Musings at the Half

Sue Bair has entertained us this season - nearly as much as the Cardinal she covers - with colorful commentaries. Today she dons an analytical hat to help us take stock of Stanford Women's Basketball at the midpoint of this 2006-07 season. Inside is an in-depth look at the strengths, weaknesses and trends of the #9-ranked Cardinal. Also individual player analyses, Pac-10 pontifications and more.

Did Anyone Set the Timer on the Oven?

Don't look at your Stanford Women's Basketball schedule.  Do not do it!  If you peeked, you would see something both wonderful and terrible.  Somehow we have pushed past the halfway point in the season.  My pile of game tickets has been whittled away much too rapidly.  I keep checking under my desk to see if a breeze caught them.  The freshmen are no longer mysteries (well, maybe they are still a little mysterious, but we aren't totally clueless about their capabilities anymore).  The seniors are into their last academic quarter that will include basketball.  The Stanford cake might still be rising in the oven, but it may be time to poke it with a toothpick and even sneak a taste.  After half a season, do we have answers to our early season questions?  Are we close to being edible yet?  Is anyone making any icing?  We stand in Tara VanDerveer's kitchen, noses aquiver, stomachs rumbling.  Time to hunt down the oven mitts and see what we have.  Yes, it is time to stop and smell the banana bread.

Much has gone right for Stanford recently.  The statistics bear this out in some respects, but not in others.  Aside from a game or two of uncharacteristically bad shooting (not surprisingly, the worst was 38.2% against BYU), Stanford's field goal percentage has been steady at about 45%.  Stanford's three-point shooting percentage is only 32.2%, and does not appear to be increasing much.  For the most part, as junior Candice Wiggins goes, so go the threes.  No one has been consistent in both number of makes and percentage from deep except for Wiggins… yet.  However, since Christmas week there have been signs that we might be on the verge of adding another reliable shooter.  Freshman JJ Hones has had several effective three-point shooting games in the past few weeks.  She has overcome a very slow shooting start to reach a very respectable 33% from three-point range for the season.  If she can increase her output so that she is consistently knocking down a couple of triples a game, it would take some of the outside shooting burden off Wiggins.

Although the 'posts as outside shooters' option was not so attractive early, now that freshman Jayne Appel has firmly established herself as a major inside presence, aiming at more outside shooting opportunities for senior Kristen Newlin (second after Wiggins at 34.8% from beyond the three-point line) doesn't seem like such a bad idea.  I would still consider outside shooting an area of concern.  In terms of the Cardinal cake in the oven, we might say that we are running low on one ingredient but don't know if this lack will be enough of a problem to ruin the final flavor.  Stanford has seen plenty of zone defenses and has been slowed by them on occasion, but not stopped - Stanford has still been able to get the ball inside, and Wiggins has kept the threes coming.  The Card have also stepped up the transition game.  They haven't really shot their way out of them.  Whether Stanford has finagled a way around the problem or has just been lucky remains to be seen.

A major difference from the season's early struggles (and 2-3 record in the first five games) has been improved defense.  Opponents' field goal percentages since the loss to Georgia have generally been in the 25-35% range.  Stanford was giving up many more three-pointers at a much higher percentage than they are now.  Stanford's first six opponents all hit over 40% of their threes and made at least five.  In the last 11 games, most teams made less than 25% of their threes, highlighted (or from their perspective, low-lighted) by Arizona State's 6.7%.  Perhaps Stanford has had the good fortune to catch teams on their worst shooting nights, but after 11 games of results, the Cardinal defense must have had something to do with it.  Stanford has also out-rebounded teams consistently, including some very good rebounding teams.  There were a few early games where rebounding was not as strong as it should have been, but no longer.

Curiously one thing Stanford has not done consistently well during the winning streak is force opponents to cough up the ball.  Five out of the six most recent opponents accumulated 13 or fewer turnovers, numbers generally significantly below each team's average.  Even Cal, which has had major trouble with ball security, had only 13 against their cross-Bay rival.  I'm not sure what this means in the context of Stanford's improved defensive efforts.  If the Card were not putting enough pressure on opponents' passing, I would expect to see better shots and not such poor percentages.  Has Stanford simply run into teams who can pass but not shoot?  Are they forcing bad, early shots so well that they have less time to juggle the ball off their elbows?  It may simply be a sign that teams are ready to play their best, cleanest games against Stanford, or it could even be just coincidence.

As we poker players know, when the cackling old-timer two seats over hits his two outer and beats your two pair with a rivered set, then two hands later miraculously hits a runner runner flush to crush your flopped set, sometimes you just have to sigh deeply and know that with a small sample size, strange things can happen.  Stanford may indeed need to up the pressure on opponents to force more turnovers, but it is hard to say for sure if they are lagging in that area based on only a handful of games, most of which were won handily.  It is a slightly disturbing trend, but right now that is all.

What else can we say about the progress to date?  Stanford's post rotation has certainly rounded into a remarkably effective unit.  This is news to absolutely no one, but it is easy to forget that there has been a definite learning curve for all concerned to get the mix just right.  It took a little while for Appel, coming off a shoulder injury, to show the world how dominant she could be, but now we truly do behold a three-headed monster post rotation.  Rebounding has been very good, with Newlin and fifth-year senior Brooke Smith averaging over seven rebounds per game each, while Appel pitches in six.  Newlin has been a bit of an unsung hero, providing Stanford's best rebounding per minute while also playing excellent defense.  Stanford's passing from high post to low has been exceptional.  Smith is averaging 3.8 assists per game, rivaling Hones, the starting point guard, for the team lead.  Unlike last season when most of her assists went out to long-range shooters, Smith is now more often passing to her fellow posts.  Furthermore, she is in a virtual dead heat in total steals for the season with noted thieves Wiggins and sophomore Jillian Harmon.  (Though to be fair, Wiggins has had three fewer games in which to play pickpocket.)  Stanford has benefited greatly by finding better ways to utilize Smith's varied skills.  The hooks are even spinning toward the basket in abundance.  Stanford's post play makes the world a beautiful place.

