Stanford Can Win the Pac-12 With Its DefensePosted by mlemaire on December 5th, 2011
Mike Lemaire is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Sunday’s Stanford-NC State game.
For the first 33 minutes of its game against North Carolina State, Stanford looked nothing like the team that just nine days earlier had led No. 5 Syracuse by six points with less than five minutes to play. The Cardinal committed cheap fouls, they let the Wolfpack take open jump shots, and they allowed CJ Leslie and Ricardo Howell to catch the ball deep in the post for easy baskets. Then, over the next four minutes, Johnny Dawkins’ team played with a renewed sense of urgency. They pressured the ball, fought through screens, were more physical on the low blocks and grabbed every rebound in sight. The result was a defensive effort that proved they are a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 crown.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Cardinal was ranked eighth in the country in defensive efficiency. But with a little more than seven minutes left to play, NC State had opened up a 61-52 lead and Stanford’s defense was the primary guilty party. The Wolfpack shot 55.6% from the field in the first half to lead by four entering halftime, and Mark Gottfried’s team took advantage of Stanford’s flat start to the second half to increase the gap. But by the time the game clock read3:06, Stanford led 64-63 and they looked nothing like the same defense that had been on its heels four minutes earlier. They only forced two turnovers, but the Wolfpack had only mustered three free throws. The Cardinal never trailed again, finishing off a 76-72 win and posting perhaps the best non-conference win they will get all season long.
It helped that Leslie (14 points, 6-8 FG), easily the Wolfpack’s most effective player, missed most of the second half while battling cramps, and shooter Scott Wood fouled out with a little more than five minutes to play. Leslie’s versatility has proved unstoppable for much of the first half as he basically had his way on the offensive end, and even Dawkins admitted Leslie’s exit had an impact on the dynamic of the game. “We didn’t think we defended very well in the first half and that is why you saw a lot of new guys to start the second half. There is no question that with [Leslie] out that hurt them a lot,” Dawkins said. “But in the second half I thought we did a very good job of defending them in the low post and controlling the boards, so you have to give our kids credit.”
But the win was’t just a resume-builder for the young Cardinal team. It was also an excellent illustration of the difference between last season’s underwhelming 15-16 club, and the current 8-1 version of the Cardinal that looks like one of the best teams in the conference. The difference, at least according to their coach, is the players’ familiarity with the system and with the rigors of college basketball. Last year’s Cardinal team featured nine new players and that’s not even including senior Josh Owens who missed all but one game in 2009-10 with a medical condition. This year’s team is still young, but with a year of experience under their belt and a better understanding of Dawkins’ defensive preaching, the results are evident. “The biggest difference is that now they know what we want. Last year everyone had to learn it and there was a lot of teaching,” Dawkins said. “Now they understand what they have to do. But there is still a lot of room for improvement and growth on this team.
Comfort isn’t the only reason The Cardinal defense is markedly better. It also has a lot to do with the personnel Dawkins has at his disposal. Outside of Owens, Stanford’s frontcourt of Andrew Zimmerman, Stefan Nastic, and Jack Trotter doesn’t provide much offense. But they are all big, physical defenders who rebound the basketball well. Wings Jarrett Mann, Anthony Brown, and Josh Huestis are all athletic enough to be capable perimeter defenders, but they also are efficient rebounders and versatile enough to guard multiple positions. Point guard Aaron Bright makes up for his diminutive stature with active hands, and freshman shooting guard Chasson Randle has the length and quickness to become a shutdown defender like he was Sunday when he harassed Wood and Lorenzo Brown into a combined 7-18 performance from the field.
Their offense is better than last year, but it still isn’t very far above average. But coupled with that tenacious defense and a watered-down conference where almost every team has plenty of holes, Stanford has to be considered a threat to win the Pac-12. Of course, neither Dawkins nor Owens said they had given much thought as to their place in the conference pecking order, but a quick glance at the early conference standings makes it clear that there are few teams standing in their way.
California is a balanced and veteran team, but they aren’t very deep and that was before leading rebounder Richard Solomon was suspended indefinitely for a violation of university and team rules. Washington has plenty of talent and offensive firepower, but five of the players in their eight-deep rotation are underclassmen and their frontcourt is painfully thin and inexperienced. Arizona and Oregon State could be considered contenders, but, like Washington, both rely heavily on underclassmen and neither of them have the defensive ability to shutdown an opponent the way Stanford did against the Wolfpack on Sunday.
The ability to turn up the defensive intensity and lock down opponents is a luxury that very few teams in the country have and it should be considered an incredible weapon. Sunday Stanford proved it can play sub-par defense for more than two-thirds of the game and still turn it up when it’s needed. If that isn’t convincing enough, consider this. Since 2003, The Cardinal have twice finished in the top-20 nationally in defensive efficiency. Once in 2004, when they stormed their way to a 30-2 record and the Pac-12 title, and again in 2008, when they finished 28-8 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Does the Cardinal have an encore performance in mind?