17, 2020

Lost Games Won: The Colorado Story

In less than a month, Colorado and Stanford have offered up two unforgettable games: two of the most memorable and explosive comebacks of the VanDerveer era.  In these contests, players on both teams showed heart, resilience, and the kind of intensity that end-of-season games offer.  In both games, there were lead changes and tit for tat intensity that created doubt into the final seconds.  Still, and let’s be clear about this, Colorado had seemingly won both of these games with just seconds on the clock. 

For Colorado fans, these will be bitter memories of games their team would, could, and should have won – then stunningly lost.  In both, Colorado had the palpable taste of an upset victory over a top 10 team, only to see that taste turn terribly bitter in the face of an explosive, last second Stanford turnaround.

The memory of these games will of course be quite different for Stanford.  Both were games in which Stanford showed focus, attention to detail, and resilience that made the difference.  The outcome of both games turned on the smallest events, but not on luck.  Stanford did what it needed to win.

At Maples on January 24, Colorado came out with fire in their eyes, holding a 8 point lead at the end of the first quarter.  Colorado lost that lead at the half, but then clawed back to a two point lead at the end of the third.  Stanford clawed to a 1 point lead in the final seconds, but Mya Hollingshed launched a three pointer with about 3 seconds left.  It swished, and with just 1.6 seconds on the game clock, Colorado players celebrated their 2 point lead and probable victory.  That turned out badly for them. 

Stanford called time out, allowing an inbounds play from the front court.  Now came the attention to detail.  Lacie Hull, after faking a pass to her twin (Lexie had been a go to player all game), threw a perfect long pass to a cutting Ashten Prechtel for a game tying lay up.  That was part of a well executed play in which every Stanford player did their part to create the opening for Prechtel.

The game was now tied.  The Colorado moment was lost.  The overtime was anticlimactic.  Stanford and Lexie Hull took over and won with an 8 point margin.

Now fast forward to Boulder less than a month later.  Colorado had the revenge factor as well as the home court advantage.  Stanford did not buckle, and held an 8 point lead at the half.  Far from wilting, Colorado cut the lead to one point at the end of the third quarter.  In the final quarter, the lead changed back and forth.  Colorado had a five point lead with less than 2 minutes left.  It was now Kiana Williams time.

Williams scored 8 points in the next two minutes, but the real story is how she scored them. 

Stanford had to foul to regain possession.  Colorado missed 4 of 6 free throws with the game on the line, but still held a three point lead with less than 24 seconds to go.  At that point, a set play gave Ashten Prechtel an open look for a game tying three, but Prechtel missed it.  Colorado’s Emma Clark got the board and was immediately fouled.

Things looked pretty dark for Stanford at this point.  If Clark could make one of her two free throws, this would be a two possession game with only 18 seconds on the clock.  Clark missed both, and Prechtel rebounded.  Stanford called an immediate time out and set up another play, this one to free Kiana Williams for a three from the base line.  And why not.  Williams had already scored a game high 23 points.  Her shot bounced up, and back in. 

The game was now tied with 12.9 seconds left.  Colorado was out of time outs.  They inbounded and got the ball into the front court where Hollingshed was trapped against the side line.  She got doubled.  With less than 4 seconds on the clock, Hollingshed attempted a pass that got tipped back toward the Stanford basket.  Williams grabbed it and had time to get about two strides beyond the mid court.  With 1 second left, Willaims launched a high arcing three pointer from 10 to 12 feet beyond the three point line.  The horn sounded, the red light showed on the backboard, but the shot was already in the air. 

Really bad news for Colorado.  Williams second three pointer within 15 seconds was a shot for the highlight reel.  It gave her a game and career high 29 points.  It was an explosive and, for Colorado fans, a stunning loss of a game that, with good reason, they thought had been won.  Emma Clark, among others, must feel really bad.

I can empathize with Colorado fans.  Stanford has lost some big games because of last second heroics of the other team.  But the program’s record in these last second games is a positive one: Stanford wins more of these games than it loses.  It’s that attention to detail.  It’s that focus.  It’s that belief in themselves.  And it’s good coaching.

