How Good is Stanford?Posted by AMurawa on December 17th, 2011
Last season, Stanford was a pretty bad basketball team. They had all kinds of trouble scoring, especially early in the season, and weren’t much to look at defensively either. And given that it was one of the least experienced teams in the country (with an average of 1.15 years of experience, good for 315th in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy), that wasn’t really much of a surprise. The constant theme around the Cardinal program was that this team’s best days were in the future. Well, a year later, minus Jeremy Green, the team’s leading scorer in 2010-11 who gave up his final year of eligibility to chase an NBA dream (he, predictably, went undrafted), this team is a bit more experienced (1.53 years of experience now, up to 208th in the nation), and this team is unquestionably “good.” The question is, how good?
There haven’t been a ton of chances in the non-conference for the Cardinal to really gauge themselves against a high-caliber opponent, but in their one game against an elite team, against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship, Johnny Dawkins’ club acquitted itself quite well, taking a seven-point lead against the Orange under five minutes to play before folding to the pressure of the Orange and the pressure of the situation. Sophomore point guard Aaron Bright broke onto the national scene in that game, scoring 13 points on five-of-nine shooting, grabbing four rebounds, handing out four assists and snatching one steal, while freshman guard Chasson Randle seemed comfortable in the spotlight and senior Josh Owens proved that he could hang with some of the big boys in the nation. And Dawkins continued his run of seemingly always finding a hot hand to help off the bench to chip in, this time in the person of little used sophomore forward John Gage, who tossed in a couple threes on his way to ten points in 12 minutes. But, down the stretch Stanford’s poise and defensive excellence faded. In the final five minutes, Bright missed both of his field goal attempts and turned the ball over once, Randle was one-of-three with a turnover and Owens missed the front-end of a one-and-one, turned the ball over once and failed to grab a rebound. In the meantime, Syracuse was able to score 18 points on its final ten possessions (1.8 PPP) after having only scored 51 in its first 60 (0.85 PPP).
The question then is, which was the aberration? Was the real Stanford the team from the first 35 minutes that had a top-five national team on the ropes, or the team that was outscored by 13 points in the last five minutes? As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. While the Cardinal have shown a defensive efficiency (86.2, ninth in the country) that will likely keep them in contention throughout the season, this is still a team that is inexperienced, and what experience they do have has not yet been a part of a successful team. In short, this team needs to learn how to win close games, and the process of playing in a tight game with an elite team, such as Syracuse, should help along the learning process.
In fact, that Syracuse loss may have already paid dividends, as just over a week later the Cardinal hosted North Carolina State and found themselves trailing by as much as 12 in the second half. However, in that game Stanford played like the experienced squad down the stretch, while the Wolfpack looked like the young squad flailing away in clutch situations. All told, the Cardinal put on a 24-11 run in the final seven minutes to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point win. And it was a team effort with all sorts of players making big plays down the stretch to seal the deal. The team as a whole went 15-17 from the line during the run, while Owens had ten points, three rebounds, and an assist during that stretch, talented sophomore Anthony Brown had his breakout game of the season with eight points, an assist and a rebound down the stretch, and Randle and Bright handled the end game scenario with a poise unexpected from a first-year player.
And the Cardinal are only going to get better from here. Their most heralded member of last year’s freshman class, 6’9” wing Dwight Powell, missed the first couple of games with an injury and has yet to play more than 21 minutes in a game this season after averaging 24 minutes a night last year. He is certainly far more capable than he has shown so far this year, and as he gets acclimated, Dawkins will have another weapon to draw on. Classmate Josh Huestis may be right there with Bright in a battle for the most improved member of this team, and he gives the Cardinal an athletic presence up front, capable of throwing down big dunks, grabbing rebounds at a solid rate (22.3 DR%, 11.3 OR%), blocking a shot or two and being capable of stepping outside an knocking down the occasional jumper. Throw in veterans Andrew Zimmermann and Jarrett Mann along with another sophomore in Gabriel Harris and Dawkins has the luxury of a deep bench to play with.
The Cardinal have spent most of the last two weeks in lock-down mode, hitting the books, taking exams, and working in practice toward their chance to take the next step as a program over the course of conference play. They get started back up tonight with the first of a couple games that they can use to warm back up, when San Diego visits the Farm, but with their first Pac-12 games coming up in less than two weeks now, we are about to find out if their early season success is for real.