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Stanford vs. UConn: Why Jeanette Pohlen's Increased Aggression Could Make A Difference

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(via Mechelle Voepel of ESPN.com)

Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer said after their rout of USF last week that they'd be trying some new things with Jayne Appel and Ros Gold-Onwude having graduated, but nobody could have expected what Cardinal fans saw at Maples Pavilion on Tuesday in their surprisingly lopsided 37 point blowout of Xavier.

Cardinal point guard Jeanette Pohlen not only established position on the block against Xavier point guards, but aggressively called for the ball, showed decisive footwork in the paint that would make LeBron James jealous, and finished off the plays strong.

It's not like she was just going through the motions of the offense either - like she was actually deliberately posting people up and her teammates fed her the ball for scores on at least two occasions and missed her on others.

Even casual Stanford fans in attendance were probably left incredulous at the notion of Pohlen operating in the paint, even if she had a considerable size advantage over 5'6" Xavier point guard Special Jennings. But if it's not so surprising to you, looking back to her play at the beginning of 2010 might put things in perspective.

When the Cardinal played the Washington Huskies in Seattle last February, I counted the number of times she penetrated inside the three point line. 

Aside from fast breaks when it's just hard to avoid going into that painted area, I counted two times in that game.

Of course, it's possible that I missed a few, but even less neurotic basketball fans that didn't attempt to quantify Pohlen's style of play probably noticed the same thing throughout last season: a simplified way of describing Pohlen's role as a point guard last season was essentially to bring the ball over half court, initiate the offense, and swing the ball if it came back to her.

"I was watching film from the Xavier game last year and they didn't even really guard me," said Pohlen, after her strong 19 point, 9 rebound, 6 assist performance against Xavier on Tuesday. "They were so focused on Nneka and Jayne that they'd stay back and I'd just pass it up and go through not even really looking for my shot."

By the way Pohlen describes her own game, Xavier's approach to defending her in the Elite Eight wasn't unjustified or surprising last season, even if she probably changed their minds about that strategy given the outcome of the game.

Playing with two dominant post players in Jayne Appel and Nneka Ogwumike within VanDerveer's methodical offense, the Cardinal didn't require much more from a point guard than passing the ball and getting out of the way. It would have been silly not to pass it inside.

However, looking back to the way Pohlen played last season definitely helps to understand Michelle Smith's assertion that the Cardinal point guard is "playing the best basketball of her career" - she's gone from almost never venturing into the paint to suddenly posting up, but more often looking to penetrate and kick or find gaps in the defense for her own shot.

"I think one of the rules for me this year that Tara has told me is keep the ball longer, make them stop you," said Pohlen when asked about what's different this season. "So every game they're just like, 'Look for your shot - look to drive and get to the free throw line.' They're really focused on that because they want to get me some more free throws. So they're definitely telling me to look to attack."

As Pohlen alludes to, getting to the free throw line is a result of aggression and in addition to everything else she was doing inside the arc against Xavier on Tuesday, Pohlen also found her way to the free throw line six times. Statistically, her relatively low free throw rate - a player's rate of free throws per field goals, which is a proxy for how often they get scoring opportunities at the line - hasn't changed much at all this season (it was at 12.38% prior to the Xavier game). But it was at a solid 30% against Xavier and her aggression has shown in another way statistically this season.

The percentage of possessions that Pohlen uses looking to score this season is way up from a below-average 16.86% last season to an above-average 23.58% thus far this season (theoretically, a perfectly balanced team would have everyone on the floor getting 20% of the possessions). Most importantly, while one might expect shooting efficiency to go down as someone becomes more aggressive in looking for their shot, Pohlen's true shooting percentage has increased 5% to 57.8%.

However, if there's a downside to increased scoring aggression it's the risk of turnovers and that might be most relevant to their game against Connecticut today.

Season Turnover ratio Assist ratio Pure point rating
2009-10 14.19% 28.90% 2.48
2010-11 16.20% 19.44% -1.95

Comparison of Jeanette Pohlen's ball handling numbers in 09-10/10-11

Pohlen is only averaging about 1 more turnover per game this season, but you can see that in looking for her shot more often, she's creating assists less often. As a more aggressive point guard, turnovers will happen. The difference is that she's not off-setting them with assists as often, making her statistically less efficient.

That's not at all to say her scoring aggression is bad, but it begins to shed light on Stanford's increase in turnovers this season.

While Pohlen was a conservative yet efficient ball handler last season, Stanford also had players like Appel and Gold-Onwude who could both make plays quite efficiently given their positions (and in Appel's case, extremely efficiently for a center) as well as Kayla Pedersen. This season, Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen are responsible for quite a bit more, with Pedersen playing very efficiently. But other than those two and Joslyn Tinkle, they haven't had terribly efficient ball handling from their most significant players in the rotation.

So in addition to the emotional boost of smashing Xavier in Maples Pavilion with UConn looming, the game also gave Stanford fans reason for hope statistically - Stanford only committed 8 turnovers against Xavier, which is about half of their season average and less than what they committed against USF. A large part of the reason was that Pohlen remained aggressive (using 22.17% of the team's possessions) yet more efficient as a ball handler (pure point rating of 8.82) and only one player on the entire team had a pure point rating below zero (forward Nneka Ogwumike, who was so dominant otherwise that it would be silly to pick on her for that).

That team effort is what has been missing the most this season, in part because of the personnel changes and in part because of injuries that have kept players moving in and out of the lineup.

"I think everybody was really looking to handle the ball, which is key because a lot of times when you only have one person that's the main ball handler you kinda depend on that person," said Pohlen when asked about what they did better against Xavier. "But everybody did a great job of just taking care of the ball and being strong with it."

Perhaps more than anything else, Stanford will need to take care of the ball at least as well as they did against Xavier in order to beat UConn. UConn is a team that is capable of forcing teams into turnovers and creating a turnover differential that hurt Stanford badly in the second half of last December's meeting.

That said, while Stanford will need Pohlen to be an efficient ball handler, they also need her to remain aggressive - she can't allow the defense to get away with ignoring her on the perimeter if Stanford hopes to break this streak. For whatever familiarity exists between these teams, Pohlen's scoring aggression - as well as the change in ball handling efficiency -  is a new wrinkle that could have an impact.