Stanford Cardinal (11-1)
If there is any team that you definitely can't judge based on non-conference play, it's the Stanford Cardinal.
Over the last couple of seasons, it seems that Stanford takes a tough non-conference loss, people worry about how good they are without acknowledging a rather simple truth: the Cardinal generally start slow.
A large part is that they have lost significant contributors to the first round of the WNBA Draft for each of the last three seasons, which means that coach Tara VanDerveer has tweaked the offense to maximize the strengths of their remaining personnel. So they have their hiccups, maybe fight through a few early injuries or illness, and then end up back in the Final Four where they are looking to return to for the sixth straight time this season.
This season, it was hard not to watch their blowout loss to UConn at home and wonder if they had what it takes to even win the Pac-12, something that feels weird to even think about. So taking the broader view, what did the non-conference statistics say about Stanford?
Four Factors statistics for the Stanford Cardinal during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for the Stanford Cardinal during non-conference play.
Narrative description: Among the slowest paced teams in the nation, Stanford beats opponents with superior ball movement and execution while limiting their mistakes. That execution carries over to the defensive end, where they held non-conference opponents to the lowest efficiency among Pac-12 teams this year despite not forcing many turnovers.
SOS: 63.35 (1st nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: N/A
MVP: Chiney Ogwumike, F (6'3", Jr., 22.96 MVP)
You don't need me to tell you Ogwumike is good, but this season she enters conference play as the overwhelming favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year. She is a high usage (30.39% usage rate), high efficiency (62.56% true shooting percentage) forward who is an elite rebounder (18.42% offensive rebounding percentage), which contributes to that major strength above.
Among the most impressive things is that she has a very low turnover rate (10.47%) for someone that is responsible for so much of her team's offensive and spends so much time fighting off double teams. The only way to really "stop" her is to do what UConn did well: force left when she faces up and try to force her into taking tough, contested shots.
- Year after year, the Cardinal enter conference play as one of the most efficient shooting teams in the nation. This year is no different and large part of that is due to their execution and constant movement without the ball, no matter what offense coach Tara VanDerveer installs to adjust from losing top contributors to graduation year to year.
- Although they don't shoot an excessive number of threes, they entered Pac-12 play third among conference teams in 3-point percentage led by a pair of players in the top five (Taylor Greenfield, conference-high 44.7%; Bonnie Samuelson, 40%). The combination of having a few players who can shoot the three but not relying on 3-point shooting as heavily as some other teams can be an asset, especially when senior forward Joslyn Tinkle is knocking shots down.
- Their defense has been nothing short of outstanding in most aspects: they hold opponents to a low shooting efficiency (including the second-lowest 3-point efficiency among conference teams), keep opponents off the offensive boards, and do all of that without fouling and giving up a lot of free throws. It's tough to beat a team that executes so precisely offensively while also preventing opponents from doing so.
- They're a dominant offensive rebounding team, which helps them get second chance points when they do miss.
- From the first time I saw Stanford play in person, the thing that stood out is that they're patient enough to execute their game plan on both ends of the floor and essentially make less mistakes than their opponent; rather than force the action on either end of the floor, they're exceptionally adept at exploiting mistakes. So the big minus you see above statistically in turnover differential is a function of that: Stanford neither commits nor forces many turnovers because it's not their game. They can pressure, but pressure is usually not a big part of their defensive schemes. So turnover differential, strictly in the sense of things that influence outcomes statistically, is a relative weakness, but a closer look reveals that it's not a fatal flaw.
- Depth was a problem last season and it continues to be a weakness compared to Pac-12 teams this season. Part of why Ogwumike's MVP rating is so high is that she has accounted for more than a third of the team's overall statistical production. Senior forward Joslyn Tinkle has stepped up her game to be Stanford's second most significant contributor (18.19% of the team's overall statistical output), but that's still quite a gap between number one and number two. If Ogwumike gets in foul trouble or gets double teamed, Stanford could struggle.
- Speaking of depth, their offensive rebounding dominance is primarily about Ogwumike - the only other offensive rebounder who we could really even consider average in Stanford's rotation is redshirt junior Mikaela Ruef.
X-Factor: Toni Kokenis, G (5'11", Jr., 4.91 MVP)
There are a lot of players who game-to-game we could look at as x-factors for Stanford. Tinkle is playing well and Ruef has done some great things for Stanford this year that don't show up in the numbers and
Yet Kokenis stands out because she is having a bit of a down year and one thing that really stands out is her efficiency as a distributor. Last season, Kokenis had a pure point rating of 2.58; during non-conference play, she had a pure point rating of -1.85, which in the world of point guard play is a significant swing (not that we're talking about Kokenis as a draft prospect yet but if you recall, 2.5 is above the threshold for a WNBA point guard prospect and -1.85 usually marks a poor college point guard).
Amber Orrange's efficiency as a distributor is down as well and while a certain major departure from last season could very well explain both starting guards' declining efficiency as distributors, Kokenis' is a bit more problematic for the team because she's also the more efficient scorer because she can hit the three and she got to the free throw line at almost twice the rate of Orrange during non-conference play (Kokenis, 34.88%, Orrange, 18.26%). Orrange can certainly bring some of the ball handling and speed that Kokenis brings to the court, but the scoring punch from a lead ball handler is something Stanford otherwise lacks and is a reason why it felt like Kokenis had to stay on the court even during a subpar game against UConn.
Of course, there is an explanation for Kokenis' decline: she missed a pair of exhibition games (as well as their Pac-12 game against Utah) due to an unspecified health issue, as described by Jake Curtis of the Examiner. But if indeed that is having an affect on her season, the extent to which she can recover could have an impact on how Stanford does against Cal this week and possibly their performance in the NCAA tournament.
Key question: Where does Stanford rank among the elite?
UConn exploited two things: first, Stanford's inability to respond well to an uptempo game with guard pressure and, second, their inability to find other options once a team turns Ogwumike into a less efficient scorer by forcing her out of her comfort zone. Those two things could certainly make one wonder whether they can actually compete with the other elite teams in the nation.
The flip side: we can't ignore that Stanford had the toughest schedule in non-conference play, is facing a much tougher than usual Pac-12 schedule, and still has outstanding numbers that most teams couldn't put up against a much weaker schedule.
Yet fast forwarding from non-conference play and to the present, Women's Basketball State has them ranked third as of today in their statistical rankings sandwiched in between Duke and Baylor. Sagarin Ratings have Stanford third in a virtual tie with Notre Dame. Stanford was ranked fifth in the newly released AP poll, which is difficult, though not impossible, to dispute after that big loss to UConn but ends up being the lowest ranking of any of those ratings.
In other words, most reasonable rankings have an almost interchangeable five team elite with Stanford somewhere between 3-5 (there is a next tier of sixth-best teams that includes some variation of Cal, Kentucky, and Tennessee). And that's perfectly fair.
The dilemma comes when deciding who gets those top four seeds in the NCAA tournament. Even if they run the table in the Pac-12, which is possible though it would be quite a feat this season, the case to get back into the top four might be difficult after that crushing loss to UConn. If Stanford falls to Cal - generally in the 6-8 range in those ratings - the question is how that will affect their ability to get one of those top four seeds.
The fact is that Cal is a very good team and has what it takes to knock off Stanford using a game plan similar to what UConn implemented - at least once, if not twice this season - especially if Kokenis is still struggling with unspecified health issues. But how would even one loss to Cal combined with the UConn rout affect how people think about Stanford, a team that generally peaks at the end of the season once VanDerveer's system is fully taken up by players?