February 18, 2019

True Grit in LA

True Grit in LA

Warren Grimes

With four conference games left, Stanford is now in sole possession of second place in the conference, pending the outcome of the Oregon/Oregon State game.  The demoralizing 40 point loss to Oregon did not take the fight out of this team.  In Los Angeles, Alanna Smith and her mates played hard and, at least on occasion, very well.  The 14-point win against UCLA came despite erratic offensive efficiency (Stanford shot only 28% from distance).   The 2-point USC win was a remarkable comeback, with the result in doubt until USC’s last second shot missed the mark. 

The last games of a conference season are intensely fought.  Each team is in late season form, fighting for the best possible seed.  Conference coaches are playing an opponent for a second time and have honed their defense.  Against a top team like Stanford, every opponent is hungry for a signature victory that could give them a ticket to the big dance, or a higher seed in the conference tournament.  So yes, Stanford’s irregular offensive performance can be attributed to its own subpar efforts, but it is also related to enhanced and refined defensive schemes by skilled opponents, and to the level of intensity that opponents bring.

Stanford’s defensive efforts continue to impress.  Over the last four games, Stanford has given up an average of 62.5 points per game (if Oregon’s 88 point performance is excluded, the average drops to 54 points per game).  Playing the same four teams during the same period, Cal  has given up an average of over 88 points per game, or roughly 26 points per game more than Stanford.  Solid defense requires communication and team work, so the entire Stanford squad deserves credit for this effort.  Individuals still stand out, including Alanna Smith for her blocks, DiJonai Carrington for her defensive boards, and the Hull twins for their focused defensive intensity and steals.  The Hull twins are steal leaders, but fall short of Anna Wilson’s .075 steals per minute, the highest rate on the team. 

So what’s with the offense?  During the LA weekend, the team shot 31% from distance.  That’s not a horrible percentage, but its down from the 35.5% season average, and almost certainly not enough to excel in the upcoming tournaments.  Maya Dodson’s renewed absence made Stanford more vulnerable to a defense focused on perimeter drives and outside shooting.  The more the inside game thrives, the greater the opportunity for outside shooters to gain a rhythm. 

Aside from Maya Dodson returning and building on her prior efforts, more playing time for Lexie Hull could help.  For the L.A. weekend, Lexie was 2-4 from distance and, for the season, the freshman’s 38.5% distance shooting rate is now the second  highest on the team.  Lexie Hull continues to impress with her rebounding (on a per minute basis, Lexie is the third best on the team behind Smith and Carrington).  The Hull sisters are also the team’s best free throw shooters, but have so far been unsuccessful in drawing a lot of fouls.  Depending on matchups, Stanford’s strongest offensive lineup could be Smith, Carrington, the two Hulls, and Williams.  This group may lack height and strength underneath, but it includes the team’s three best rebounders, its best three point shooters, and the finesse and defensive moxie that can lead to transition buckets.   

The big three (Alanna Smith, Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington) proved their moxie over the weekend.  They were responsible for the grit that was demonstrated against a USC team that led, frequently by double digits, for most of the game.  Smith won the conference POW award, deservedly as she averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 boards for the weekend. 

Meanwhile, two other Stanford guards have the potential for breakout games: Jenna Brown and Anna Wilson could be pivotal in providing bench points and defense.  Brown has the second highest assists per minute rate while Wilson leads the team in thefts per minute and does well on assists.  To gain more playing time, each needs to score more points. 

The team’s toughest remaining conference opponent is ASU this coming weekend.  Stanford needs the Ws, but, even more, it needs the opportunity to improve its offensive efficiency. 

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.