Basketball Round Table: One step forward, two steps back

The Daily’s King Jemison, Daniel Martinez-Krams and Stephen Ren reflect upon the regular season as it draws to a close for men’s and women’s basketball

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With the close of the regular season drawing near, Stanford men’s and women’s basketball looks to finish off the season on a high note. The women currently boast a four-game winning streak as they head up North this upcoming weekend to face Washington and Washington State in the final two games of the season. Meanwhile, the men, who have lost by double digits in their last two games, will begin a three-game homestand on Thursday to round out the season. The Daily’s King Jemison, Daniel Martinez-Krams and Stephen Ren share their thoughts on the men’s recent desert road trip, women’s MVP and overall team performances.

 

The Stanford men’s basketball team had an abysmal weekend, dropping both of their road games in Arizona and essentially falling out of the race for a Pac-12 bye. What the hell happened in the desert, and how do the Cardinal rebound against Washington?

King Jemison (KJ): What happened is Stanford continued the road woes that have plagued them all season. After the consecutive losses in the desert, Stanford fell to 4-9 on the road and 5-11 away from Maples Pavilion in the 2018-19 campaign. They’ve only beaten one quality team on the road all season (Oregon State), and so, frankly, what happened against the Arizona schools wasn’t all that surprising. To borrow a phrase from Stanford reporter RJ Abeytia, the Cardinal are a very young team with a lot of talent. At home, they often play to the level of their talent and not their experience. On the road, their inexperience almost always haunts them and masks their tremendous potential. Perhaps Stanford will show off that talent in Maples this weekend and pick up their first win of the season over a probable NCAA tournament team (Washington). They need to if they want to have any chance at securing a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, although at two games back with three games remaining, that ship may have already sailed.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Stanford shot a combined 6-41 from three-point land in Arizona. Although the team is last in the conference in three-point field goal percentage, that mark is less than half of the season’s 31.7 percent. Still, the team continues to take an average of 20.7 threes per game, while senior center Josh Sharma is leading the entire conference in field goal percentage, mainly on the strength of overpowering dunks. Against Washington, Stanford will likely experience the same woes. The Huskies are leading the conference in steals, blocks and opposing shooting percentage. The strength of their defense is why they are allowing the fewest points per game in the Pac-12 and why they have only dropped one game in conference.

Stephen Ren (SR): The statline against Arizona State was almost comical. 9.5 percent from three? At the end of the day you win games by making shots, and if something is not working, you need to start looking for other options. I feel like that’s one of the main issues with the Cardinal squad — as King mentioned, so many of our core players are still quite inexperienced, and it is easy to let frustration get in the way of decision making. Perhaps the only bright spot for the Cardinal this weekend was Josh Sharma, who went seven for seven against the Devils and clinched a double-double against the Wildcats. Feed him. The silver lining in all of this is that the last three games of the season are all at home, where they stand 9-2 in the season. The bad news, of course, is that Washington is by far the best team in the conference. The Cardinal squad just needs to leave whatever happened in Arizona with the desert winds and focus on executing 100 percent against the Huskies — they damn sure are going to need it. A win against Washington could be a point of redemption for this entire season.

 

While the men slipped slightly, the women came through in the clutch with an incredible victory on Friday night over Arizona before walking all over Arizona State on Sunday. Who’s your MVP for the Cardinal in these two wins?

KJ: It has to be Alanna Smith, doesn’t it? The Wooden Award finalist had another huge weekend for the Cardinal, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and two blocks per game. Most importantly, Smith provided the clutch plays late against Arizona that bailed out the struggling Cardinal and helped them avoid an upset. Stanford was dead in the water late in the game against the Wildcats. Trailing 54-47 with 4:39 remaining, it looked like Stanford was on its way to an embarrassing loss, but then Smith came through with two clutch three-pointers, including one with 29 seconds remaining that gave the Cardinal its first lead of the fourth quarter. In all, Stanford ended the game on a 9-0 run that helped them keep pace with Oregon and Oregon State at the top of the Pac-12 standings and leaves them in the driver’s seat for a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

DMK: I’m going to go with Kiana Williams. Although she only scored six points in the win over Arizona State and on just 2-11 shooting, her impact cannot be understated. Williams played all forty minutes and led the team with seven assists, nearly half of the team’s fifteen. She had three of the team’s four steals, even while lining up against Aari McDonald, the nation’s third-leading scorer. Against Arizona State, Williams was lights out as usual. Leading the team with fifteen points and four assists, she played 35 minutes and had the highest plus/minus on the team at +25. She made three of eight from behind the arc and did not miss from inside on three shots. Williams has struggled through a sophomore slump all season, but she is breaking out at the right time and carrying the Cardinal to victory.

