April 30, 2019

The Jordan Brand Classic and the Future of Women's College Hoops

                                                                                         Warren Grimes

            A week or so back, 24 of the best high school seniors played an all star game in Las Vegas: The Jordan Brand Classic.  These high school all star games don’t always show the players at their best.  There’s “hot-doggery” and “run-and-gunnery” – and usually not much focus on defense. 

            This all star game was well above average.  There was some defense, lots of blocks and steals, and some notable intensity in the second half as the home and away teams competed to win a close game.  Here are two examples, both involving the top-rated recruit in the country (and Stanford bound) Haley Jones.  The first involved Jones defending a would be dunk by her future Stanford teammate, Fran Belibi.  In that play, Belibi ran to the hoop to accept a high and very dunkable pass from a teammate.  Jones kept pace with her on the cut, staying between Belibi and the hoop.   Belibi lept above Jones to gain control of the pass, but could not get close enough to the hoop to convert.  

            In the second play, a loose ball was bounding in the direction of the basket.  Jones dove to the floor to gain possession, scooting the ball ahead to a teammate heading for the hoop.  Then Jones popped up in time and was there to tip in the miss.

            These plays showed focus and intensity, and Jones was not the only player to demonstrate this.  All three of the future Stanford players (Jones, Belibi, and Ashten Prechtel) acquitted themselves well, as did many others on the court.

            On a broader level, the 24 players selected for the game suggest the continuing dominance of the big-name schools.  South Carolina and Stanford had three players each while Notre Dame, Ohio State, and UCLA had two each.   Other power teams had representatives, including Baylor, Louisville, Maryland, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Tennessee, and Texas.

            Perhaps a bit of a surprise: two final four teams, Connecticut and Oregon, had no representatives in the Jordan Brand.  But don’t expect either of these teams to falter.  U Conn has had numerous players in recent Jordan Brand games, and will surely have one or more in next year’s game.  Oregon, which lost only one starter, has brought in two outstanding players from Australia and Germany (neither could be considered for the Jordan Brand Classic). 

            Overall, the lineups for the Classic showed the preeminence of the Pac-12 conference.  Seven of the 24 players (that’s 29% of players) have chosen to play for Pac-12 schools (three for Stanford, two for UCLA, and one each for Oregon State and USC).  This suggests that the conference’s strong performance in recent NCAA tournaments is likely to continue.

            During the run up to the game, Tennessee was busy finding a replacement coach.  They chose Kellie Harper, a former star Tennessee point guard and experienced coach who had just taken Missouri State to the Sweet Sixteen, only to be bumped by Stanford.  Harper’s Missouri State team was well organized and played very disciplined defense against Stanford.  I expect Harper to have Tennessee, with its roster of highly rated recruits, back in the top ten. 

            Harper will be Tennessee’s second attempt to replace Pat Summit.  The problem of replacing a legacy coach is one that will confront a number of other top programs in the next years.  Among the top programs with relatively senior coaches are Baylor, U Conn., Notre Dame, and Stanford.  When these replacements occur, there is a possibility of shaking up the established order. 

            But now let’s return to the Stanford story.  With three players among the 24 (12 on each team), Stanford, along with South Carolina, had preeminence in this game.  South Carolina’s recruits were rated the best in the country, above Stanford.  One can argue about this.  Much of the dispute centers on how highly Fran Belibi is rated.  She was not in the top fifteen in recruiting rankings, but was chosen as a member of USA Today’s first team high school All American list, suggesting a top five ranking. 

            In the game, Belibi played roughly half the minutes and still had a double-double: 16 points and 15 rebounds.  The rebounding performance was, by my count, the best of any player.  Belibi’s strength and slashing style drew a number of fouls, and she converted 8 of 10 at the charity stripe.  Belibi also had 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals.  I don’t care where the rating services place Belibi: I’m glad she’ll be playing for Stanford next year.  She’ll get lots of minutes, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches. 

            As for Jones, she won the MVP for her team, with a game high 17 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals.  Her leadership, smarts, and intensity were impressive.  She’s a player.  And Prechtel was no slouch.  In her time on the court, she had 5 points, 5 boards, and 3 blocks.  Prechtel is a mobile post player who can run the court, shoot the three, block shots, board, and pass the ball.  She’s for real.  Maybe a Shannon Coffee with a bit of Alanna Smith mixed in.

            Overall, Stanford’s three players put up 38 points.  South Carolina’s group of three contributed 34 points and had their own MVP (Zia Cooke).  I’ll let the experts debate the ranking of these two recruiting classes.  As for me, I wouldn’t do the trade.  Stanford’s class includes Hannah Jump, who, according to her high school coach, was likely the most reliable three point shooter in the high school game.  If she can play defense, she’ll get minutes too, maybe lots of them. 

            To quote the Stanford band, “Alright now!”

April 21, 2019

Prognostications Into the Future Can Provide Some Fun Fodder

Suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and pretend we're in this same moment, but in 2020 and then in 2021.

It turns out that Sabrina made the right decision and in April of 2020, Oregon beat Baylor and won the national championship. The first PAC12 national championship since Stanford won it in 1992. In the Final Four, Oregon beat UConn and Baylor beat Stanford in two classic battles. Of course, Stanford was disappointed to lose in the semis, but everyone knew how far they had come after incorporating their phenomenal freshman class.

In 2020, the lay of the land in the WBB world was massively changed from 2019. Baylor lost Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson to graduation, but with Lauren Cox, Didi Richards, Juicy Landrum, Queen Egbo, etc. they still had enough firepower to get past Stanford and reach the final game of the tournament. Notre Dame had lost all five of their 2019 starters and were rebuilding. Louisville was without Asia Durr, Sam Fuehring, and Arica Carter and were also rebuilding. Mississippi State lost Teaira McCowan, and Jordan Danberry and most of their power. UCLA and Oregon State both fought their way deep into the tournament fray.

