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Pac-10 Week in Review: Is Stanford Just Bored?

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Something interesting happened in the AP rankings besides the University of Tennessee rising to #3 after Notre Dame got pummeled by UConn: Stanford got 960 votes, the most they’ve gotten this season since before their loss to UConn.

Perhaps that makes sense because voters felt compelled to give Stanford a few of Notre Dame’s votes after their demoralizing loss to UConn.

Yet ironically, the talk out of Palo Alto after Stanford's 66-51 win over the University of Washington was all about how they're playing "uninspired" basketball. One comment in particular from forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike stands out as particularly alarming:

What's ailing No. 2 Cardinal? - San Jose Mercury News
I'm not sure what is ailing the Cardinal, but it's nothing major. The talent is still there. It may just be a slight bug that is easily cured. Sounds like the players have recognized the symptoms because they don't really like the way they are feeling right now.

"Everyone believes in each other, but we need that extra kick," Ogwumike said. "We know what it is, but we're kind of lost. It's just sitting right in front of us. We just need to do it."

An uninspired, lost team is not normally how one would describe the #2 team in the nation. So what's actually going on?

Stanford vs. Washington - Swish Appeal (via C and R)
The half ends 35-21, but at the beginning of the second half, Washington scores 7 points to our zero, and it is 35-28 near the 17-minute mark. Not again, Stanford, why are we not able to put teams away in the second half? For this game, though, Stanford has a built in excuse. As we mentioned earlier, players were not used to playing with each other and it showed. We made several unforced turnovers, with players simply throwing the ball where they thought the other player was going to be. They weren’t there.

...

We hang on to win 66-51, and Tara will say later that her team was "lackluster" and did not push the ball up in transitions. Well, that’s because your best player who runs your transition was sitting glumly at the end of your bench. Not having Pohlen available has left Stanford feeling a bit rudderless. Not good with high scoring Oregon coming up.

While the health of Stanford's guards could certainly be used as an explanation for their recent performance, the reality is that inconsistent guard play has plagued Stanford all season, according to C of C and R’s Stanford Women’s Basketball Blog.

"Teams watching game film can see this about our guards and we have traditionally had trouble against full court pressure in the last few years," said C in an email conversation. "It is a problem Stanford needs to solve in the coming seasons."

With each successive scare – UCLA lost by four, Washington was within single digits late in the second half – Pac-10 teams will gain more confidence in their ability to beat Stanford and eventually someone might figure out the right strategy as Stanford has a particularly off day and pull an upset.

Washington coach Tia Jackson and senior guard Sami Whitcomb entered the game saying that Stanford is beatable and it looks like teams are getting closer to actually do so.

But statistically, the team is not exactly struggling -- against Washington State University, Stanford had a MEV 89.95. (To put that in perspective, UConn had a MEV of 79.16 against Notre Dame, a game which everyone agrees the Huskies dominated.) Against Washington, they had a MEV of 70.57, certainly a drop off, but not a bad game against a team that has been playing better lately.

A major part of the problem against Washington was foul trouble, which kept Appel out of the game. That combined with the missing guards is probably what led to an off game. Appel is typically a strong offensive rebounder and over the last two games, she's been held to three. Whether the reason for that is uninspired play or teams taking Stanford out of what they normally do remains to be seen and is hard to determine when they're not fully healthy.

All that said, the most impressive thing about Stanford is that the play of forward Nneka Ogwumike has kept this team winning despite apparent struggles.

The following players were selected using David Sparks' MVP (Marginal Victories Produced) metric.

MVP: Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Stanford 2-0 (21 ppg, 13 rpg, 53.33%, 54.77 MVP)

In case you have not been following the Pac-10 closely, Ogwumike is good. Very good.

In Stanford’s 79-43 win against Washington State University, she scored 22 points on 11-15 shooting and added 13 rebounds – five offensive – for good measure. She dominated the boards with a 37.03% defensive rebounding percentage and a solid 14.52% offensive rebounding percentage. However, most striking about Ogwumike – as pointed out by C and R – is that she does so within the flow of the game.

