January 03, 2022

Washington State: How to Frame the Question

 

Warren Grimes

Going into Sunday’s Washington State game, there were two ways to frame the question.

How could Stanford possibly win?

Stanford was without five very talented players because of the Covid protocol.  Among them were top scorer and shot blocker Cameron Brink.  True, Stanford had defeated number seven-ranked and previously undefeated Tennessee with Brink in foul trouble, playing only 8 minutes.  Against Tennessee, however, Stanford had Ashten Prechtel, a dominant post player who came off the bench and devastated the Volunteers in the fourth quarter.  Prechtel, however, was also out, as was a third veteran post player, Alyssa Jerome.  Yep, Stanford was thin at the post.  The other two missing players – Agnes Emma Nnopu and Brooke Demetre – also had seen significant playing time off the bench.  Things did not look rosy for Stanford.

How could Stanford possibly lose?

Stanford had four of its five regular starters, led by All American Haley Jones and the Hull twins. Close to home country – and with family in the stands – you knew the Hulls were there to play.   To replace Brink at the post, Fran Belibi was and is a player of consequence.  Off the bench, there were players like Anna Wilson and blossoming freshman post Kiki Iriafen.  That is a roster of a top ten team.  This is the deepest team Stanford has ever had, with more than enough talent to take down the Cougars.

So, it turns out, the second question call was the more accurate.  After a struggling first quarter, Stanford turned on the defense and almost doubled Washington State on the score board (82 to 44).  The Hull twins and Anna Wilson led the charge on defense (Lacie Hull played 36 minutes).  As she had against Tennessee, Haley Jones was there with bells on – 24 points, 16 boards, and 3 assists.   Actually, Jones could have had more assists if teammates hadn’t missed some easy conversions.

Also Iriafen came to play, providing a meaningful post presence with 13 points and 8 boards in just 14 minutes.  As did Belibi, who started at the post, scoring 10 points and grabbing 8 boards in her 16 minutes of court time.  If you do the math, that means that for 10 minutes of the game, Stanford played without a regular post player.  Not to worry – Haley Jones can do that too.  True, playing the post against Washington State is made easier because the Cougars don’t have a lot to offer at that position.  Still, with her strength and quickness, Jones can play the post when asked to do so.  

Jones does what the team needs.  Point guard?  Shooting guard?  Power forward?  Post?  Her flexibility, along with her productivity, is why jones should be a consensus first team All American this season.   That result isn’t a given.  When other players (for example, Brink, Lexie Hull, or Hannah Jump) have the hot hand, Jones will back off a bit on the offense.   So far, Jones hasn't done what Ionescu did for Oregon two years ago – constantly lead the team in scoring, assists, and often  boards as well.  Ionescu was a triple double master.  Jones could be that as well, but sometimes, she appears to lose focus.   Is that because Jones lacks the fire, or is it a wise and team-enhancing choice to share the limelight with her teammates? 

So far this season, Jones appears to play best when it is most needed.  She did that in the tournament last year; she did it this year against Tennessee; and, I expect and hope, she will continue to do so,  including against the Oregon schools this weekend.. 


December 31, 2021

New Year’s Thoughts on Coaching

 

Warren Grimes

Coaches, even very good ones, have notably different approaches to coaching.   

True, any good coach has to have certain common skills, such as recruiting, organizing, teaching, strategizing, and motivating.  That’s a pretty long list.  But coaches can differ substantially over things such as game strategies, how they organize, how they teach, and how they motivate.

Take Brenda Frese, the well-known coach of the Maryland Terrapins since 2002.  Her achievements include a national championship in 2006 and two other Final Four appearances.  She has won conference titles in the ACC and, after Maryland switched to the Big Ten, in that conference as well.

Frese is known as an excellent recruiter.  She has demonstrated an ability to recruit high octane offensive players that contribute to high scoring teams.  No doubt, the free-wheeling offensive style of her teams is an attraction for many gifted high school athletes. 