At the end of the game, Stanford players celebrated big time.  Well deserved.  But now it’s time to prepare for a really important weekend with the Oregon schools.

January 29, 2020

Loss, Opportunity, and Deep Depth

Warren Grimes

Stanford’s mid January weekend in Oregon did not turn out well.  On Friday, the team suffered a 32 point humiliation to Oregon.  Worse was to come.

On Sunday, the team bested Oregon State, but lost Haley Jones to what is likely a season-ending knee injury.  Losing Jones is a big deal.

Haley “Versatility” Jones was the country’s number one ranked high school recruit, and in the running to win freshman of the year awards.  She had started 13 games for Stanford and seemed to be improving fast.  In conference play, Jones had moved up to be the team’s second leading scorer.  Had trends continued, Jones could well have been the team’s top scorer by season’s end. 

Not the best three point shooter, Jones seems to do everything else very well.  Jones was second only to Kiana Williams in generating assists.  She steals the ball, blocks opponents’ shots, blocks out, and gathers many a rebound, including offensive put backs.

Jones often played the power forward position.  At six foot one, Jones is still strong enough to occupy space and effectively guard taller players.  Using Jones in the four position allowed the team to place five very effective defenders and offensive players on the floor.  On offense, Jones is a creator.  When the shot clock is winding down, Jones can drive the basket, make pull up jumpers, execute spin moves, and often find a passing lane to assist a teammate’s shot. 

No other player has this valuable skill set.  Still, after the Oregon weekend, Stanford went home to Maples and bested Colorado (barely) and Utah (decisively).  Stanford won despite playing without four injured players.  Three of them were high school All Americans and regular starters (Jones, Maya Dodson, and Dijonai Carrington).  The fourth has played on Canadian national teams (Alyssa Jerome).  With all of this injured talent, how did Stanford pull off the wins?

Baseball great Yogi Berra said his team had “deep depth.”  Well, Berra’s Yankees aren’t alone.  Stanford women’s hoops has its own deep depth.  Last weekend, Stanford started a team with three high school All Americans: Nadia Fingall, Kiana Williams and Ashten Prechtel.  The other two starters had won high school POY honors for the State of Washington (the Hull twins).  Three more high school All Americans came off the bench (Fran Belibi, Anna Wilson, and Jenna Brown).  The team, despite the injuries, had a strong nine player rotation for these games, including Hannah Jump, who dazzled from the three point line against Utah. 

None of this can make up for Jones’ loss.  Still, the learning curve is rapid for three of the freshmen (Prechtel, Belibi, and Jump).  Prechtel is now a starter and delivered in crunch time against Colorado.  Belibi scored a team and career high 20 points against Utah.  Jump made three long distance shots against Utah, and had 14 points in all against Utah.  These players can help make Stanford a feared and fearsome team at season’s end.

Can Stanford duplicate Notre Dame’s achievement two years ago (winning the national championship despite being riddled with injuries)?  Perhaps not.  But the rest of the season is sure to be interesting.  The loss of Jones, who was frequently playing the four, leaves an opportunity for Prechtel (already blossoming) and particularly Belibi.  And, of course, there is still the possibility of getting Carrington, a strong perimeter player who can battle underneath, and Dodson, a strong inside defender and rebounder, back in the rotation. 

Stanford still has deep depth!

