February 11, 2019

Reflections on the Oregon Debacle

                                                  Reflections on the Oregon Debacle
                                                                  Warren Grimes

            I could not have written this on Sunday.  It is now roughly 24 hours later, and with a bit more perspective, here are some thoughts on Stanford’s miserable outing against Oregon.

            Stanford got taken to the cleaners, got tooled, got educated, got cremated, got obliterated (pick your favorite phrase).  Sure, you can find isolated points of accomplishment – we held Oregon to 88 points while Cal gave up 105 – but the fact is, Oregon’s point margin over us, on our own home court, was larger than Oregon’s margin over teams with far weaker records than our own.   Oregon, by it’s own coach’s estimate, may have played its best defensive game of the year. 

            There are similarities between Oregon and Stanford.  Both are teams with explosive offensive potential that score in a lot of ways.  Both are “pick your poison” teams, meaning that an opponent attempting to defend typically cannot effectively defend both inside and outside scoring threats.  But Oregon simply executed this offensive advantage far more proficiently.  True, Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, by themselves, scored 47 points (to Stanford’s 48), but defending them left open a lot of other Oregon players that shot 75% from distance.  It was truly a team effort for Oregon. 

            Oregon has a lot of length, both inside and on the perimeter, and this combined with a focused and intense perimeter defense took Stanford distance shooters out of their rhythm – Stanford shot 22.7% from beyond the arc.

            Stanford’s vaunted scouting defense obviously did not do the trick.  TV commentators said that Coach VanDerveer wanted to prevent inside scoring and distance shots, while giving up the mid range jumper.  Obviously, Stanford accomplished neither.   Ruthy Hebard makes 72% of her shots, mostly on the inside, and she was 8-12 on Sunday.  It makes sense to double her, but only if Oregon’s outside shooters are significantly less proficient.  That was not the case on Sunday, with Oregon converting 75% of its 3-point shots.  With the benefit of hindsight, Stanford would have been better off letting Hebard convert more of her 2 point shots while focusing on intense perimeter defense.  But, in any rematch, Oregon may not convert the 3 pointers at that phenomenal rate (for the season, Oregon shoots 42% from distance), so focusing on Hebard may still make sense. 

            Maya Dodson’ continued improvement, both defensively and offensively, may be a key in any rematch against Oregon.  Dodson was 4 for 13 with 4 boards in her 25 minutes on Sunday.
If she can be a more proficient scorer on the inside, this could occupy Hebard (and perhaps others needed for help defense).  And it might open up shots for Stanford’s perimeter shooters. Defensively, no single defender can shut down Hebard, but limiting her productiveness could allow Stanford defenders to focus more on perimeter shooters. 

            Beating this extremely talented and well coached Oregon team is a formidable challenge.  Oregon does not have the depth of other teams, but if its starters stay healthy, they would be my favorite for the conference and national championships.  But, in sports, the rule is that you have to play the game.  Stanford, in a rematch, seems likely to play better than it did this last Sunday.  Meanwhile, Stanford’s immediate task is to go to Southern California and get some Ws against a rapidly improving UCLA and an always threatening USC.   That’s more than enough to have on your plate for the rest of the week.

January 28, 2019

After Eight Games in Conference

                                                   After Eight Games in Conference

                                                                  Warren Grimes

            After eight games in the Pac 12, Stanford is 7-1, and 17-2 overall.  Stanford looked like a top 10 team in victories over Washington State and Washington.  This last weekend was not Stanford’s best, with a hard fought win in Boulder against a team that has yet to win in conference, and a tough loss in Salt Lake City to upstart Utah, now also 7-1 in conference.  Yes, Stanford does have a target on its back. 

            If you’d told me at season’s outset that Stanford would be 17-2 at January’s end, I’d have been pleased.  I might have guessed that the two losses would be to Baylor and Tennessee.

So much for that.  Instead Stanford has lost to two very good and tournament bound teams that, however, are not top 10 teams (Gonzaga and Utah).  There are striking parallels in the two losses.

            Both were road games against teams highly motivated to take down Stanford.
            Both opponents shot well from distance (Gonzaga 61.5%; Utah 45.8%)
            Alanna Smith played limited minutes in both games because of foul trouble.
            Stanford staged strong, but ultimately unsuccessful, second-half rallies in both.
            There were, however, significant differences.  The Zags dominated the boards; the Utes did not.  Stanford was even on rebounds in Salt Lake City.  Stanford, however, missed a lot of points in the paint in the early going against Utah.  Overall, Stanford shot only 38.5% against Utah, well below its 46% for the season.  From distance, Kiana Williams was 1-8  and Alanna Smith was 3-9. 

            How much did Smith’s foul trouble matter?  Against the Zags, Smith played 24 minutes and had 13 points and 7 boards.  But Smith’s interior defense could be replaced by Nadia Fingall and Maya Dodson.  Against Utah, both of these players were unavailable.  Smith had 19 points and 9 boards against Utah, so she was still offensively productive.   The most obvious loss may have been defensive.  Smith had to be less aggressive on the defensive end, and her teammates may have had to sag off Utah’s distance shooters to protect Smith from further fouls.

