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Men’s and women’s basketball round table: A tale of two teams

The Daily’s Sally Egan and Daniel Martinez-Krams weigh in on the vastly different seasons of the two Cardinal basketball squads

Senior forward Alanna Smith (above) is having her best year yet with the Cardinal. Smith had a career high 34 points in Stanford's 85-64 win on Sunday. (JOHN P. LOZANO/isiphotos.com)

No. 6-ranked Stanford women’s basketball (16-1, 6-0 Pac-12) and Stanford men’s basketball (9-9, 2-4 Pac-12) are nearly halfway through their Pac-12 conference schedules, and while both teams have vastly different overall narratives, they both are in the middle of exciting seasons. With matches for both teams against Colorado and Utah on the horizon, The Daily’s Sally Egan and Daniel Martinez-Krams share their thoughts about the women’s hot start, the men’s high variance season and the most valuable player for each team.

Stanford women’s basketball is on their hottest start to a season since 2013-14, when they went 22-1 through their first 23 games. How far do you expect this team to carry on their exceptional performance? What do you think has specifically contributed the most to this spectacular season? (Coaching, specific players, schedule, etc.)

Sally Egan (SE): Undeniably, Stanford is one of the hottest teams in the country right now. Only two teams, Notre Dame and NC State, have longer winning streaks than Stanford’s 10-game streak. I don’t see that streak ending any time soon either. In regular season play, Stanford’s toughest remaining opponent is likely fifth-ranked Oregon, who is also currently riding a 10-game winning streak. Arizona State and Utah are the other ranked opponents remaining, but Stanford has already beat Arizona State on the road. Returning players Alanna Smith and DiJonai Carrington have stepped up big time to help with this run. Despite Smith averaging one minute less per game than last year, her points, blocks and rebounds per game have all increased substantially. Carrington is also contributing much more this year, with a significant increase in playing time and points and rebounds per game.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): I except Stanford women’s basketball to carry on their exceptional performance all the way until Tampa. The road ahead is tough for sure, as Sally mentioned the game against Oregon, which is really just a preview of the eventual Pac-12 title game, will be one of the most exciting of the season. The bench contributions are not quite where coach Tara VanDerveer, officially the greatest basketball coach of all time, would want them, and the Cardinal will need to continue to play through injuries. This team, however, is truly scary. The team is too versatile to be stopped. In Stanford’s starting lineup, there is no player I would feel comfortable giving a foot of space on the three-point-line, and any one of them can score inside. The Stanford team has too many shooters to just focus in on one defensively. When opponents try to take away one aspect of the Cardinal offense, they are exposed elsewhere, which is why the team seems to always have one player lighting up the box score. Of course, this is all predicated on phenomenal defense. The defensive quality did not drop off at all from a team that finished second in the conference last year. The only difference now is that the offense is one of the best in the country.

On the other side of things, Stanford men’s basketball has struggled somewhat, but the program is showing flashes and is exceeding overall expectations. Sitting at 9-9, the team has had a disappointing performance (San Francisco State) for every exceptional one (Kansas, even though it was a loss). Do you think this high variance in performance is something that can be rectified this season? How exactly can coach Jerod Haase get the best out of his players every single night?

SE: The Stanford men’s basketball team is a relatively young team, and with any young team, there is bound to be a wide variety of performances at the beginning of the season. As seen from the overtime loss to (now) ninth-ranked Kansas, though, this is a team with a lot of potential, and I think we’ll see that as the season goes on. They’ve gone through several tough losses already that will build character and fuel a desire to prove they can compete with the top teams. None of Stanford’s remaining opponents is currently ranked, meaning they have a real chance to go on a late season run. They’ve already beat Arizona State, one of the top three teams in the Pac-12, and had a close five-point loss to Arizona, another one of the top Pac-12 teams. Some slow starts in earlier games and poor free throw shooting has hurt the team in losses, but overall Stanford has shown that the talent is there; they just need to work on the execution.

DMK: Although execution is certainly a factor, so is game management, and that falls squarely on Coach Haase’s shoulders. Stanford has played its best at home, but in the team’s one loss in Maples, it was poor decision-making down the stretch that cost the team a win against Arizona. As Sally mentioned, the inexperience of the Cardinal is a prime culprit for the seasonal variance, but it is the in game variance — the electric highs and heartbreaking lows — that have led to the middling record.

Both the men and women’s teams are being led this season by phenomenal years from their superstar players, KZ Okpala and Alanna Smith, respectively. Tough question, but which of the two do you believe is more instrumental to the success of their team overall? In other words, which team would suffer more with their star out of the rotation?

SE: This is difficult, but I think the edge goes to Smith. Both Okpala and Smith are currently accounting for about 25 percent of their respective teams’ points per game, with Smith making up 26 percent of her team’s points and Okpala making up 23.2 percent of his. Smith’s 142 total rebounds make up 20.5 percent of her team’s rebounds while Okpala’s 111 are 17.3 percent of his team’s. However, while their production in these categories is comparable, Smith contributes more in other categories as well. Her team-leading 41 blocks are more than the total amount of blocks that opponents have had against Stanford and make up over 46 percent of all of her team’s total blocks. Beyond this, she leads Stanford in both offensive and defensive rebounds and three-point shots. Okpala only leads his team in defensive rebounds. Smith is doing all of this in less playing time than Okpala. Smith arguably has the better support around her, which contributes to the women’s team having a better season than the men’s team, but wins is another huge statistic in which she leads Okpala. Overall, though, the fact that she leads in so many categories by a wide margin makes me believe that she is more instrumental.

DMK: KZ hands down. Okay, it’s not quite so obvious. It’s hardly obvious. I’m not even sure I believe it, but I want to tell you why Okpala is great. Stanford without its future lottery selection is lost. Just look at how the Cardinal played without Okpala against the Pac-12’s second-worst (thanks Cal) team, Washington State, compared to Okpala against the conference’s leader, Washington, the only team in the entire abysmal conference receiving votes in the latest rankings. There’s a reason Okpala has made 37 more field goals than any other player, is second on the team in three pointers by only seven despite taking 38 fewer than Pac-12 rookie of the year Cormac Ryan, first in rebounds, second in assists, third in blocks, second in steals, and by my estimate he is leading in plus/minus by at least a thousand. KZ is the real deal, and if Stanford has not realized it yet, they will next year when both he and Smith have left for the league. The women’s team will still be soaring with her airness Fran Belibi dunking all over the game, and the men’s team will return to its natural emaciated state. Number zero on the court and number one in my heart.

 

Contact Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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