Stanford vs. Washington State - Swish Appeal
Nneka Ogwumike wins the jump and we are off to the races. It starts out being a Nneka highlight show. She is everywhere, scoring at will. A pull up 15-foot jumper, because no one expects it, driving in and leaping practically to the rim over smaller players. Center Jayne Appel, playing at the high post to give Nneka room to create these incredible drives passes up a chance to score and feeds it to Nneka coming closer to the basket for a rebound. The next two times Nneka tries to return the favor to Jayne by passing up shots to pass it back to her, but she is forcing it and both times it leads to turnovers. R loves the unselfishness of Nneka’s play, not caring to just pad her stats against a smaller team.

So what makes Ogwumike so good?

“She kinda makes scoring around the basket look very easy,” said Jackson echoing the consensus sentiment about Ogwumike. “But it helps when you can elevate as well as she does. She’s a fun player.”

In only her sophomore year, her development is a welcome sight for Stanford fans, who have an embarrassment of riches on their hands.

“Early in the UConn game this year Nneka hit a 15 foot jumper, something C and R had never seen before and UConn coach Geno Auriemma echoed in his press conference when he said, 'We never saw Ogwumike do that on film.'", wrote C in an email. "When she does drive in the lane and leap, she is drawing more fouls and a huge difference this year is she is hitting her free throws, a thorn C and R complained about last year.”

She’s getting better, which means Stanford only stands to benefit in the Pac-10.

“She’s doing it to everybody,” said Jackson yesterday about Ogwumide's repeated double-doubles . “It’s hard not to make her player of the week every week because she’s just doing it day in and day out – it doesn’t matter the competition. Tara’s got herself a good one.”

Newcomer of the Week: Soana Lucet, Arizona, 2-0 (23 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 70.83 fg%, MVP: 39.75)

Given that Arizona freshman guard Davellyn Whyte was selected as Pac-10 Player of the Week, it’s probably surprising that she makes neither MVP nor newcomer of the week in this list.

And with Whyte having an impressive season as a scorer and forward Ify Ibekwe leading the team in rebounding, perhaps transfer teammate Soana Lucet’s 13 points and 7.1 rebounds doesn’t stand out.

However, I first noticed Lucet during Arizona’s 66-59 loss to Washington. What grabbed my attention on the first play of the game was that Washington center Regina Rogers threw herself into Lucet to establish position on the post and Lucet really didn’t give much ground. And that’s what’s impressive about Lucet – she does a lot of little things offensively and defensively that make the difference between winning and losing.

Lucet played very well this weekend, arguably the MVP in Arizona’s 62-53 win against Oregon State University last weekend in which she scored 18 points on 7-10 shooting and had 6 rebounds. Most impressive that game is that she did that with a usage rate of under 20%, meaning that she used under 20% of the team’s possessions while on the floor. There she showed she can be extremely efficient on the floor.

Conversely, against Oregon, Lucet had a usage rate of 37.72% and scored 28 points on 10-14 shooting and went 7-8 from the free throw line. In a game in which Arizona was outrebounded as a team, Lucet had an offensive rebounding percentage of 19.48%, which is close to elite.

Her ability to mix up what she contributes game to game defensively and offensively, is a huge asset to Arizona and it appears as though she’s growing more comfortable with the team by the game.

Player to Watch: Eliza Pierre, California, 2-0 (5 spg, 5 rpg, 4.5 apg, MVP: 38.97)

Pierre had a week that should not be overlooked, although it’s easy to understand why one might overlook it.

Looking at the box score, Pierre does not exactly stand out among a very talented Cal roster. Yet when you look at the totality of her contribution beyond points, you see that she does a little bit of everything and does so rather efficiently.

At one point during the 23-2 second half run against the University of Washington, one of the commentators said, “She just makes things happen.” That’s probably the best way to describe her impact.

That and the fact that she absolutely terrorized the University of Washington defensively and completely turned the game around.

