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Pac-10 Weekly Review & Honors: Will More Physical Play Make Women's Basketball More Appealing?

University of Washington guard Sami Whitcomb drives to the basket in a 69-65 loss against UCLA. <em>Photo via <a href="http://jlindstr.smugmug.com/photos/772976666_PQv36-XL.jpg">jlindstr.smugmug.com</a></em>
University of Washington guard Sami Whitcomb drives to the basket in a 69-65 loss against UCLA. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com

In a summary of Pac-10 Player of the Week Alexis Gray-Lawson’s 47 point performance, AndyPanda of SBN’s Oregon State University blog (Building the Dam) wrote, “This game was what detractors of womens' hoops usually haven’t taken the time to see (John Canzano, too bad you missed it!)… The game was more physical than many mens’ games, and I’ve seen less hard contact at wrestling matches.”

Gray-Lawson isn’t the only physical player in the Pac-10 – UCLA’s Jasmine Dixon doesn’t exactly shy away from contact out on the court, the University of Ariona’s Ify Ibekwe doesn’t get double doubles by playing soft, and the University of Washington’s Regina Rogers is no lightweight.

Nationally, there seems to also be a light undercurrent of attention to “grit” and physical play in women’s college basketball, with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent story about University of Connecticut guard Caroline Doty and the Times West Virginian’s recent story about West Virginia University coach Mike Carey’s transition from Division II men’s basketball to Division I women’s basketball.

The Times West Virginian - Carey’s tough style working for WVU women
Carey also didn’t understand the physical requirements.

“I didn’t realize the physical strength you needed on the women’s side. In the beginning they were lifting and I was thinking, ‘That’s fine, but I really don’t care.’ I found out here in the Big East, we had to get a lot stronger. The physical player was a big surprise to me.”

In all of these cases – the comment on BtD, the profile of Doty, and Carey’s initial surprise about the physical play of female basketball players – there appears to be an assumption that there is something noteworthy about physical play in women’s basketball or, at the very least, something that goes against the grain of mainstream perception.

Not that Andy was necessarily saying that physical play would sway detractors, but given that people do tend to pay attention to that and highlight it, one has to wonder if more physical play might make women's college basketball more appealing.

Many a male fan has reacted with surprise when a female athlete shows any kind of emotion after a big play or during the course of the game. Others make a logical fallacy in assuming that because the women’s game is touted as more predicated on finesse and fundamentals than the men’s game that its players must necessarily be a “dainty little prissbot” and afraid of any sort of contact.

The fact is that some people are still shocked when women demonstrate any passion for a sport, whether that be in the form of competitive emotion or physical play. At no other time was that more evident than in the response to Elizabeth Lambert’s consensus over-the-top physical play, as described by Pat Griffin.

Violence in Women’s Sports: Part of the Game, Transgressing Gender, or Sexy Catfight? | Women Talk Sports | The first online blog network for women's sports
The overblown reaction is based on so many sexism notions. First, there is the idea that women are the kinder, gentler sex who don’t (shouldn’t) engage in violence on the field or even rough physical play that falls within the bounds of acceptable standards. Women are supposed to be nice and fragile. In the male world of sport fandom the absence of violent collisions, elbows flying, jersey pulling and punching are just another reason to dis women’s sports as inferior. I’m not saying I love violence in sport. I’m just saying we should have the same standards for all sports whether it’s about expectations about tough physical play or intolerance for violent play.

What Griffin describes is not about whether Lambert was “right” – she wasn’t – but how we seem to respond to physical play with double standards for men and women. The problem is that any time women engage in rough play, it draws attention, as described by Lisa Creech Bledsoe of The Glowing Edge.

Elizabeth Lambert, Part 2 | Women Talk Sports | The first online blog network for women's sports
Yes, there is lots of rough play in many sports. I’m really ready for people to quit pointing that out. All of us — male AND female — who compete in athletics understand that. I don’t think you’ll hear any of us whining about a little bit or even a lot of body contact in soccer.