On defense, her teams have had less success.  Stanford has played Maryland twice since Frese began coaching there.  The first time was a tournament regional final in Candice Wiggins’ senior year.  Maryland was the number one seed in the region, but could not stop second-seeded Stanford from pulling the upset.   The game was an offensive explosion, with a final score of 98-87.   Not sterling defense by either team.

Earlier this season, Stanford met up with a Frese-led Maryland team in the Bahamas tournament.  Stanford again prevailed, this time 86 to 68.  For Stanford to score 86 points against a top ten opponent is unusual.  This year, Stanford is averaging 72 points per game and has scored more than 86 points only against two lower ranked opponents (Pacific and Morgan State). 

Take a look at this comparison of Maryland and Stanford stats for this season.

                                                                Ave. Points                         Ave. Opponent Points

Maryland (13 Games)                    82.8                                                        66.5

Stanford (11 Games)                      72.1                                                        57.9

Maryland is scoring roughly 11 points more per game than Stanford.  And Maryland opponents are averaging roughly 9 points more than Stanford opponents.

So, it might be concluded, Maryland teams led by Frese have excelled on offense but not so much on defense.  The reasons for less impressive defensive stats may lie in part on the emphasis Maryland places on offense.  If Maryland puts up more shots in a forty minute game, the opponent will also shoot more.  Other factors include defensive game planning, discipline, and the type of athletes that Maryland recruits. 

The fact remains, however, that in this year’s contest, Stanford held Maryland to 14 points below its season average, while, in the same game, Stanford scored 14 more points than its season average.  That Stanford uses a scouting defense (and Maryland evidently does not) must account for some of this difference.   

Defensive approaches are just one of many ways in which coaches may differ.  Some teams emphasize quickness and risk taking on defense.  If successful, this approach can lead to more steals and opponent turnovers that allow for fast breaks on offense.   This year’s Texas team used that approach against Stanford with considerable success.  So did South Carolina in its second half comeback against Stanford.  And Pac-12 opponents such as Arizona and UCLA can be expected to do the same.  Indeed, this may be Stanford’s greatest vulnerability this season. 

VanDerveer-coached teams will also go for steals, but tend to emphasize a positioning defense with less risk taking but potentially superior results in suppressing an opponent’s scoring.   The Hull twins, among the team’s best theft artists, have demonstrated superiority in intelligent risk taking, often involving a well-timed intervention into the passing lane. 

Motivating techniques are another area of variance.  The late Pat Summit once locked her team out of a brand new locker room, telling players that until they became more focused and hard working, the locker room would remain locked.  Addressing this point, Tara VanDerveer once told this writer that she could not (and would not) use this technique for her Stanford team. 

The differing approaches that various coaches take will affect recruiting.  Do the UCLA and Arizona coaches have greater success than Stanford in recruiting the quick and athletic guard?  Does Stanford have greater success in recruiting disciplined players who appreciate the VanDerveer scouting defense?

The most valuable skill a coach can bring?  I’d say creativity.  Every coach must match both offensive and defensive strategy to the opponent; to matchups, to the player with the hot hand; to the score and the time left on the clock.  I’d say Tara VanDerveer does that as well as anyone.

Happy New Year. 

Covid permitting, more coaching creativity and excitement awaits as Stanford begins the conference run.  

December 19, 2021

Tennessee: Overcoming Adversity -- Three Super Subs and a Jones

 

Warren Grimes  

Before the tipoff, Stanford knew that highly productive post Fran Belibi would not be available (concussion protocol).  Not to worry.  All American candidate Cameron Brink was in the starting lineup.  At over 14 points per game, Brink was the team’s highest scorer and most prolific rebounder.  In recent games, Brink’s performance had exceeded these levels.     

Well, so much for the past.  The box score shows that Brink’s most significant stat was fouls – she had five of them and only played for eight minutes.  During that time, she had four points, two boards, and a turnover. 

So, essentially, Stanford was without its two highest performing post players.  What now?

