Pac-12 Game of the Week: Stanford vs. SyracusePosted by AMurawa on November 25th, 2011
When the last remaining undefeated Pac-12 team, Stanford, knocked off Oklahoma State on Wednesday night to advance to the championship game of the NIT Season-Tip Off to face the #5 team in the country, Syracuse, we had our Pac-12 game of the week all set up. Let’s preface the rest of this post by saying that we, like most of the rest of the college hoops public, have no expectation that Stanford will win this game. The Cardinal are a young team, still very much in the process of improving, and they’re facing a team that is arguably as talented as anyone in the country on a neutral-site court that will be anything but neutral. Can Stanford beat Syracuse? I point you to Exhibits A, B and C, to show that, sure, anything can happen, but the fact is Cardinal fans should temper their expectations. The goal is to win, but if they play the Orange close, that’s a success.
So, how does the Cardinal go about playing the Orange close? First and foremost, they need to be thankful today for their video coordinator and go to school on Jim Boeheim’s zone. Conventional wisdom says you attack the 2-3 zone by getting into the middle of it and playing inside out. Stanford has two good candidates to man the middle offensively against the zone: senior forward Josh Owens and sophomore forward Dwight Powell. Both are capable passers who can handle the ball a bit when needed, and each can turn around and hit the 15-foot jumper on the rare occasion when they are given space. Either player is also capable of flashing to the baseline when the ball is kicked back out to the guards and either hitting the baseline jumper or putting the ball on the floor and attacking the meat of that lengthy Syracuse zone. However, because of that length (the Orange feature seven-footer Fab Melo in the middle, with guys like 6’7” senior Kris Joseph, 6’9” freshman Rakeem Christmas, 6’10” sophomore Baye Moussa Keita, and 6’7” sophomore C.J. Fair elsewhere along the frontcourt), not only will the windows to get off jumpers disappear quickly, but any shots inside will be challenged.
When the Cardinal are able to get the ball in the middle and collapse the zone a bit before kicking the ball back out to the perimeter, they’ll need players to make shots. So far on the year sophomore point guard Aaron Bright is knocking down threes at a 51.9% clip, but they’ll also need help elsewhere. Last year as a freshman, Anthony Brown knocked down over 35% of his three-point attempts, and he was expected to improve on that this season. However, he struggled out of the gate before knocking down two threes in each of his last two games. He’ll need to continue that streak, as will freshman guard Chasson Randle, who hit three threes in the Oklahoma State game.
On the other end of the court, the Cardinal have their hands full. As good as the Orange defense has been, their offense has been even better. They’ve been absolutely killing it on the offensive glass, grabbing 45% of offensive rebound opportunities (albeit largely against sub-par competition). However, given Stanford’s strength on the defensive glass (they’ve grabbed 78.5% off all defensive rebound opportunities – or to match apples to apples, have limited opponents to a 21.5 OR%), they’ll provide the best challenge on the glass for the Orange yet this season. However, the Orange are bigger than anyone the Cardinal have seen so far, so if you’re looking for something to give here, it is more likely to be the underdog that blinks.
As far as individual matchups when the Orange have the ball, there is no reason that the Stanford guards can’t hang with the backcourt led by Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, and Dion Waiters (although Waiters is probably more athletically explosive than anyone on Stanford). The problem comes in the frontcourt. Owens is ostensibly the Cardinal center, but he’s generously listed at 6’8”; Powell is a bit taller at 6’9”, but he doesn’t have the strength or temperament to bang down low with bigger guys; Andrew Zimmerman, though a hustle guy, lacks great athleticism; and Josh Huestis may have the athleticism, but he’s undersized and under-experienced. Johnny Dawkins will have to piece together something defensively along the frontcourt, but sooner or later Syracuse could wear down the Cardinal frontcourt.
So, aside from a literal win, what’s a moral victory for the Cardinal? Dawkins would love to see his young team weather the storm early, playing on a big stage against a top five team in their backyard. The Orange could ride the excitement to an early lead, but Stanford needs to maintain its composure, fight on the glass and on the defensive end and see a couple of shots go in early. While Syracuse’s talent edge should eventually win the day, Cardinal fans should be very pleased if their team is within shouting distance at the final TV timeout.