The very act of bringing attention to rough play – good or bad – every time it happens seems to speak to an assumption that it’s not supposed to happen.

So back to Andy’s point: on the one hand, pointing out physical play when it happens seems to reinforce the assumption that it’s not supposed to happen. On the other, detractors observing, acknowledging, and accepting that female athletes are physical could very well change their perceptions of women’s basketball and perhaps even women’s sports at large. As Griffin writes, does a physical game still just make people uncomfortable or is it the thing that would convince people to pay attention?

Those that have taken the time to actually watch women’s basketball instead of just thoughtlessly relying on regurgitated tropes to describe it already know that physical play is just part of basketball, men’s or women’s. However, it still does beg a question: how might acknowledging the physicality of female players shift the way people think about women’s basketball?

While it’s difficult to predict the responses of detractors to physical play, one player that any basketball fan could probably enjoy is Stanford’s Nnemkadi Oguwmike, who is absolutely dominating Pac-10 opponents this season.

Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Stanford, 2-0 (45.19 Marginal Victory Points, 30 points on 9-12 shooting, 23 rebounds, 52.04 defensive rebounding percentage Saturday against the University of Oregon)

I applaud the Pac-10 for resisting the justifiable urge to just give Ogwumike the Player of the Week award every week.

Unfortunately, Swish Appeal is not so gracious.

Even in a week in which Cal’s Alexis Gray-Lawson scored 47 and UCLA’s Jasmine Dixon pretty much dominated the state of Washington, Ogwumike still stands out. And it’s pretty difficult to argue with a 30 point, 23 rebound performance.

C and R's Stanford Women's Basketball Blog
But C and R were MOST impressed by Stanford’s Nneka Ogwumike! She scored a career high 30 points. She was everywhere on the boards. She got 23 boards and set Stanford’s single-game rebounding record, which was 21 by Nicole Powell, ex Sacramento Monarch. Nneka also scored 30 points. And her boards and points were very impressive. She skied, she caught and shot in traffic she had fast breaks, and she played strong under the basket.

OMG (more texting lingo), her best play of the day? Her catch and shoot on the two-second inbounds play. And thank goodness the play was on TV, because in the final highlights they showed not one, but two different camera angles on that spectacular play. Stanford had the ball out of bounds under their basket with two seconds left. Followers of Cal will remember that the rules state it must be a catch and release without landing, a stupid rule that makes sense in the men’s game but hard to do in the women’s game (Cal had a similar play but with 1 second left in the whole game, and they caught, landed then shot and made the basket in the final second of an NCAA playoff game, only to have it disqualified and they lost the game). Back to live action, C immediately yells “Give it to Nneka.” Now if C knows this is coming, shouldn’t Oregon put a body on Nneka? No, they are business as usual in a zone. JJ Hones lobs the ball to the middle of the key where Nneka jumps, catches and shoots straight in the basket. It was amazing! Not many women’s basketball players can do that. Oregon, how did you not see that coming!

In the search for something new to come up with to say about her, I turned to the numbers and just need to re-emphasize this: in her performance against Oregon, she had the third highest usage rate on the team (22.13) behind Jayne Appel (29.29) and Jeannette Pohlen (24.49). She is consistently posting dominant numbers on a talented team without exactly being the type of ball dominant player that limits the touches of others. It’s not just that she shot 13-20 (65%) from the field, it’s that overall she’s a player that can dominate the game without dominating the ball. That’s both effective and impressive.

Newcomer of the Week: Jasmine Dixon, UCLA, 2-0 (45.52 MVP, career-high 25 points @ Washington, team-high 9 rebounds on Saturday)

When asked about Dixon’s career-high 25 point performance in Seattle on Saturday afternoon, University of Washington coach Tia Jackson joked, “She needed to stay at Rutgers – I don’t even know what’s goin’ on.”