How about more adversity?   After extending its lead to 20 points late in the second quarter, Stanford entered half time with 43 points and a 17-point lead.  Stanford was very fond of those 43 points.  So much so that with less than three minutes left in the third quarter, Stanford still had 43 points, and not one more.  Stanford’s awful scoring draught was accompanied by missed shots, turnovers, and a loss of composure.  Meanwhile, Tennessee found renewed energy and closed the lead to as little as three points.

With the score 43-40, and only 2:28 left on the third quarter clock, Kiki Iriafen made two free throws, and then a lay up, to restore a bit of sanity.

Iriafen was one of the three super subs that saved the day for Stanford.  With two post players unavailable, Iriafen played 17 minutes.  And she contributed.  She was steady, with only one turnover while adding ten points, five boards, and two assists. 

Then there’s Ashten Prechtel.  Ms Prechtel did a reprise of her performance in last year’s regional final against Louisville.  She played for 15 minutes, and missed a lot of shots early on.  But in the critical fourth quarter, Prechtel was money, sinking three consecutive three-point shots.  She ended up with 12 points, six boards, and two blocks.  Her performance in that last quarter must have demoralized Tennessee.

The third super sub was Anna Wilson.  She came off the bench for 28 minutes.  Her presence late in the third quarter was vital to restoring order.  Her stat line was 4 points, including a vital three-pointer, along with 5 assists and 6 boards.  And not a single turnover.

A second storyline for this game was Haley Jones.  Jones played for 39 minutes in this game.  And why not?   Jones was all over the court, ending up with 18 points, 19 boards, and 6 assists.  She missed a lot of shots (3 for 18 from the field), but was a perfect 12 for 12 from the charity stripe.   Therein lies a third storyline.

Stanford was 21 for 24 in free throws, most un-Stanford like for this season.  So how did that happen?

To begin with, two of Stanford’s most challenged free throwers were absent (Belibi with 59% free throw percentage) or largely absent (Brink with 47% free throw percentage).  Jones made over half the team’s free throws, but was aided by the Hulls, Iriafen, Prechtel, and Wilson.  In the crucial fourth quarter, Stanford made Tennessee pay at the foul line.  That, more than anything else, allowed Stanford a somewhat comfortable margin at the end. 

A lot to like about the Tennessee game.  The overriding storyline is simply about the team’s diverse depth.  With a deep and very talented bench, the team overcame adversity and defeated a previously undefeated top ten team.  The diversity and depth of talent will be helpful as Stanford takes on favored South Carolina, and then begins the draining Pac-12 schedule.

November 17, 2021

After Texas, A Hull of a Good Game for Haley Jones

Warren Grimes

Losing to Texas was not fun. 

Texas is a very good team that will make opponents suffer.  They got Stanford out of sorts, perhaps best exemplified by 4-27 shooting from the three point line.  That’s . . . uhm . . . 14.8%.

In a number of ways, the Texas game was similar to last year’s championship game against Arizona – except of course that Stanford won that one.  But quite predictably, Texas disrupted Stanford’s offense the same way Arizona did.  It was quickness and in your face player-to-player defense that produced way too many Stanford turn overs.  Add to that a critical 4th quarter rally that relied heavily on a substitute’s 4 for 4 shooting from the three point line.

Disappointing because Stanford played great defense, except against the substitute who burned them late in the game.

Disappointing because Stanford held a single digit lead throughout the game, until the last part of the 4th quarter.

Disappointing because Stanford couldn’t exploit its height and talent advantage in the paint. 

Disappointing because the game was at Maples.

It’s no secret that opposing coaches will seek to disrupt Stanford in much the same way that Arizona and Texas did.  Most teams will not have the talent to do that, but expect to see more of this from teams like Arizona, UCLA, South Carolina, and (fill in the blank). 

But now, it’s time to praise.

Two days after Texas, Stanford played a talented and well coached team from Portland.  Stanford won 77-55, but not without holding off a motivated Portland team that closed the margin to 10 points in the third quarter. 