SR: Can we have co-MVP’s? I mean Alanna Smith has to be up there. Game winner in the clutch? Check. Scoring leader against Arizona? Check. The superstar has been the face of the team all season, and for good reason. But no one wants the obvious, easy answer. I’m going to give the other co-MVP to Lacie Hull, freshman sniper, three-point specialist. She shot 5-9 against Arizona, all of which were threes. She was on the court for a reason, and she delivered. The threat of her shooting spaces the floor and forces the defense to cover more distance, essentially elevating the production of all other Cardinal players who were on the court with her at the same time. What really tipped the balance for me though, was that despite being a freshman, she was unafraid to perform under pressure. When the Cardinal were down seven with four minutes left against Arizona, and it seemed that the unthinkable was going to happen again, she buried a three that sparked Stanford’s 9-0 run to end the game. Ice in her veins, as they say. Admittedly, I’m not really taking into account the Arizona State game, but to be brutally honest, did we really even need an MVP in that matchup?

 

As we approach the final three games of the season, it’s time to evaluate the teams’ seasons in their entireties. If you had to assign a letter grade to the seasons of the women’s and men’s teams, what would you give them, and why?

KJ: I’ll start with the good news first. Women’s basketball has undoubtedly earned an ‘A’ grade for this riveting season. The Cardinal started the year ranked seventh in the nation, and that’s exactly where they stand now. Along the way, they’ve picked up three top-10 wins, including a huge home victory over top-ranked Baylor. Plus, outside of a rough stretch in the middle of the season where Stanford lost three out of five games, the Cardinal have been remarkably steady and have largely avoided crushing upsets. Now, the final grade will be determined by Stanford’s performance in the NCAA Tournament, but with the Big Three of Alanna Smith, DiJonai Carrington and Kiana Williams leading the way, the Cardinal have every chance to reach the Final Four and perhaps even capture the program’s third national championship.

Now to the bad news. I give Stanford men’s basketball a ‘B-’ grade for the season. The Cardinal were picked ninth in the Pac-12 to start the season, and that’s also where they stand now. However, Stanford fans knew all along that the Cardinal were far more talented than their preseason projections showed, and the combination of that young talent and a putrid Pac-12 raised the expectations for the program to “NCAA Tournament or bust.” It doesn’t look like Stanford will get anywhere close to reaching those expectations unless they make a miracle run through the Pac-12 Tournament. That being said, the Cardinal have battled injuries and inexperience all season, and they have shown promise that could carry over to next season. KZ Okpala has developed into one of the best players in the Pac-12, and the combination of Daejon Davis, Bryce Wills and Cormac Ryans has the potential to be the best backcourt in the conference for years to come. If Okpala sticks around, next year should be the year Stanford finally breaks its NCAA Tournament drought. For now, the holding pattern continues.

DMK: When Stanford women’s basketball checks Axess, it grabs the band leader’s conducting stick and throws out victory balls to the crowd: A+. Stanford men’s basketball doesn’t check Axess, it took the season credit/no credit, and the mere fact that the program persists means they have passed.

Year after year, head coach Tara VanDerveer puts forth phenomenal teams that compete for Pac-12 titles and make deep NCAA runs. After 33 years, her teams consistently start the season with high expectations and surpass them. The team grows over the course of the season, and that learning is precisely what earns the team such a high grade. “This team is gritty,” VanDerveer said after last game. “I couldn’t say that at the beginning of the year.” You can tell a lot about a team from the development of its freshmen, and Stanford’s triplets are flourishing. Jenna Brown has 4.3 assists per forty minutes and has looked more than capable at the point. Lexie Hull has averaged 5.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. More importantly, her sister Lacie Hull, a three-star recruit, has become a consistent force, and she more than fits in. Against Arizona, Lacie Hull’s fifteen points on 5-9 from deep could not have been more clutch. Keep dancing.

The men passed. They had some games where they clearly had pre-read the lecture material and looked more than competent in section. Other times, the team had just woken up in time to rush over to Main Quad and hazily walked into class thirty minutes late. It didn’t matter; the professor only expected the team to show up some days and do some of the work, making some of the progress outlined in the syllabus.

SR: The women’s team was that one superstar in the class — you know, the one who effortlessly floats through problem sets and pulls in clutch in section with a discussion question when everyone else remains silent. Sure, midterm season hit them pretty hard, and for a span of about four games they were almost unrecognizable. After all is said and done, however, they again look like the ferocious team they were heading into conference play and have huge hopes for the postseason. For now, over-performing those early expectations and inexplicably imploding for a week all seems to balance out to an A. Grade inflation might be a thing on the farm, but those A+’s sure are hard to earn. Maybe an NCAA championship could bump them up.

Honestly, I’m not going to be that hard on the men’s team. They showed up, at times. They demonstrated against UCLA how potent they could be on offense. They forced overtime against Kansas. They delivered a miraculous, inexplicable, absolutely clutch performance against USC. As a fan, I really can’t help but feel a shimmer of hope every time one of these things happen, showing where the team’s true potential lies — but oh how truly soul crushing it is for them to come in the very next game and not even recognize how good they really are. What many wanted to see this season of was how the young stars might develop individually and as a unit, and the good news is that KZ, Daejon and Wills have shown flashes of what they can do together. I give the men’s team a B, if not for the results they ultimately failed to produce, but for the promise and potential they show if only they can be more consistent. Maybe I’m speaking from the perspective of an Italic professor.

 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu and Stephen Ren at rensteph ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California, which only makes him more determined to win the Ink Bowl. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.