The biggest question of the Fall was probably who would be the Cardinal's point guard.  That one was settled fairly early.  As soon as Hones recovered from a September foot problem, she was starting.  Thus far, she sports an incredibly good assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0, and as the season has progressed, her ability to withstand pressure and run the offense has become quite good.  Her own offense has started to take off in the past month, which is a welcome sign.  Consistent scoring from guards other than Wiggins might be the thing that makes Stanford nearly impossible to defend.  Harmon is doing a super job on the wing, but the bulk of her scoring comes from getting to the basket or from mid-range jumpers off the dribble, not the catch-and-shoot threes we have seen over the years for Stanford with such great success.  Hones does not always score, but whenever Stanford has needed perimeter scoring, such as when Wiggins has been out, she has had big scoring games that included several made threes.  We can hope to see more opportunistic scoring from her in the coming weeks.

The other point guard issue that tended to get Bootleg denizens talking was whether or not playing Wiggins at the position for extended minutes was/is a good thing.  Over time, that no longer seems to be such an issue.  Whereas in the past, having to run the offense appeared to detract significantly from her scoring, she now seems much more comfortable integrating the point guard responsibilities into her overall game.  Wiggins' 2.04 assist-to-turnover ratio this year (1.35 as a sophomore and 0.96 as a freshman) speaks to this comfort and evolution in her decision-making.

Not everything has gone according to plan.  Some key ingredients have occasionally gone missing from our cake dough.  Lick the batter on the wrong day and you'd notice someone left out the sugar.  Wiggins has been fighting to get and stay healthy virtually all season long.  If it is not her feet, it is her leg or now her ankle.  Although her play has been very good, in many early games she has lacked some of her typical explosiveness to the basket.  Her timing has looked a little off, too, as evidenced by uncharacteristic missed lay ups and short jumpers.  Time off and lingering injuries will throw any player out of sync, even Stanford's version of Superwoman.  After coming back from the hamstring problem that cost her two games in late December, she was finally hitting her stride when she hurt her right ankle against Washington.  If she is able to play against the Oregon schools this week, missing the Washington State game and a few practices is meaningless.  If she sits this weekend, she would only have the Arizona game to get ready for Arizona State tilt in Tempe on January 27.  Not an ideal way to go into the biggest remaining game in the Pac-10 regular season.  The top priority remaining this season is to get Wiggins healthy and playing her best.

The next priority might be to work on increasing the comfort level of several of Stanford's young reserves, especially freshmen Michelle Harrison and Melanie Murphy.  They have shown great promise but have not had enough experience to slow down the rapidly spinning universe that is a college game.

Speaking of the Pac-10, the implosion by Washington on their home court last weekend has turned the conference into a two-team race.  If the conference were a cake in the oven, it would be a gooey tasteless mess.  Too many teams have bad out-of-conference losses, and now the conference race below the top two is becoming a morass of mediocrity.  Five teams have either three or four conference losses already.  A strong third place finisher would be much better for the conference then a mush of teams close to .500.  A solid third might get a decent seeding in the NCAA Tournament.  As it stands, the best we can reasonably hope for is four teams included.  Washington played a tough schedule but sits at 12-7 overall and 4-3 in conference after losing three games in a row.  They will almost certainly finish with 10 or more losses.  Losing so ugly at home is hard to overcome.  The NCAA Selection Committee is sneering even now.  Cal is also at 4-3 in conference, but they have a better overall record at 13-4.  They do not have a stellar strength of schedule or big wins to highlight, but overall solid play and a strong third place finish in the Pac-10 should get them in.  A close fourth might do the trick, too.  No other teams have much hope, barring a miracle run or a Pac-10 Tournament win.

The conference title will probably be decided when Stanford faces Arizona State again later this month.  With the rest of the conference struggling, neither ASU nor Stanford might lose to anyone else.  The name of the game for the big two is, 'Do not mess up.'  That is a sad state of affairs after so much pre-season hype and hope for the Pac-10, and it does not help the top two teams keep their edge, but injuries (Cal and USC) and strangely inconsistent play from a veteran team (UW) have pounded the Pac beyond redemption.  ASU and Stanford can only glare at one another over the wreckage of the conference and take out their aggressions on each other.

Moving away from our corner of the country, where does Stanford fit in the national picture?  As of this writing, the Cardinal are ranked ninth in the latest AP poll.  Stanford has a nice Top 10 RPI (in all the various ways it is calculated), and the strength of schedule is ranked second or third in the country.  Despite the team's early troubles, a Top 10 ranking doesn't seem out of line.  The Top 25 feels top heavy this year.  Duke, Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina (the insane turnover-filled game with UConn was still a Top 10 win) have separated themselves from the rest in the eyes of most.  Pundits are not touting Stanford as a Final Four team as they were way back in early November.  The good gals from The Farm will have to sneak up on them, one step at a time.  Winning the Pac-10 would be a sweet start.  In the meantime, the cake is being carefully tended, the oven constantly adjusted to the optimum temperature.  Lots of time left on the oven timer.  Hmmm… plenty of time to consider: what would constitute icing on this cake?

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