Stanford Basketball: What Needs to Change?Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 15th, 2013
So, Stanford. You, me and just about everybody the both of us know were ready to write them off on Monday night, following their pitiful defensive performance against an admittedly very good offensive team in BYU. But, given the underachieving we’ve seen from the Cardinal in recent years, given the questionable coaching from Johnny Dawkins, and given their uninspired performance on a pretty big ESPN-created stage, one couldn’t have been blamed for just throwing in the towel and moving on to greener pastures. But here’s the thing. It’s one loss early in the year to a team that will likely be pretty firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture in four months. Come Selection Sunday, a loss to BYU, even a home loss, is not going to kill anybody.
Meanwhile, last night, Stanford looked, well – certainly not dominant or anything, certainly not good enough to completely erase the memory of Monday night’s non-existent defense – but they looked, at the very least, like they understood that defense mattered. They blocked six shots, they snatched six steals, they forced 16 turnovers, and they held a halfway decent offensive Northwestern team (albeit in the midst of a coaching transition) to less than 0.90 points per possession. Now the preceding are not necessarily stats upon which hats are hung, but they show progress. And they show that the team is capable of dialing in the defense.
But, there are concerns. Many, many concerns. We could start anywhere, but let’s start where BYU exposed the most glaring weakness on Monday: defense. The most egregious place where the Cardinal got exposed against the Cougars was a simple one: effort. The Cardinal repeatedly failed to box out rebounders; they showed no inclination to stop the ballhandler in transition; there was no communication between teammates. These are simple fundamentals. And sure, it’s November and in most cases you could say, oh, this team will improve as they get used to each other. But this is a team made up of mostly juniors and seniors. How do these guys not have a grasp of those fundamentals by this stage? As mentioned before, there was improvement last night, although against a lesser offensive opponent, but we’ll need to keep an eye on how this effort issue progresses this season.
The other issue defensively for the Cardinal is simple match-ups. It seems like Dawkins is convinced his best lineup is Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell, and Stefan Nastic (leaving aside for a minute why exactly Dawkins seems compelled to get Nastic and all his grace and coordination of a newborn deer onto the court). With this lineup, Brown, a 6’6” guy not yet known for his defensive ability, is locked into guarding athletic twos, while Huestis, a guy best suited to being an interior defender (even if a very good and versatile one), winds up guarding wings on the perimeter. Oh, and then you’ve got Nastic, a player with, what, 11 career blocks, protecting the rim? That doesn’t seem to work. The other option, and the starting lineup that was often projected prior to the year, shifts Brown, Huestis and Powell down a slot and slides Aaron Bright in alongside Randle in the backcourt, but that lineup leaves the Cardinal with a backcourt of 5’11” and 6’2” starters. While the shorter Bright brings some upside offensively, his limited offensive punch the last couple seasons can’t quite make up for his defensive liabilities. Perhaps sliding in lesser offensive guys like freshman Marcus Allen or senior Robbie Lemons as a defensive specialist alongside those talented starters is the answer. Either way, it will require flexibility and foresight from the coaching spot to manage the Stanford defensive rotation, a requirement that can’t inspire confidence in the Cardinal faithful at this point.
One last thing, tangentially tied into the offensive side of things, which of course hasn’t been the issue thus far. But, it seems like these guys sorta don’t like each other a whole lot. You see cross looks and bad body language between teammates at times, especially when things are breaking down. And while there are lots of things that could be at the root of this, let’s mention that last year the Cardinal assisted on fewer than 50 percent of all field goals made, meaning a whole lot of offensive production was coming from one-on-one moves. That was good for 264th in the country, while a team like, oh, I dunno, Northwestern, was getting assists on better than 70 percent of all its field goals. This year, those numbers are actually down for the Cardinal – they’re assisting on just 42.8 percent of all field goals and haven’t topped 50 percent once yet. This isn’t great. Let’s put it this way: Only nine teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year had a lower assist percentage than did the Cardinal last year; two were #16 seeds, one a #13 seed, and one was Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss as a #12. Oh, and note that only one of these teams, Miami (FL), made it to the second weekend of the Tournament – and the Hurricanes flamed out in impressive style to an underdog built on sharing the ball. Only two teams that made the tourney last year – Illinois and Colorado – had a lower assist percentage than the Cardinal do this year.
All those numbers aside, while it is quite fine for a coach to play to his team’s strengths, and there are certainly some good offensive players here like Powell and Randle who are quite good at creating for themselves, sharing the ball is not only a hallmark of a good offensive squad, it is the hallmark of a good, cohesive team. Dropping off a nice dime to your teammate on the offensive end might just lead to that teammate stepping up and having your back on help defense on the other end of the court. Heck, the simple fact that your teammate just threw you an alley-oop may be enough to get you to call out a switch or a shot or, damn, anything on the defensive end. And while there may not be a chemistry category on KenPom, you can bet your butt that teams that have each other’s backs, teams that like playing with each other on the court and like being around each other in the locker room, are going to be just a little bit more effective. And that little bit may be the difference between an NIT berth and an NCAA invitation on the good side of the bubble. And once you’re on the good side of the bubble, who knows what might happen.