January 17, 2020

How Stanford Can Play Better Against Oregon

Stanford suffered another lopsided loss to Oregon on Thursday, only slightly less humiliating than last year’s loss at Maples.  Give Oregon lots of credit.  But Stanford can do better.
Oregon can be beaten.  It’s already happened twice this season, once to a then unranked ASU team.  When Oregon is on its game, however, they are a formidable team.  They have amazing chess pieces to work with.  They bested team USA; and they played with the same relentless energy in dispatching Stanford on Thursday. 
Sabrina Ionescu should win the national MVP award and will likely be the first player drafted by the WNBA.  Ruthy Hebard is a world class post player.  Hebard can be doubled, but only by leaving other players open.  And Satau Sabally is power forward who, when her game is on, can play with the very best.  She too will be a high draft choice.
Stanford has to do two things (at least) to improve the odds in the next matchup.  First, Stanford has to cut way down on turnovers.  Stanford had 18 turns, 10 of them during the second half massacre.  A turnover is the absolute worst way to end a possession.  I’d prefer a shot clock violation to a turnover.
To be sure, shot clock violations are frustrating and worthy of some head banging.  But shot clock violations take a full 30 seconds off the game clock, time that the opponent cannot score.  And when the shot buzzer sounds, play stops and the opponent must inbound the ball.  This gives the defense time to organize and tends to negate any transition offense by the opponent.
Turnovers invite transition offense.  There’s no more fearsome sight than Ionescu heading down court in transition mode.  Just for the record, Oregon scored 22 points off turnovers (Stanford had only 2).  Of course, defensive rebounds can also lead to a transition offense, but turnovers are the absolute worst because they are unexpected and often occur in the back court.
When Oregon was in its half court offense, their productivity was impressive, but their offensive efficiency fell short of their transition offense.  In the second half, for example, Ionescu, on her way to a career high 37 points, was merely 2-5 from the three point line, but 7-8 inside the arc.  She was converting pull up jumpers and acrobatic layups, many of them in transition.
The other thing that Stanford must change is its own half court offense.  Stanford in transition can be the equal of Oregon.  Kiana Williams can be awesome, and other mobile players like Jones, the Hull sisters, and even the posts (Fingall and Prechtel) can run the court and score in transition.  Stanford had no transition offense against Oregon, partly because Oregon was making so many shots.  That left everything on the half court offense, and that was pretty miserable in the last 18 minutes of the game.
The last two times Stanford has bested Oregon, in the Pac 12 tournament last year and in Eugene two seasons back, Stanford had fewer turnovers and a more than respectable half court offense.  In the first of those wins, Brittany McPhee went wild in the second half and humiliated the Ducks.  Her offense was largely off the dribble, with the help of some well-placed screens.  In last season’s victory, Alanna Smith, DiJonai Carrington, and Kiana Williams took productive turns in the half court sets.  Of course, when Stanford scored, the Ducks lost transition opportunities and had to generate their own half court game.
In this most recent loss, Stanford lost patience in the second half, attempting to force interior passes that simply weren’t there.  That led to turnovers and Oregon’s formidable transition offense.  Give the Oregon defense credit.  They were ready for Stanford’s interior passing and cuts to the basket.  The Stanford team, however, has to be sufficiently flexible to adjust to that kind of defensive pressure.  The team can rely more on screens, but it also needs a go to player like Brittany McPhee or Alanna Smith: a player who can consistently create in the paint.  Stanford has players with these capabilities, including the absent Dijonai Carrington, but they will have to step up when Stanford next plays Oregon.
Actually, Stanford can’t wait that long.  The team will have to step up its game for all the remaining conference games, starting with Oregon State on Sunday.  Learn from the loss, and move on!

January 06, 2020

Stanford WBB: Scoring by Committee?

Warren Grimes

Stanford finished the first days in January with an overall 13-1 record.  With over one-third of the season already behind us, it’s worth a look back and a peek forward.

Losing only one of the first 14 games is an achievement.  This was not a soft preseason schedule.  The wins were accomplished without any one player consistently leading the scoring.  The wins came, in words of Tara VanDerveer, through “scoring by committee.”  In the fourteen games, seven different players were the leading scorers for the game.  The team’s top three scorers (Lexie Hull - 13.2 average; Kiana Williams - 12.4 average; and Haley Jones - 10.8 average) each had team highs in three games, but Nadia Fingall (in two games) and Lacie Hull, Ashten Prechtel, and Hannah Jump (in one game each) also achieved team highs.  That’s impressive.  None of these players may receive an MVP award at the end of the season.  But collectively, they are vital parts of a teamwork offense that creates nightmares for the defense.

