Can Stanford Begin to Turn Its Season Around?Posted by AMurawa on December 21st, 2012
Stanford is halfway through its big two-game non-conference road trip and, heading into their game with Northwestern on Friday night, they’re in a position they certainly didn’t want to be in: The Cardinal almost has to win that game. Their non-conference strength of schedule has been solid, but thus far they’ve played four teams in the top 100 of the RPI and come away with four losses. The game against the Wildcats represents their final chance to make something of a mark prior to Pac-12 play, as NU is currently #72 in the RPI.
Thus far, the Cardinal have found plenty of different ways to lose. Against Belmont it was poor shooting — both from the free throw line and from the field — that doomed them to an upset loss. Missouri killed them on the glass and forced turnovers on roughly a quarter of their possessions. Against Minnesota, it was an inability to keep from fouling, especially in a critical late-game scenario, and mediocrity in all phases of the game, where one additional made play could have been the difference between a win and a loss. Then Tuesday night, the Cardinal found new and inventive ways to drop a game; they committed just six turnovers and shot a 50% eFG, but only earned six free throw attempts for themselves and showed a complete inability to keep their opponent from getting good looks.Stanford can excuse away some of those losses with awful timing on an injury to Aaron Bright and horrid shooting between their backcourt combo of he and Chasson Randle. The two are a combined 18-of-84, or 21.4%, from three this year, a figure cut in more than half after last year’s combined 43.7% last season. Certainly those guys have earned some good looks and, in another place and time, maybe a healthy percentage of those shots would have fallen and the Cardinal are instead something like 9-2 with a pair of good wins. But that’s not the case, and excuses and explanations aside, they’re still sitting there with a 7-4 record against the 80th toughest schedule (according the RPI) with their best win over RPI #144 San Francisco (I would argue that their best win was the Battle 4 Atlantis win over Northern Iowa, but if the NCAA Selection Committee is gonna use the RPI, its silly to try to use some other, likely better, metric).
So, aside from simply making more shots, what does Stanford need to do to come away with a victory on Friday night, and what do they need to improve on to have success the rest of the year? Well, first, despite the rather amazing depth that Johnny Dawkins has at his disposal, it is time for the head coach to shorten the bench. Against NC State, 12 players saw playing time. Only once this year, despite four games decided by 10 points or less (all of which were losses), have fewer than 11 players seen action, and that was in the opener when 10 guys played. Now, I’ll admit, some of the guys down there at the end of the bench – guys like Robbie Lemons and Stefan Nastic and Grant Verhoeven and Gabriel Harris – may be among the best 10th-, 11th- and 12th-men in the country. And, yeah, there may be nights that, for instance, Verhoeven’s physicality is preferable to, say, Rosco Allen’s athleticism or John Gage’s jumper. Or vice versa. And there is something to be said for keeping your entire roster involved and ready. But the downside to playing 12 different guys on a regular basis is that none of those bench players ever get a chance to build a rhythm. Based on minutes alone, its clear that Dwight Powell, Josh Huestis, Bright and Randle are the key cogs here, with Andy Brown earning better than 20 minutes off the bench, so it is just time to figure out who the other role players will be that Dawkins is going to rely on.
The second measure I would recommend is something that may already be in place: It is time to recognize that Powell is this team’s go-to guy. Sure, Randle and Bright, when they’re hitting shots, are a fearsome backcourt duo, but Powell has blown up this season and gone from a tentative player with amazing upside to an aggressive, confident star whose time is now. It’s not often you find 6’10” players with jump-out-of-the-gym ability who can not only knock down the 18-footer with regularity, but also blow by a defender who cheats up on the jumper to get to the rim. It’s even rarer that such a player’s skill set is varied enough to include good court vision, excellent passing ability, and all sorts of ways to finish around the rim. The well-deserved knock on Powell his first two seasons was that he was too skinny and soft, a long body that wanted to play around the perimeter. Well, Powell’s put in the time to add bulk and strength to his frame, and with his re-made body, he often shows a re-made mindset, looking for contact and trying to finish through the harm (although, it should be noted that too often on Tuesday night, Powell shied away from contact and limited himself to perimeter play). A player like that is the kind of guy you want to build around. And better still, a player like that is going to draw eyes and bodies away from the team’s other weapons, including Randle and Bright. If Powell is the primary focus of the offense, he’s capable of making the entire team better.
Now, much of this is already in progress. Thus far this year, Powell is second on the team in percentage of shots taken (24.6%, just behind Randle’s 27.4%). And, in recent weeks, Powell’s numbers have exploded. Since putting up just three attempts in a foul-plagued effort against UNI, he hasn’t once attempted less than 10 field goals in a game and he’s averaging 13 attempts and just shy of 30% of all of his team’s attempts when he’s on the floor. And, while Randle has still struggled from the field over the course of those games, Bright has come back from injury and started to hit shots again. He’s shooting nearly 44% from three over the last three games in the new Powell-dominated offense. All of these are good signs. And, should the shooting percentages of Bright and Randle continue to inch back toward the mean, the Cardinal should have plenty of good days ahead of them. They should only hope that those good days start on Friday.