Haley Jones excelled.  She got a triple double – 17 points, 12 boards, and 10 assists.  Jones was the first Stanford player to accomplish this in 19 years (Nicole Powell did it in 2002).  There were a number of highlights to Jones’ performance.  One was a “don’t-try-this-at-home” play that made the highlight reels.  Jones dribbled diagonally through the key and executed a no look lay in from the left side.  This happened fast – if you looked away, you missed it.  Amazing stuff.  She also had a block and two steals in 36 minutes on the court.

Other players deserve lots of recognition.  Lexie Hull played 34 minutes and contributed 7 points, 4 boards, and 6 steals.  Lexie was a real pain to Portland’s offense, but she had help.  Stanford had a total of 19 steals in the game.  A team record?

Lacie Hull had more minutes than her sister (36 of them).  She had ZERO points.  Indeed, Lacie did not even attempt a shot.  So what’s the big deal? 

Well the big deal is that when Lacie was in the game playing the point, the team played better.  Lacie, time and again, brought the ball up court against high pressure defense.  And she did it in style, with 5 assists and only 1 turnover.  On defense, Lacie had 4 steals and 2 blocks.

If Lacie can do this consistently, who cares whether she scores points.  I would not have predicted it, but  Lacie Hull may be the point guard of choice for this team.  If anyone can do the point guard stuff better than Lacie, they will have to be very good.

Aside from these three players, Cameron Brink made her presence known.  In roughly 20 minutes on the court, Brink contributed a team-high 21 points, often with an assist from her mates.  Unlike against Texas, the team was able to exploit its interior game.   The other starter, Anna Wilson, had 2 points and 3 boards in 22 minutes, but these numbers don’t adequately reflect her defensive presence. 

Two of Stanford’s freshman that did not see action against Texas played 10 minute plus segments against Portland, and made their presence known.   Brooke Demetre played 11 minutes and added 11 points on 5-6 shooting.  And Kiki Iriafen played 12 minutes and contributed 9 points and 2 boards.  Iriafen appeared to attempt a dunk that resulted in a turnover, but there seems little doubt that the dunk will happen before long. 

And now for a further look at Demetre.  She did not play against Texas, but is averaging 10 points a game, the fourth highest on the team, despite coming off the bench.  More still, Demetre is shooting at an 82% clip for the games she played, including 1 for 2 from three point land.  A few of these baskets were uncontested lay ups, but most were not.  Demetre has a wide shooting range, she gets her shots off quickly, and she shoots very accurately.    

Iriafen and Demetre have different skill sets, but I see them both getting major playing time as the season progresses. 

Next up, a tough visit to the Hulls’ home turf, against Gonzaga.

October 31, 2021

A New WBB Season: Concerns and Deep Mind Games

 

Warren Grimes

Over on the Cardboard, a couple of posters wrote of the “ugly” way Stanford took down Arizona in last season's NCAA final.  Arizona, too, was said to have played ugly. 

I understand the word choice.   In terms of offensive flow, both teams were decidedly subpar.  A final score of 54 to 53 does not suggest high potency offense.  Stanford had 21 turnovers – probably a season high.  In the regional final, Stanford scored 30 points in one quarter, more than they averaged in an entire half against Arizona. 

As for Arizona’s offense, Aari McDonald, a superstar who was critical for that team’s success, shot an unimpressive 24% (5 for 21).  McDonald was particularly unproductive inside the arc (1 for 12). 

OK, so I get it.  Offense for both teams was downright miserable.  But the Final Four was really about defense.  In the three end games, none of the four teams reached the 70-point threshold.  Arizona got 69 points against UConn in the semifinal, but that was as good as it got.  Each of the final four teams was an offensive powerhouse, but it was defense that dominated.

From a defensive perspective, the championship game was not ugly.  The defenses were strategic, refined, and intense.  Take Arizona.  Speaking before the game, coach Adia Barnes conceded Stanford’s superiority in rebounding and interior play.  But, Barnes said, “We are quicker.”  

Indeed they were.  Arizona had 12 steals, contributing substantially to Stanford’s 21 turnovers.   Stanford had superior size, better rebounding, and a higher shooting percentage (42%), but could do no better than 54 points and the one point victory.      

