As the California Golden Bears were in the midst of pressing the Stanford Cardinal at Maples Pavilion, Matt Zemek tweeted a question that is often on my mind while watching the perennial Pac-10 champion:
Why don't teams press Stanford all the time? Even Jeanette *Pohlen* couldn't handle pressure late against A&M in Indianapolis.
That's a great question and something I spent the last couple of weeks watching for in the Cardinal's four games since as well as their earlier marquee matchup against the Tennessee Lady Vols.
We don't need to go through the nightmare of what Cardinal fans witnessed in Indianapolis with their veteran team simply falling apart in the face of Texas A&M's press a game away from the national championship game. Then back in November, UConn used a combination of aggressive defensive schemes to hand Stanford their only loss thus far this season. So pressuring Stanford has been a formula for success in two of their last three losses.
However, what it comes down to in watching the Cardinal on even a semi-regular basis is that pressing them is a strategy for elite defensive teams; average-to-very-good teams have struggled to make it work for at least five reasons.
5. Stanford decision-making
The one thing that seems to define Stanford's success year after year is not so much spectacular plays, but the more mundane things they do: they share the ball well and they win a number of games by simply making less mistakes than their opponents, particularly late in the season.
Unless you're 2010-11 Texas A&M - a team that presses as a fine-tuned machine led by a veteran defensive assistant coach who has refined the process over time and had a couple standout perimeter defenders - it's extremely difficult to press a team that moves the ball as well as Stanford with smart passers at so many positions. If you don't rotate fast enough in a zone press, someone is bound to be open in a vulnerable spot and make you pay.
That's a large part of what happened to the Tennessee Lady Vols - as well as Southern California - when they tried to use a zone press against Stanford and drop back into a halfcourt zone set: Stanford moved the ball upcourt quickly and found players wide open for threes in the gaps of a defense that was transitioning from full or 3/4 court press to extended zone defense. Before the full force of Nneka Ogwumike's 42 points beat them, Stanford hit a string of threes to force Tennessee out of their full court scheme.
And Stanford only turned the ball over on 11.2% of their possessions, which is significantly better than their conference-leading 17.4% rate.
Tennessee was expected to press in no small part because they're one of the most athletically gifted teams in the nation - it made sense to use their speed and depth to their advantage to try to force a somewhat methodical Stanford team into turnovers. And Stanford just picked it apart.
4. Stanford's athleticism
The Tennessee game also illustrated another important point: this is not the stereotypically slow and plodding - yet heady - Stanford team that many women's basketball fans imagine. That, of course, begins with the Ogwumike sisters, but Toni Kokenis has really stepped up this season and freshman Amber Orrange is looking more comfortable handling the ball by the game, which helps quite a bit.
Orrange was another major part of what helped the Cardinal overcome Tennessee's pressure - her speed and ball handling ability allowed her to break down defenders one on one and find players open for easy buckets in ways that Stanford doesn't usually have available. When you combine that with a double dose of Ogwumike and shooters on the wings this isn't a Stanford team that is easy contain in a full court situation - they can and will run. And if you don't have the personnel to run - and jump - with Nneka Ogwumike in the open court, you're in trouble if they can get beat the press in the backcourt.
3. Toni Kokenis
This is not separate from the athleticism piece, but an extension of it - Kokenis is a markedly improved player and if not the #1 reason Stanford has been difficult to press, then her improvement might be the single biggest personnel reason for it.
Kokenis is faster than most people give her credit for, which makes her extremely difficult to contain 1 on 1, even if she's unlikely to wow you with a whole lot of fancy dribbling. But most importantly, she's much more decisive this season clearly better at recognizing when to turn on the afterburners.
Although she was essentially playing point guard early in the season, with Orrange's development they've been able to slide Kokenis over to the starting shooting guard spot and her ability to shoot the ball (albeit inefficiently since that Tennessee game) further spreads the court to make it tough on teams that want to pack it in on a zone or extend for a full court zone press.
Both Arizona State and UCLA tried to put 1-on-1 pressure on the ball handler picking up at full, 3/4, and half court at various times. Both managed to use this strategy to some positive effect, but just having players like Kokenis and Orrange to help beat the pressure and initiate the offense is an asset.
The very fact that Stanford has two ball handlers to use against the press adds a dimension they didn't have last year - Jeanette Pohlen was a great point guard to Stanford's system in the halfcourt, but didn't have quite the quickness of either Kokenis or Orrange. On the other hand, Stanford is rather young on the perimeter - Kokenis and Orrange are underclassmen and two other wing players in the rotation (Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson) are also freshmen. So they're going to make mistakes.
Although the Cardinal are young on the perimeter and certainly miss Pohlen's presence as a scorer, against a press their current combination of ball handlers makes them tough to defend.
2. Stanford defense
But it's Stanford's defensive prowess that is probably the underappreciated reason for why they're so hard to press effectively.
Just to keep it simple, Stanford holds opponents to 34.4% shooting from the field (17th in the nation). If an opponent's shots aren't going through the hoop to force an inbounds under the hoop, it's difficult - though not impossible - to apply pressure.
In an inbounds situation, the offensive team is obviously forced to quickly set up their press break, run the set, and then get the ball inbounds in five seconds. The exact opposite is true off of a rebound with the defense having to be highly organized to get themselves set up for pressure while also making sure they identify open players.
Compounding that problem is what happens if teams speed up the game - although Stanford isn't the fastest team in the conference, they are about exactly in the middle of the pack and they are certainly capable of scoring in transition. What happens if you speed up a game against the third-most efficient team in the nation that doesn't turn the ball over much and will prevent you from scoring? They score points quickly and you still don't. It's a large part of what happened to both UCLA and USC, both of which shot under that 34.4% opponents' average.
Part of what made Cal's pressure so effective in the final minutes of regulation in their meeting with Stanford was that Cal/Layshia Clarendon was hitting shots in addition to having a few situations where there was an inbounds play in the backcourt off turnovers. Absent that, we probably wouldn't even be talking about how effective Cal's press was.
1. Tara VanDerveer
However, the other part of what makes it so hard to press Stanford is their Hall Of Fame coach.
There's a reason Stanford has come out of the locker room at halftime and flattened teams that came out looking good early multiple times this season, and it's not just that everyone else is in bad shape or something.
One way to think about what worked well for Cal was the element of surprise at work in implementing a full court zone press for the first time late in the game - Cal was hitting shots, Stanford looked a bit disoriented by the pressure, and everything happened so quickly that by the time Stanford was able to adjust it was already overtime. The timing had to be absolutely perfect for that to work - wait too long and it's too late; apply it to early and face the fate of every other team that's tried to press them.
It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that the best way to outsmart VanDerveer is to catch her off-guard. Cal (briefly) did exactly that the first time around. The likelihood of the Cardinal getting caught off guard in that way is not that high.
Looking at the likes of ASU, Cal, UCLA, USC - not to mention Tennessee - is not exactly a weak field of opponents that attempted to use pressure Stanford in different ways: they all possess the tools to press lesser teams effectively. But to pull this off takes an elite defensive team that can beat Stanford's defense and maybe a little luck.