The State of Stanford Basketball Heading Into a Huge Road TripPosted by AMurawa on December 18th, 2013
Way back before the start of the season, I got caught up saying some silly things: Stanford Sweet Sixteen this, Stanford Pac-12 contender that. And everybody I mentioned that kind of thing to just sorta blew me off, not even really bothering to offer up much of a reason why such notions were wrong-headed. I stuck to my guns, seeing a potentially potent offense and enough athleticism and depth to improve upon a poor defensive effort last season. While a nonchalant four-point win in the opener over Bucknell wasn’t impressive, it was easily written off with excuses about “first game of the year” and “oh, Bucknell’s pretty tough,” both of which were probably true to some extent. But then, against BYU in the second game, Stanford scored 103 points at home. And lost. In regulation. By nine. Alarm bells went off.
The Cardinal got back on track briefly, plowing through four mediocre teams and setting up a meeting with another significant challenge against Pittsburgh in Brooklyn. And it was not good. The team showed no heart in giving up 1.33 points per possession, and the same old questions about Johnny Dawkins’ ability to either: (a) gameplan to take advantage of his players’ strengths, or (b) coach his players up to the point where they can improve from season to season re-emerged. Stanford was officially buried until it could do something to prove that the team deserved to be taken seriously this season.
Since that time, the Cardinal have taken care of some bad teams, worked through a tough finals week and lost senior guard Aaron Bright to a season-ending dislocated shoulder suffered in practice. But beginning tonight and continuing on Saturday, this team has a chance to prove that it should be taken seriously. Fail in these two games – tonight at Connecticut, and Saturday against Michigan in Brooklyn – and we’ll check back in with Stanford in early February to see if anything has really changed. Otherwise, throw these guys on the scrap heap.
So where does Stanford stand, going into these big games? In losing Bright, they have lost a veteran who had some good offensive punch but was a defensive liability. In his place guards like Robbie Lemons and freshman twins Marcus and Malcolm Allen will see their roles increase. And while none of those guys is what anybody would call a polished offensive player, they’re all bigger, stronger and more athletic than the departed Bright. These three will get a chance to make Stanford better defensively, but really, they’re just going to be role players, delivering maybe a combined 25 minutes off the bench. If true improvement is going to come on that end of the floor, it is going to have to come from the quintet that seems to be more or less locked in as the starters and heaviest minute-eaters: Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell, and Stefan Nastic.
Under Dawkins this season, that lineup has been playing a lot of zone. That group has considerable size and athleticism, with only Randle among that group listed smaller than 6’6”. This lineup has been effective at keeping opponents out of the paint, limiting its opponents to just 30.2 percent of all shots coming at the rim, a solid number that is good for top 50 in the nation. Where the Cardinal are getting killed is the fact that they are allowing their opponents a lot of looks from three and their opponents are making them pay there. Just look at Stanford’s two losses; BYU and Pitt made a combined 16 of their 32 attempts from deep against the Cardinal. The numbers on the year aren’t a whole lot better, as opponents are taking about 34 percent of all their field goal attempts against Stanford from three-point land and making those shots at a 36 percent clip. Both of those numbers put the Cardinal in the bottom third of the nation in those categories.
With perimeter defenders as long and athletic as Brown (6’6”), Huestis (6’7”) and Powell (6’10”), these numbers simply will not stand. The Cardinal need to do a better job of getting out on shooters and putting a hand in their faces. And, while we’re at it, with size and athleticism all over the court, the number of possessions of man-to-man defense needs to increase. With Bright in the lineup, Dawkins often didn’t want to play man because of his obvious lack of height and athleticism, and maybe with Nastic on the court, he wants to limit the number of times he has to guard the pick and roll. But with Randle, one of the Allen twins, Brown at the three, Huestis at the four, and Powell at the five, there is absolutely no reason that this team cannot play man-to-man defense from dawn to dusk and be a solid (top 40?) defensive team.
That’s the main thing Stanford needs to show this week: improvement and a coherent defensive plan. The Cardinal will not be favored in either game, but with UConn currently ranked 33rd in offensive efficiency and Michigan 19th, you can bet the Cardinal will be challenged on that end. It sure would be nice to see the Cardinal win one of these two games – and that certainly is the goal – but it all begins with playing solid D. If Stanford gets so much as a split over the next four days, we can start to think about some of the other areas where they can improve (really, if you had Randle and Powell on your squad, wouldn’t you just run Randle off a Powell screen on every offensive play and just see what came out of it?), while if they head back to California with an oh-fer-the-trip, we can all feel perfectly comfortable writing this team off for good.