Stanford’s defense was equally impressive, holding Arizona to the 28.3% field goal percentage (and superstar Aari McDonald to an even lower percentage).   Stanford out rebounded the Wildcats 47 to 29.  The game’s last two offensive possessions, in many ways, typified the game.  Stanford had a full 30-second offensive possession, was able to run time off the clock by retaining possession, but could not get a shot off.  The ball rolled harmlessly off at the mid-court as the shot clock expired.  Arizona, in turn, had a final possession of 6 seconds and got the ball to Aari McDonald.  But the Arizona star, gang-defended, could do no better than an awkward three point heave as time expired. 

To the very end, it was defense that shone in the Final Four.

Returning everyone except Kiana Williams, and bolstering its ranks with four exceptional freshmen and a heralded transfer, Stanford should continue to play intensive defense this coming season.  But Adia Barnes’ defensive strategy has provided future opponents a clue as to how to defend Stanford.  How will Stanford deal with the aggressive quickness that Arizona demonstrated in the end game?  Most teams won’t be able to duplicate Arizona’s effort, but many may try. 

A strong and quick point guard with ball-handling skills could be part of the answer.  But who will that be?  Aside from starter Anna Wilson, there are two returning veterans (Jenna Brown and Jana Van Gytenbeek) and two new guards (graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton and freshman Jzaniya Harriel) who might be the answer.  For Stanford fans, it should be intriguing to see who can best demonstrate needed point guard skills.   Stanford could end up rotating the point guard position, depending on an opponent’s defensive presence.   Or maybe two of these players will be in the game at the same time.

This list of 5 guards, each of whom might be a point guard, still leaves open possible variations at the two and three positions.  Quickness and strength at the two and three positions will also be critical.  Aside from starters Haley Jones and Lexi Hull, there is Lacie Hull, Hannah Jump, Agnes Ema-Nnopu, and freshmen Brooke Demetre and Elena Bosgana who could play these positions.  All of these players are relatively tall, ranging from 5’11” Ema-Nnopu (she is an amazing rebounder) to Brooke Demetre’s 6’3”.

Stanford will return a bunch of post players.  Versatile Haley Jones can play the four, but look at the other options, including Cameron Brink, post season marvel Ashten Prechtel, dunking expert Fran Belibi, and solid Canadian journeyman Alyssa Jerome.  Now add the very athletic freshman Kiki Iriafen.

Wow, this team has “deep depth.” 

I’ve borrowed Yogi Berra’s words to describe past Stanford teams.  Last season’s team had unusual depth – 11 players saw action in the championship game.  This season, the words fit better than ever.   

The roster is 17 deep because three players are opting for the extra “covid” year.  Each of these 17 players could start for most other Division IA programs.  If this was Charlie Turner Thorne’s team, she could run her five-player platoon system with three platoons and two extra substitutes in case of injury.  Not expecting that from Coach VanDerveer, but who knows.

This year, depth is not a strength of some other premier Stanford athletic programs.  The football team and the women’s volleyball team are struggling because of a lack of depth.  Even the women’s soccer team could use an injection of additional quality players.  Too bad WBB cannot lend some quality athletes.

To fully grasp the depth of this season’s WBB team, consider these two fantasy games.

I. Organize three five-member squads for an intra-squad scrimmage, with each squad getting its shot against the other two.   Squad #1 should be the team’s five starters; Squad #2 should be made up of other veteran players (there should be 7 or 8 to choose from, depending on who the starters are); Squad #3 would be the five newcomers, four freshman and a transfer (if one or more of these players became starters, adjustments would be necessary).

Squad #1 would presumably consist of the four returning starters from the championship game (Brink, Jones, Lexie Hull, and Wilson) plus (you fill in the blank).  The fifth starter might be a veteran, might be a newcomer, might be a point guard, might be a ball-handling player in slots two-five, etc.  The team has flexibility because Haley Jones and Lexi Hull are versatile players.