After transferring from Rutgers University, Dixon became eligible to play for UCLA on December 14th and has arguably been UCLA’s top player in ten games of play. Her performance this past weekend also helped her earn the UCLA/Muscle Milk Student-Athlete of the Week.

Right now, she’s making her mark, not only in the box score, but also with an unquantifiable aggressive mentality on the court.

“She’s extremely aggressive, we knew it,” said Jackson more seriously. “Kinda dips that shoulder quite a bit going to the hole, especially when she’s attacking right. We knew it. She just made some tough baskets.”

It was a similar story against Washington State University.

Jasmine Dixon Named UCLA/Muscle Milk Student-Athlete of the Week - UCLA OFFICIAL ATHLETIC SITE
Dixon had career-highs in scoring in each game, totaling 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting at WSU and then upping that number at UW with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field. In the WSU game, she scored 17 points in the second half and made a basket at 1:18 to reclaim the advantage after the Cougars had taken the lead for the first time in the game 12 seconds earlier.

In both games, Dixon was responsible for right around 40% of the team’s total valuable contributions, meaning the team is heavily dependent on her for offense. Moreso than a problem – this is a team more defined by their creative defensive schemes than their offense – it’s a testament to Dixon’s ability to step into a system and contribute right away.

The total package of athleticism, fearless play, and skill -- a mentality that could be likened to her favorite athlete, Allen Iverson -- helps to understand UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell’s response to Dixon finally joining the team: “Thank God, right?”

Player to Watch: Briana Gilbreath (42.55 MVP, 15 ppg, 4.5 spg)

Although Ashley Corral is definitely considered the leader of USC’s team, Gilbreath is having an impressive season thus far.

“Between [Corral] and [Briana] Gilbreath, they complement each other very well,” said Jackson prior to Thursday’s USC game. “[Briana] being a more versatile player, can play inside and out.”

However, Gilbreath does more than complement Corral with her skill set.

Against Washington, Gilbreath not only helped key a late game run with a three pointer, but also played strong defense, finishing with a game-high 5 steals. Against Washington State, she led the way with her offense, being individually responsible for about 50% of the team’s total valuable contributions and -- in a similar manner to Ogwumike – having only the fifth highest usage rate on the team (20.36).

She’s a player that has demonstrated the ability to contribute in multiple ways and that is probably the way she helps USC most – doing whatever the team needs until Corral’s late game scoring flurries.

Gray-Lawson’s 47-point game might not even be her personal best performance

Once again, the Pac-10 Player of the Week failed to get any statistical love. So what happened?

A commenter at CaliforniaGoldenBlogs said the following:

Cal Women Week in Review: Alexis Gray-Lawson Conquers the World - California Golden Blogs
Lexi’s point total against Oregon State is obviously spectacular. But I think her 37-point game against Stanfurd last year is still her most outstanding performance, because of the quality of the competition.

As it turns out, that’s exactly right, if we evaluate the performances in terms of MVP, a means of determining the weighted value of a player's contribution to victory:

1/18/09 vs. Stanford: 36.59 MVP, 71% valuable contributions
1/23/10 vs. OSU: 25.76 MVP, 51.34% valuable contributions

The difference between the two games: she shot 11 less shots, had less turnovers, and had an eFg% of 73%, going 5-7 from the 3 pt line in last year's Stanford game. In other words, she had a much more efficient game against Stanford and also contributed more to her team in less time. However, most importantly she carried the team to a far greater extent against Stanford in 2009 as her percent valuable contributions demonstrates. In meaning more, it was a better performance.

Once again, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate the value of tempo-free stats that can help us evaluate the quality of even the gaudiest of stats. MVP is therefore a useful tool for fans interested in asking questions about a player’s best performances. I described it last week, but will quote David Sparks' thoughts about Kobe Bryant's 81 point game here to reiterate the point:

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.

Ultimately, it comes down to a simple point: basketball is about more than just scoring points.