Stanford University: Just How Good Are The #4 Cardinal This Season?

Stanford's 80 to 51 win against the Washington Huskies on Friday night was actually not necessarily the type of dominant performance you might expect from the team that ended those other Huskies' win streak at 90.

"It was going away 29 point game so I think that's a good game," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer when asked about the performance. "I know we've beaten teams maybe more convincingly, but they were physical."

Although the final score looks like a crushing blowout, it's actually misleading - the Huskies were actually within 20 for most of the game and until just over 3 minutes left when center Regina Rogers had already fouled out and it actually became garbage time.

That might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but this is a Stanford team that had previously steamrolled both struggling USF and nationally ranked Xavier before toppling UConn. Meanwhile, before beating Cal on Sunday, UW was on the verge of being 1-5 in the Pac-10 after barely beating Oregon State last weekend and losing to Oregon.

"We're not the only team they're doing it to," said UW coach Tia Jackson, who insisted that anybody who watched the game would know they weren't 29 points worse than the Cardinal. "I think other teams are losing by 40 and 50. So if you want to look at it that way, we're hanging a little closer than others."

Indeed UW's defensive effort was at least noteworthy, if not surprising - there was about a five minute span in the first half on Friday night when the Washington Huskies held the Cardinal scoreless.

Yet there's a reason why Stanford has held steady at #4 in the nation in 2011 and the fact that all four UW post players had four fouls with 12:20 left in the second half probably tells you all you need to know about this year's Cardinal team.

"It was tough," said Jackson, who had three post players tally three fouls in the first half. "Second half, Stanford's in the bonus just before the 12 minute media timeout. And we couldn't find our rhythm - I mean, it was very hard to do that when the whistle's blowing. It was tough."

And they weren't all bad whistles - for the most part, UW's posts just had a difficult time staying with Stanford's posts as well as guards driving in.

While Jackson noted in the media session prior to Friday's game that this is a faster Stanford team than last season, a better way of putting it might be that this is a much more aggressive team than last season and that certainly starts with their seniors, who played their final game in Seattle on Friday night in front of Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault and Seattle Storm staff members.

You can be as physical as you want with this Cardinal team, but they're not backing down.

"We got more aggressive, we got out in transition a little more, and I thought Washington came out, they were being aggressive, and we had to work hard defensively, especially against Kingma," said VanDerveer.

Stanford ultimately overwhelmed UW physically in this one and that was due in large part to the performances of the Ogwumike sisters.

Nneka Ogwumike leads a much more balanced team

Nneka Ogwumike showed on Friday night why she is the team's statistical MVP once again this year.

She can play from the high post or low post depending on the situation and in the low post, she probably has among the best footwork on the block in the nation.

With just over a minute left in the first half, Ogwumike gave Washington forward Marjorie Heard an unpleasant initiation to Stanford basketball on the block. As soon as she received the ball, she pivoted and gave a quick up-fake, ducked under the helplessly airborne freshman, and went up for an easy layup before the help could rotate over. The play was ultimately a perfect example of her combination of decisiveness, grace, quickness, and pure athleticism in the post.

But anyone watching this team for more than five minutes is already aware of all that.

What might be more impressive about this season's team as compared to last season's is that they might actually be deeper, despite the losses of Jayne Appel, Ros Gold-Onwude, and JJ Hones (whose importance to last year's team both statistically and as a ballhandler might have been underestimated at times). Compared to last year's non-conference schedule - during which time they performed similarly to last season statistically, despite the narrow losses - they entered conference play more balanced.

That balance is at least partially obvious from the distribution of minutes this season, but even more stark when looking at the production.

Certainly an astute Stanford fan might note that part of reason for the difference in minutes was early might be early injuries, which caused different players to step in and step up (and led to a couple of losses at least). But it's more than just how many minutes players are playing and more with what players are actually doing with those minutes.

During non-conference play last season, four Stanford players accounted for 81.5% of the team's overall statistical production (in order: Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen, Appel, Jeanette Pohlen). After that, there was a bit of a dropoff to JJ Hones, who accounted for another 10% and after that nobody else accounted for more than 5% (obviously, although Ros Gold-Onwude's defensive value was somewhat immeasurable).

In contrast, during non-conference play this season, those same three remaining players are still leading the team, but only account for 49.4% of the team's overall statistical production, freshman Chiney Ogwumike added 13.7% and four additional players added 5% (in order Joslyn Tinkle, Sarah Boothe,Sarah James, and Toni Kokenis) with a fifth coming in at 4.5% (Mikaela Ruef). And then assuming the mantle of player with immeasurable defensive ability is junior starter Lindy La Rocque, who rendered UW sharpshooter Kristy Kingma almost irrelevant on Friday.

"I thought Lindy La Rocque did a great job for us," said VanDerveer. "She doesn't make a lot of mistakes - she got the ball inside. She played great defense on Kristi Kingma who is an All-Pac 10 performer, she's really a tough player. Lindy worked really hard on her and she's made a real difference for us being in our starting lineup."

So with a defensive starter coming in as the 10th most statistically productive player, this is unquestionably a deeper team even if their top five or so aren't quite as dominant.

Then there's the matter of how much better than freshman could get.

Chiney Ogwumike's athleticism and versatility make Stanford more dangerous

After Stanford's game last season, UW coach Tia Jackson noted that Nneka had a younger sister coming in who was possibly even better than Nneka.