Squad #2 (non-starting veterans) would have some high octane veteran players, presumably including Ashten Prechtel, Fran Belibi, Alyssa Jerome, and Lacie Hull.  Sophomores Van Gytenbeek or Emma-Nnopu could be added, as could senior Jenna Brown.  That’s a squad most Pac-12 coaches would love to have.

Squad #3 would be the newcomers -- four highly touted freshmen plus transfer Jordan Hamilton.  Last year, Hamilton was a key player for a gifted Northwestern team that gave Louisville a scare in the second round of the tournament.  It’s not preposterous to suggest that, as the freshmen develop, this squad could be a match for squad #1 by season’s end.

II. Assume a make-believe scenario in which Stanford is allowed to field two separate WBB teams (in this fantasy world, it’s now the Pac 13).  Coach VanDerveer would pick five players for team A, after which Coach Paye would pick five for team B.  They would then alternate picks until the 17 player list was exhausted.  One team would have 9 players; the other 8.  A bit short on depth, but both of these teams would have as much or more depth as UCLA had last season.  Team B could well end up with players like Prechtel and Belibi, plus three or more of the exciting newcomers.   Could Stanford field two top ten teams?   Could the two Stanford teams finish one and two in the conference? 

You decide.

Nothing is guaranteed,

But --

this season should be lots and lots of fun.
 

 

May 11, 2021

NEWS FLASH!!

WHAT FANTASTIC NEWS!!

Anna and Alyssa are coming back!! Both are taking advantage of the NCAA's decision to offer seniors an additional year of eligibility, because of the messed up Covid season they just went through. 

If you were listening during the 2020/2021 season, the Stanford coaches and players were continually commenting about how much help, support, and leadership Alyssa Jerome gave the younger players every day. 

After winning the MVP award for the Tournament, the first thing Haley told the interviewer was how Alyssa put her arm around her before the fourth quarter of the championship game and told her, "This is your time. You can be the MVP. Go out there and win it."

Alyssa dispensed so much selfless maturity and wisdom from the first practice in October to the last quarter in San Antonio, it's impossible to overestimate her benefit to the team next season. Our four new freshmen will have our favorite Canadian there like a coach/player/friend who knows the ropes and wants to help you - and you're eighteen and can use a lot of help.

And Anna. Number 3 is quiet and quick - reticent to shoot and she "loves to play defense." And Oh, I left out tough and determined - great handle, almost no turnovers, terrific passer, surprising rebounder, and when she does shoot, she scores. It's impossible to put a value on Anna Wilson. She's invaluable. Add her to any practice and the defensive intensity increases automatically.  

Let the numbers speak. Against UCLA Charlisse Leger-Walker had 28 points, at Oregon State she had 22 points, and against Anna Wilson she had 6. Everywhere Charlisse wanted to go - Number 3 was already there. 

When Anna and Alyssa decided to return for another year, Stanford instantly got tougher, grittier and a whole lot closer. I couldn't be more thrilled and grateful to have these two very different, but equally important additions to our roster next season.

GO STANFORD!! LET'S GO BACK TO BACK!!   

 

 

April 27, 2021

Belated Celebrations and Exciting Anticipations

 

Warren Grimes

Stanford won the national championship by the narrowest of margins – two one point victories against South Carolina and Arizona.  No matter.  Hard fought games are good for the sport, and it’s still a championship with no asterisk (unless it be a note on the pandemic). 

Had they lost, the Stanford 2020-2021 team would still be amazing.  The team had talent – lots and lots of it – and it had attitude.  An example of this was the comeback win in the regional final against an excellent Louisville team.  For what it’s worth, that’s my favorite game of the tournament run. 

Under a nationally recognized coach, Jeff Walz, Louisville began the season 16-0 and had only 3 losses (one more than Stanford) going into the quarterfinal.  Louisville was and is a physical team – their physicality was key in trouncing Stanford by 27 points in the sweet sixteen game in 2018.   In this covid season, Louisville had held opponents to an average 60.7 points per game, and no opponent had scored more than 76.  In its first three NCAA tournament games, Louisville opponents had averaged less than 48 points per game.