Pierre – who is third in the Pac-10 with 2.6 steals per game -- was at the point of a swarming defense in which she helped pressure and harass Washington into a 51.13% second half turnover percentage. A team simply cannot win games like that. And so while Pierre was only credited for 6 steals, her impact on the game was much, much greater.

“She’s fun,” said Washington coach Tia Jackson of Pierre’s defense. “She’s quick as snot and…that’s kinda her signature now. I know Joanne is going to do a lot with her down the road. But she’s a kid who’s very, very good, especially on the ball.”

However, we've already seen glimpses of that development on offense. Against Washington, she showed the ability to change pace and direction in transition extremely well. She showed the ability to create baskets for others in the second half as well, driving baseline, drawing the defense, and kicking back out to fellow freshman Brenna Heater on the wing. And then she can also put her head down and just blow by her defender to get to the basket.

All the tools are there for Pierre to develop into a special player and she'll be a fun player to watch.

So why no statistical recognition for Whyte?

Here’s the statistical line for Whyte that I would have run.

Davellyn Whyte, Arizona, 2-0 (39 points, 12-17 fg, 10-12 ft vs. Oregon, MVP: 28.86)

Whyte was selected as Pac-10 Player of the Week and deservedly so. The Pac-10 website describes the story well.

Arizona's Whyte Named Pac-10 Women's Basketball Player of the Week - PAC-10 OFFICIAL ATHLETIC SITE
Davellyn Whyte (Phoenix, Ariz.) averaged 26.5 points per game, helping the Wildcats to a pair of wins over the Oregon schools, including a historic 119-112 victory over the Ducks. It was Arizona’s first weekend sweep of Oregon State and Oregon since the 2007-08 campaign. Whyte’s hot scoring came on the strength of 62.9 percent shooting overall (17-for-27), including 63.6 percent from three-point range (7-for-11) and 85.7 percent from the free throw line (12-for-14). Whyte set the Arizona single-game scoring record, netting 39 points in the win over Oregon, a Pac-10 season-high as well.

Nevertheless, Whyte’s gaudy numbers illustrate the value of using tempo-free stats to evaluate players – although Whyte thrived as Arizona beat Oregon at their own game, her she was only individually responsible for 16.02% of the team’s overall output, meaning statistically she did less for her team in that game than Ogwumike did for Stanford.

To further illustrate the point – and perhaps better describe the utility of Sparks’ statistics for the analysis of player performance – I’ll refer to what David Sparks has written previously about Kobe Bryant’s 81 point game during the 2007-08 NBA season.

Hardwood Paroxysm » Blog Archive » The Arbitrarian: Assigning Credit for Game Outcomes
I’d like to digress here briefly, on the subject of Kobe’s 81 point game. Note that he produced about 1/3 of the total valuable contributions in that game, but look at his MEV: 68.96. That means that by missing 18 field goals, and doing very little other than shooting, he cost his team about 12 points in the final margin. The Lakers still won by 18 points, but to me the 81 point achievement is somewhat underwhelming, because of what it took to get there. Edit: Apparently, you put it one little paragraph about Kobe Bryant, and it makes your whole post about Kobe Bryant… All I’m trying to say here is that Kobe, by missing 18 shots (and turning the ball over, while not doing a lot of rebounding or box score defending) cost his team a few points. Most players couldn’t dream of generating 69 points, and this is an impressive feat, but also, most other players don’t even take 18 shots (doing so would put them in the 94th percentile of all games in the data set). All I’m saying is that it might be somewhat less impressive than some of the others on the list, like, for example, Jordan’s incredible performance against Cleveland.

Whyte’s 39 point game presents a similar, but slightly different issue -- Whyte actually shot very well, going 12-17 and 10-12 from the free throw line. The issue is that in terms of the percentage of the team's total valuable contributions that game relative to her teammates, the performance is less impressive.

Whyte produced about 25% of the total valuable contributions in that game against Oregon. Lucet produced about 22% and Ify Ibekwe led the team, producing 28.12%. So yes, the performance was great, but it wasn't quite the dominant performance that Ogwumide -- or even Lucet against OSU (40% of the team's total valuable contributions) -- posted relative to the production of her teammates.