            Even in the loss to Utah, there were positive signs.  The Hulls continue to shine.  Lexie had 10 points and 2 boards in 33 minutes.  In the same time, Lacie had 7 points, 3 boards and 3 assists.  One of Lacie's assists was a fast break floater to DiJonai Carrington, which she grabbed and converted  while doing her own float to the basket.  The Hulls collectively were 5 for 8 from the foul line, ending their perfect foul shooting streaks.  But there is no doubt that the team’s foul shooting is on the rise (67% against Utah compared to 58% against Gonzaga).  For the season, Stanford is now shooting 71.3% from the foul line. 

            Stanford is a better team now than it was against Gonzaga.  In a rematch against Utah (and possibly in the Big Dance against Gonzaga), Stanford will be favored.  Stanford’s biggest vulnerability, however, continues to be on the inside.  The team needs Maya Dodson back.  This weekend against California, the pivotal factor may be whether Smith can play hard while avoiding fouls. 

January 13, 2019

Disappointments, but mostly Superlatives:
Stanford WBB After 4 Conference Games

Warren Grimes

Stanford is now 14-1 after surviving a tough road trip to the Arizona schools.  Any win against ASU on the road is an achievement.  And Arizona is a serious team this year, having taken down California and ASU.   But Stanford actually won that game by a comfortable 30 point margin.  What’s not to like?
Well, there are disappointments, primarily on the injury front.  The worst was the ACL that has taken Nadia Fingall out for the rest of the season.  She had been a starter and a real force inside.  And Maya Dodson, with her jump hook, shot blocking, and improved rebounding, was yet another bright star taken out of the lineup with a stress fracture.  Dodson has excelled at offensive boards, the only player on the team with more offensive than defensive rebounds.  Stanford is now vulnerable at the post, and will remain so at least until Dodson is back.  Marta Sniezek has also yet to play a single minute.
Bit let’s talk about some superlatives.  We can start with free throw shooting.  Last year’s team shot only 64% from the line.  There were signs of improvement in the pre-conference season, but still too many missed opportunities.  Then the conference games began.
How about an 85.5% rate?  That’s what the team has shot in the four conference games so far.  In the desert, Stanford shot a sizzling 95.8% (23-24), with 22 uninterrupted makes before Mikaela Brewer missed her first free throw of the year at the end of the Arizona game.  Stanford was 14 for 14 in the ASU game, a team record for the number of attempts without a miss.  Stanford’s free throw shooting is helped by the Hulls (who have yet to miss) and improved accuracy from Smith, Carrington, and Williams, each of whom is now converting at 72% or better.
A second superlative is DiJonai Carrington.  She has emerged as a member of the triumvirate – Smith, Williams and Carrington, each of whom is averaging 13 points or better.  Actually, since her career high 33 points against Tennessee, Carrington has been on a tear.  In the four conference games, she averaged 20 points, the best on the team, and averaged 8.75 boards, second to Smith’s 10.5.   In defensive boards, Carrington leads the team with .224 per minute, ahead of Smith's .215 per minute. Her just-beyond-the-half-court-line conversion against ASU was part of a demoralizing double-double against that team (17 points and 11 boards).
Then there is Alanna Smith, averaging just under 20 points for the season and shooting an astonishing 48.8% from distance, averaging 2.6 three pointers per game.  Of course, Smith is just an everywhere player, proving that she can score with multiple moves under the basket.  And she is the in the top two in both defensive and offensive boards per minute.
The other member of the triumvirate, Kiana Williams, is only one behind Smith with 38 made threes at a 39.6% clip.  Some have been shot from the parking lot outside the arena.
She is a competitor and a clutch player and, despite some difficulty with turnovers, is the real deal as a point guard.
Now we get to the Hulls.  They are both making a mark with their never stop motors and high basketball IQs.  Both are superior defenders, leading the team in steals per minute (.072 for Lacie and .070 for Lexie).  When the opponent is pushing in transition, one or both of the Hulls are consistently back to defend.
   Lacie also has the best assist/turnover ratio on the team – 2.4 – and shoots from distance at a 39% clip.  Lexie, back from her stress fracture, continues to lead the team in rebounds per minute (.298 to Smith’s .281).  That’s just part of the story.  When it comes to offensive boards, Lexie greatly surpasses anyone else on the team (.140 per minute to Dodson’s .100 and Smith’s .067).  Lexie can be outside the three point line when the shot is launched and somehow get into the paint and contest for rebounds.  Her board crashing sometimes generates fouls, which is something she needs to watch.
Lexie Hull has played only in six games, but if she continues on the current trajectory, it is hard to see how the coaches could keep her off the floor.  She started and had a double-double in the team’s opening game and just knows how to score (42% from three point range so far).
Finally, Stanford’s third freshman is now making waves from off the bench.  Jena Brown can get the ball down the court in one heck of a hurry.  She played 20 minutes against Arizona, and had 9 points on lay ups and a three pointer.
Tune in for more superlatives this weekend against the Washington schools.