In the first half, Louisville’s physical defense had its way.  Stanford was held to just 26 first half points, and trailed by 12 at half time.  Cameron Brink blocked 4 shots, and stifled Louisville’s interior game, but could not stop three pointers (6 for 10) or pull up jumpers.  Stanford got 11 points from an ever-scrappy Lexie Hull and 6 points from Brink, but overall shooting was miserable (under 28%) and three point shooting was worse (1 for 9).   Kiana Williams converted her first shot attempt, but then missed 10 in a row.   

The first three minutes of the third quarter really belonged to the first half.  With just over 7 minutes left in the third quarter, Stanford had added just 3 points, and Louisville had extended its lead to 14 points. 

For the last 17 minutes of the game, push the “wow” button – it was a truly memorable comeback.  This remarkable Stanford team outscored Louisville by 29 points (49 to 20) and won by a 15 point margin.  Stanford's 52 point second half scoring put it only 2 points short of the team's total points against Arizona in the championship game.  And this was against an excellent defensive team. 

It all began with Stanford's defense.  Stanford had 4 second half steals, two by Williams and two by Lexie Hull.  In the second half, Stanford had 16 defensive boards (to Louisville’s 7).  In the last 17 minutes, Louisville’s only scoring threat was Dana Evans, and she, despite some sharp 3 point shooting, was only 5 for 13 in the second half.   

On offense, Williams broke her personal scoring draught with a jump shot with 6:46 left in the third quarter.  Then, with just over 5 and ½ minutes left in the quarter, and Stanford still trailing by 12, Ashten Prechtel entered the game.

Prechtel had the best 15 plus minutes of her Stanford career.  She didn’t miss a shot until the very end (when she missed a second free throw).  Her 3 for 3 performance from the three point line was a dagger in the heart for Louisville.   “What a great substitution,” said Jeff Walz.  “She won the game for them.” 

From the point of Prechtel's entry, the score was Prechtel 16, Louisville 18.  OK, but Prechtel had lots and lots of help.  Her teammates more than doubled Prechtel's output.

Haley Jones contributed drives that resulted in lay ups or, in one case, a beautiful feed to Prechtel.  The three point club wasn’t just Prechtel – Williams, Lexie Hull, and Anna Wilson joined the party.  In the second half, Lexie Hull and Williams were double digit scorers, and Jones had 8 points and 2 assists.  Then there were the steals from Williams and Hull.

Stanford started the fourth quarter still down by 2, but it was now blow-out time.  Stanford made all 5 of its three point attempts and outscored Louisville 30 to 13 in the fourth quarter.

Prechtel put up what may well be the greatest performance ever by a second half Stanford substitute.  In addition to 6 for 6 shooting from the field, she had 4 assists, 2 blocks, and 3 boards.  If she did not win the game for Stanford, she certainly disheartened Louisville and was largely responsible for the 15 point margin at the end.  The psychological impact of Prechtel’s performance was as uplifting for her Stanford teammates as it was deflating to Louisville.

Fast forward a week to another of my favorite tournament moments.  Stanford had just eked out its one point national championship victory.  The nets were cut down, the second of them by Tara VanDerveer.  Still on the ladder, VanDerveer turned and beckoned for Anna Wilson.  What followed was an emotive moment.  

She handed the net to Wilson.

I was touched.  There were lots of heroic performances this season.  Wilson’s quiet leadership set the example.  No one was more focused, more humble, and more deserving than Anna Wilson. 

So what about next season?  I promised exciting expectations. 

Championships I cannot predict, but Stanford will be a formidable team next year.  With or without Anna Wilson (and without Williams), Stanford will still be a team with great depth next year.  There may be uncertainty at the point guard position, but the team adds four highly ranked freshmen (one a potential point guard), and returns 3 (and maybe 4) of the 5 starters from a national championship team.

Stanford also returns amazing substitutes like Prechtel.  And at least two other players who have started many games: Fran Belibi and Lacie Hull.  

Hang onto your hats –

And stay safe.  

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.