I never have liked committees.  Meetings are too long and too tedious, with some members talking just to hear themselves talk.  But that’s not what VanDerveer meant by committee scoring.  She meant sharing the scoring burden, and doing it through teamwork.  Teamwork can be measured in part through assists, and Stanford excelled in this category.  In the fourteen games, Stanford had 220 assists to opponents’ 119.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the top three scoring players were also the top three in assists (Williams 53, Jones 32, and Lexie Hull 28).  When your top scorers are also your top assist makers, that spells excellence in basketball at any level.

Stanford is team oriented not only on offense, but also on defense.  Stanford’s carefully scouted help defense has long been a trademark for VanDerveer.  But this team, even with inexperienced freshmen, seems destined to play the help defense with aplomb.  Low opponent scores, numerous steals, and a lot of blocks are all measures of an efficient help defense.  On scoring, Stanford has an average 20.8 scoring margin (good but not great), has out-stolen oppenents 113 to 103 (better than Stanford teams of the past) and has out blocked opponents by a very impressive margin (81 to 22).

For the steals, Lexie Hull has been most impressive, with 23 steals, but five other players have double digit steals in the first 14 games.  There’s a lesson here.  Hold onto your wallet when the Stanford players are around.  And beware: this theft racket is definitely a team effort.

Its time to talk about the freshmen.  When, if ever, has Stanford brought in four recruits, all of whom, in their first year, have either found their way into the starting lineup (Jones has started nine games and Belibi has started four) or are getting meaningful minutes (Jump has averaged 12.8 minutes and Prechtel 12.5 minutes)?  I can’t recall that ever happening.  A “Fab 4" for the Stanford women! Both Jump and Prechtel have been team high scorers in one game.  Who has the highest points per minute average for the team?  None other than Hannah Jump with .563 per minute.  I noticed that Jump is learning to fake a shot and then drive the basket.  She’s also learning to better utilize screens.  Watch out!

On a blocks per minute tally, it is Ashten Prechtel that leads the team, slightly ahead of her freshman teammate Belibi.  Prechtel is also the second most efficient rebounder (on a per minute basis).  The wildcard is her three point shooting, which gives the defense fits.  Prechtel has a lot to learn about playing the help defense and defending the post, but she, like the other freshmen, will improve with seasoning.

Haley Jones has been the high scorer in three separate games.  Her performance is on the rise. If current trends continue, by the end of the season, Jones will be the team’s top scorer in many, many games (and the second highest in assists).  Jones has size, deceptive speed, basketball smarts and the competitive spirit to contribute inside and out, defensively and offensively.  Jones is showing why she was the #1 ranked high school recruit in the country.  No need to say more.

Then there’s Belibi.  She’s had adjustments, including issues with turnovers, fouling, and learning the scout defense.  But Belibi has started the last three games, for good reason.  Belibi is the team’s leading rebounder on a per minute basis.  She’s also the team leader in field goal percentage, primarily because of her under the basket performance.  Belibi gets boards that other players on the team would not get (a healthy DiJonai Carrington might be an exception).  Belibi is not yet a reliable and creative shot maker when the shot clock is running down, but the potential is there for her to be that and more.

Finally, not enough is written about the team’s critical upperclassmen.  Seniors Nadia Fingall and Anna Wilson are playing the best basketball of their careers.  Fingall was known for her post skills on offense and defense, but surprised WSU with her three point shooting.  When Fingall is in the game, the defense cannot ignore her outside shooting.  All the more likely that a zone defense will be problematic for the opponent.  Anna Wilson is a defensive stalwart with 11 steals.  Her 24 assists, because of her more limited minutes, are on a par with Kiana Williams’ assist per minute performance.  She can spell Williams without any noticable offensive loss, or play with Williams to tighten the defense.

Kianna Williams is one of the conference’s (and nation’s) top point guards.  She’d had some down games recently, but against Washington, Williams took over the game in the second half with her game high 20 points and multiple assists.  Williams is a team leader who steps up when it matters most.

After Friday’s home game against Cal, Stanford will be on the road for the next three games, including games in Oregon where the top five ranked home teams will be favored.  Really tough assignments, but I look forward to watching this young and talented Stanford team take on the very best.