"Oh, I recruited the kid," said Jackson when asked about Chiney's performance in her first game against UW. "She's good."

And indeed she came to Hec Ed as advertised, particularly in the second half when she scored 6 of the Cardinal's first 8 points to put them up 19 early in the half and essentially put the Huskies on notice that this game wasn't going to tilt in the home team's favor.

A large part of the Cardinal's second half dominance was a massive rebounding effort - Stanford dominated the boards 22-7 in the second half and 8-2 during non-garbage time (grabbing 73% of the available offensive rebounds compared to 18% for the Huskies).

"In halftime we talked about the amount of [offensive boards] they had," said Nneka. "They had too many for our comfort and we talked about just getting on the defensive boards and not allowing them any second chance baskets."

While Chiney tied multiple players in the game with a game-high 3 rebounds, it was how she got her rebounds that was as impressive as anything else - she was literally just flying above everyone to the rim from wherever she was on the court, which is definitely a type of additional athleticism in the frontcourt that Stanford simply didn't have last season.

And she hasn't even come close to reaching her potential yet, even this season.

"She's only gonna get better," said Jackson. "She hasn't really tapped into what she can really do. She's relying on a lot of her athleticism now. But she's gonna be really good. No surprises."

Nevertheless, she's already showing growth as someone poised to take over for Pedersen as the most versatile forward in the conference next season. Her most notable improvement already is her conference-leading field goal percentage: she leads the Pac-10 with a field goal percentage of 60.2% for the entire 2010-11 season and is shooting a ridiculous conference high of 68.8% through five games of conference play.

Aside from that concrete contribution she makes, she also provides more flexibility defensively as well as offensively - just in the week between USF and Xavier the team looked markedly better with Chiney operating in the high post against the Musketeers' 1-3-1 zone.

"I think Nneka has really matured since that road trip - she's become much more aggressive, much more assertive out there," said VanDerveer when asked about how far the team has come since losing consecutive games to DePaul and Tennessee. "And so has Kayla. And I think they're really bringing Chiney along."

With Chiney's aggression and numbers improving under the tutelage of the team's veterans and her role becoming clearer by the day, her importance to the team is also increasing - thus far during conference play, she has moved up to being the second biggest contributor on the team from the fourth biggest during non-conference play.

However, it's Chiney's defensive presence - and really the defensive play of the whole team right now - that might be equally impressive.

Stanford improving dramatically defensively

As much as beating UConn and ending their streak was monumental on its own, equally impressive was holding them to 59 points after limiting Xavier to 52. And since the Cardinal's 82-72 overtime loss to Tennessee, nobody has cracked 60 against them. Arizona State - currently third in the Pac-10 - only scored 35 in Maples Pavilion.

So Washington's 51 puts them in good company, just a notch below #7 Xavier.

And as Nneka mentioned, as impressive as their own second half rebounding effort was, it was equally impressive to see the Cardinal hold the Huskies to only 7 total rebounds in the second half.

In other words, Stanford is a pretty good at defense.

So if you're looking for the team's biggest improvement from last year, it might be on the defensive end, which is even more impressive given the loss of Appel and Gold-Onwude.

And after struggling during non-conference play, they've taken a great leap defensively in conference play.

In addition to holding opponents to 30.6% shooting so far - the best in the conference and about 2% lower than last season's in-conference mark - Stanford is in the top three in of most major defensive categories in conference play, including nearly a 3% improvement in three point shooting defense.

Where that overall improvement is most notable is in their defensive rating (which is explained well at Empty the Bench).

Time Period Pace ORtg Drtg Opp FG%
2009-10 Non-Conf 69.26 117 84.5 36.53%
2009-10 Conf 63.37 113 78.3 32.56%
2010-11 Non-Conf 67.56 112 89 35.49%
2010-11 Conf (5 gms) 68.60 123 68.5 30.59%

Stanford Cardinal Offensive/Defensive Numbers

Surely, Stanford's conference numbers will creep upward as they play simply play more games.

But in addition to leading the conference in opponents' field goal percentage (ahead of second place USC by a 3.5% margin), they have a defensive rating much better than at any point last season.

It's difficult to know what exactly you might attribute the improvement to - especially between non-conference and conference play, sample size aside - but it sure was disconcerting to even watch Chiney, Kayla, and Nneka switching out onto guards and towering over an increasingly panicked sub-6'0" player. Appel was probably an underrated defensive presence for the team last season, but with the multiple ways VanDerveer can utilize Chiney defensively they're able to frustrate opponents in ways that most teams in the nation simply couldn't imagine.

So does this team have what it takes to get over the championship hump?

Home games against UCLA and USC will be a major test

Right behind Stanford in terms of strength of performances so far in conference play are UCLA and USC, both of which have looked like tournament teams thus far this season (except when UCLA demolished USC in Pauley Pavilion). So this weekend's games against UCLA today and USC on Saturday will be a major test for how far they've come since their mid-December loss at Tennessee that raised serious doubts.

But of course, VanDerveer is well aware of just how far this team still has to go.

"I think we made some tweaks with what we're doing and we have a long way to go," said VanDerveer when asked how close she thinks this team is to where they want to be. "But I'm really excited about this team's attitude and effort and their togetherness."

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