In 2020, Stanford says goodbye to Dijonai, Anna, and Nadia who were instrumental in reaching the Final Four in April.  At the same time, Stanford was welcoming Cameron Brink (the number #2 recruit in the nation) and Jana Van Gytenbeek (also a top-50 recruit). Stanford moved Haley Jones to the point guard position at the start of the 2019/2020 season and Kiana to the two guard. Haley became the most successful freshman PG in school history and Kiana became the leading three point shooter in the nation. Stanford's women broke a dozen records in the 2019/2020 season - averaged ten three's per game and 40% as a team.

In the 2020/2021 season Stanford goes undefeated and wins the NCAA tournament championship. They also announce the number one recruiting class in the nation for 2021. The magnetic field of the  WBB world has been reversed and the best players in the nation are now coming to the PAC12 and to Stanford, which will be where the action is in NCAA women's basketball for the next decade.

Well, what do you think? Too far out? Anyway, that's; my story and I'm sticking with it!!

April 09, 2019

Yogi Berra and Stanford Women's Hoops

                                                                  Warren Grimes

            I had a strange dream the other night.  In the dream, Yogi Berra was a consultant for Stanford women’s hoops, commenting on the past and future of the team. 

            What possible connection could Yogi Berra have with Stanford and the women’s basketball team?   I haven’t a clue.

            Anyway, in the dream, I had an excellent exchange with Yogi.  I first asked him about the Notre Dame loss.   Yogi didn’t hesitate: “We made too many wrong mistakes.” 

            Actually, I thought, Stanford made some pretty good mistakes in that game, like holding Notre Dame to a season low 26 points in the first half.  Stanford also, mistakenly or not, shot 45.5% from the three point line. 

            Can you mistakenly make shots?  Maybe.  Perhaps we should ask Arike Ogunbowale about converting her second free throw attempt in the last seconds of the national championship game (a rebounded miss would have given Notre Dame its best chance to tie or win).

            Overall, this past season has produced some exhilarating surprises for Stanford, and a few less pleasant ones.  Upsetting Baylor (that team’s only loss of the season) and, in the Pac 12 tournament championship game, winning that sweet revenge victory over Oregon (after the debacle at Maples) are my favorites.  A less pleasant surprise was that Marta Sniezek did not play a single second during the season.  Her career at Stanford appears to be over, but it was one of achievement.  Sniezek has moxie!  She was a pivotal point guard in her sophomore season, taking the team to the Final Four after that come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame in the regional final.

            Yet another surprise--that, among the three freshmen, Lacie Hull would be the one to start 30 games, lead the team in thefts, establish an excellent assist to turnover ratio, and shoot the three ball at 33 percent.  There’s more to this story, however.  Lacie Hull got the start because her twin, Lexie Hull, was out of action for multiple games because of a foot injury.

            Lexie would likely be the freshman who got the most starts and minutes but for that injury.  In her minutes on the floor, Lexie shot the three ball at a 38.2% rate and was one of the best rebounders on the team – on a per minute basis, Lexie was behind Alanna Smith and DiJonai Carrington but ahead of Maya Dodson.

            But lets get back to Yogi.  I asked him about next year’s Stanford team.  Yogi, pondered,  “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” he said.

            I persisted: “Come on Yogi, you can do it.”

            He paused before announcing that next year’s team will “have deep depth.” 

            That confused me – I felt, dare I say, out of my depth.  But upon further reflection, I think I know what Yogi meant.

            Stanford will have nine McDonald’s High School All Americans on its roster next season.  Five of them are upperclassmen (DiJonai Carrington, Maya Dodson, Nadia Fingall, Anna Wilson, and Kiana Williams).  The other four are underclassmen (Francesca Belibi, Jenna Brown, Haley Jones, and Ashten Prechtel).  I haven’t checked, but this could well be the highest number of McDonald’s honorees in the history of the program.  And this list of nine does not include major contributors such as the Hull twins and Canadian Alyssa Jerome.

            This last season, Stanford had eleven players on its roster that averaged 8 minutes or more per game.  Two of those players will be gone (Alanna Smith and Shannon Coffee), but they’ll be replaced by four freshmen, each of whom has a shot at getting major minutes for the team.  That would make a total of thirteen players in the early season who would be getting substantial time on the floor.  That’s depth!

            Having nine players who are high school All Americans, and thirteen players who are competing for major playing time, will make Stanford the envy of just about every other team in the country.   But what about the four teams who have won the national championship in the last four years (Baylor, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Connecticut)?   Those teams may have fewer high school All-Americans on their rosters, but could still hold an edge in the number of genuinely elite players: truly exceptional recruits that ranked, say, in the top five in their recruiting classes. 

            Next year, Stanford will have a #1 recruit (Haley Jones) and a #10 recruit (Kiana Williams), but the rest of its All Americans did not make the top ten list for most of the rating services.  On the other hand, USA Today has picked its own list of the top 15 girls high schoolers for 2019.  Two of Stanford’s recruits, Belibi and Jones, are on the 1st team, meaning the top 5 in the country.  And a third recruit, Prechtel, is on the third team, meaning among the top 15 players. 

            If USA Today has it right, Stanford will have three incoming freshmen who could be truly elite players.   Add this to proven veterans like Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington.

            Maybe that’s what Yogi Berra meant by “deep depth.”

            Before walking away, I asked Yogi what advice he would give to next year's team.  He told me that the team should be decisive: "If you see a fork in the road, take it!"  he explained. 

            And, of course, avoid those "wrong mistakes."