March 20, 2023
What happened to Stanford?
And how do the Cardinal fix it?
STANFORD — On Sunday night, Stanford did something it hasn’t done in 17 years: fail to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
The top-seeded Cardinal fell to eighth-seeded Mississippi, 54-49, in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Maples Pavilion. The loss was microcosm of the season for the Cardinal, who now head into the offseason with a lot of questions.
Heading into the season, Stanford completely changed its offense. The Cardinal were a 3-point shooting team with a dominant inside presence last year, before losing almost all their 3-point shooting in the Hull sisters and Anna Wilson.
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The Cardinal were going to play around Cameron Brink and Haley Jones, and that’s what they did. Brink was a star for the Cardinal this year, putting up a career-high in every statistical category after being the Pac-12 media Player of the Year in 2021-22. Jones and Jump added in double figures for the Cardinal this season. Despite all the changes, Stanford had figured it offensively for the majority of the year.
However, as the season progressed, the Cardinal offense started to struggle. They weren’t getting a lot of scoring from the perimeter and the loss of the guards from the year prior really started to show itself. They only hit double-digit threes once in all of Pac-12 play. They became one-dimensional.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, they had been inconsistent at times, especially over the last month of the season. In February alone, Stanford had six of eight games on the road, including games on Thursday and Monday, which isn’t normal during Pac-12 play. Add in the Pac-12 tournament, and the Cardinal were on the road for four of the final five weeks of the season. And it was a grind for Stanford down the stretch.
“I think that this last month has been really hard,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said following the game Sunday. “I do think that we try to rest our team as much as possible. But you know, we needed to be playing better than we are right now. I really think the traveling, I personally feel like the schedule of playing, basically, four weekends, two in a row, Mondays, Thursdays, I think the schedule really put us in a hole that this team, maybe other Stanford teams that maybe have more experience, or, you know, are further along in their development.”
No one failing doomed Stanford this year. When the Cardinal lost to South Carolina early in the season, they turned the ball over 22 times and blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. In the loss to USC, the Cardinal shot 30% from the field. Against Washington, they got out-rebounded by 10. Against Utah, the Cardinal gave up 12 threes and against UCLA they once again blew a fourth-quarter lead while getting out-rebounded.
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Against Mississippi on Sunday night, Stanford did all those things. They got out-rebounded by five. They turned the ball over 21 times, and they got outscored from the 3-point line. The Cardinal also struggled making easy shots right at the basket: Stanford was 10-for-31 on layups and missed some wide-open shots at the basket throughout the game, but especially in the first half. Mississippi played with a higher degree of toughness and never let Stanford get anything simple the entire night.
“I think we have a great inside game with Cam on the block, and I think Cam can be more versatile,” said VanDerveer. “I think we that struggled with perimeter shooting, and maybe shot selection, but I think it’s just really — there’s some young people that were thrown right into the deep end of the pool. Talana, even Agnes who is a young player, she’s older but I’m really proud of how hard our young players worked and the contributions they made. But it’s a lot harder than people think when they watch it. So we have a lot of work to do.”
The Cardinal really lost this game came on turnovers. They had 21 on the night, 12 of which came in the first half. They were incredibly sloppy with the ball, with a lot of the turnovers coming on passes that were nowhere near their target. Many of them were also post-entry passes that were not in the right spot or well-defended by Mississippi.
The Cardinal cleaned it up in the second half but had three huge ones in the final four possessions of the game. They had put in a lot of work to get the game tied using an 8-0 run over a four-minute stretch. However, on back-to-back possessions, the Cardinal couldn’t convert out of bounds plays and both ended up as turnovers. Neither play looked like it was going be successful from the start.
Now, as the Cardinal head into the offseason, they have a lot of self-reflection to do. The biggest player the Cardinal must replace is Haley Jones. Jones, who did struggle at times this season, has been a star for Stanford since she stepped on campus. She has grown into a point forward who can score and find teammates. Stanford will need to find a way to replace her scoring, passing and leadership, which is easier said than done.
“My time at Stanford has been interesting, I guess, you know, COVID, freshman year, that played into a lot of different things, and then the COVID season that’s unheard of,” Jones said. “I never expected that to be part of my college experience. Winning a National Championship, three Pac-12 Championships, 2 Pac-12 Tournament Championships; so I have a lot to be proud of for my Stanford career. It’s hard to feel that way right now, but I know at some point that will hit and sink in. I’m happy with my time at Stanford and the relationships I’ve made that are going to carry on past my playing days here. I’ve made a lot of great friendships. Yeah, I think my time at Stanford, I have a lot to be proud of.”
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They also lose Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel who had some big moments off the bench but haven’t been stars at Stanford over their career. They do bring back Hannah Jump, who is a phenomenal 3-point shooter and will bring great leadership for Stanford on the perimeter. The Cardinal will also return starting point guard Talana Lepolo, who had a good freshman season after being thrusted into the point guard role early in the year.
The returning bright star for Stanford is Cameron Brink, who will have to continue to play big, both literally and figuratively, for the Cardinal next year. Her size, strength and versatility make her incredibly dangerous, and she has already shown how much of a star she is. She will need to grow as a leader and see if she can continue to expand her game. She took one 3-pointer in her final 11 games of the season and hadn’t made a three since January 20. She will need to take and make outside shots to not only help her but help her team next season.
“Yeah, the ‘Funky Four,’ they were some of my closest friends my freshman year, and then they have taught me everything I know pretty much,” said Cameron Brink of Stanford’s departing players. “They helped me figure out the plays and whatever we’re doing. So it’s going to be really weird not having them by my side. I still feel like a kid honestly, so I’m really going to miss all of them telling me what to do and encouraging me and telling me to calm down and all that stuff. Yeah, they are just amazing. I think I’m like Haley, I’m still in shock, still processing that; that was my last game with all of them, so yeah.”
This offseason will require a lot of development of Stanford’s role players to continue the greatness. After Jones, Brink and Jump, no Stanford player averaged more than seven points. The Cardinal will need to see growth from all their young players. The development of players like Kiki Iriafen, Lauren Betts, Agnes Emma-Nnopu and Brooke Demetre will be incredibly important. Those are the players who will be most likely to replace the production of Jones, Belibi and Prechtel. All four of those players had a game or two throughout the season that was great but will need to be consistent if the Cardinal want to continue to be one of the elite teams in the country.
The biggest area of growth for Stanford is a need for consistent perimeter shooting and scoring. Stanford’s biggest offensive weapons on the perimeter were Jones and Jump. Jump will continue to be a great shooter, but the Cardinal need other scoring options from their guards if they want to get consistent offense throughout the season. They also will need Jump to add to her offensive game to become more than just a shooter.
The Cardinal will need their guards who will look to create their own shot when this year they only had guards who wanted to create for others. Whether Stanford can get this from their incoming freshman or if the Cardinal can use the transfer portal, a place they rarely dive into, to inject some of this will be vital. Developing an outside game to go with Cameron Brink inside will be the most important part of the offseason for Stanford. It will be an interesting offseason for the Cardinal who haven’t had the season end this early for them in a long time.
“Are there things that we can learn? I definitely think so,” VanDerveer said. “But a lot of it is, you know, just sometimes you have to go through different steps, and this is a team that, you know, we did struggle down the stretch and we have to address that with our team and figure out why.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.