Top-ranked Stanford next for Tide

The Crimson Tide will take on #1 ranked and #1 seeded Stanford Saturday in the 2nd round of NCAA action in Seattle. Though holding a lofty ranking, the Cardinal are not an offensive juggernaut and instead win with defense. With a balanced starting five and 10-man rotation, there is much to scout for this season-defining test...

By now you know the reputation of the 2003-2004 Stanford Cardinal. The basketball team is ranked #1 in America and gradually picked up national acclaim throughout the season as they racked up wins. By the time they ran their record to 26-0, with a pair of buzzer-beater magical finishes against Arizona and Washington State, the country was on the edge of their collective seat waiting for the other shoe to drop. It finally fell in Stanford's 27th game at Washington, where the Card collapsed in a horrific loss. The vaunted Stanford defense was inconsistent, while the jump shooting on offense tossed up an alarming number of airballs and bricks.

If you at all believe in superstitions, or perhaps a dallop of destiny, then take note that Saturday's game between the Cardinal and the Crimson Tide takes place at the scene of that lone loss: Seattle. The state of Washington has been unkind to the Card this year, with the loss to the Huskies, a near-defeat in Pullman and Thursday's frankly embarrassing performance. Stanford defended its #1 seed weakly against UT-San Antonio as they gave up 18 offensive rebounds to a decidedly undersized squad, turned the ball over 20 times, and failed to score in the low post with its vaunted frontline.

Bama fans will also be happy to note recent history for Mike Montgomery's squads at this level of NCAA play. While Stanford has been perfect in each of the last 10 straight years in first round play, they have only three times won their second round game. In four of the last five years, they have been bounced in the Round of 32, including huge upset losses in 2000 as a #1 seed to #8 North Carolina and 1999 as a #2 seed to #10 Gonzaga.

The bad news is that the only two teams in Stanford history who have started the year off anywhere near as hot as this year's edition - both made it deep into the Tournament. In 1997-1998 the Card started the season 18-0 and finished the year in the Final Four, dropping a one-point loss in overtime to Kentucky. In 2000-2001, Stanford started the year 20-0 and ended in the Elite Eight only when a red-hot Maryland squad knocked them off. The boys in cardinal and white blasted through those two starting marks this year, but there is no reason to confuse this team with those.

The 1998 Final Four team had arguably the best size in the nation with eight players 6'7" or taller, to go with a sizzling outside game that shot a team-average of 40.8% from three-point range. That 2001 Elite Eight squad had four NBA players on the roster, including All-America wing Casey Jacobsen and the indominitable Collins Twins down low. The team shot 51.1% from the field and 42.9% from three-point land, outscoring opponents by 17.7 points per game. All five starters could shoot from the perimeter, and four hit 40% or better from downtown - including seven-footer Jason Collins.

Those teams were offensive machines, while this year's team has won games with a very different set of weaponry. While Mike Montgomery teams through the years have always played good defense, this year's team might be the most versatile and consistent defense Stanford has ever known. The 38.5% shooting they allow cannot match the 35.2% from four years ago that broke the NCAA record, but this year's defense is more difficult to scout and beat. Montgomery has spent his coaching career sticking religiously to man defenses, but for the last two seasons he has embraced a 1-1-3 zone defense as well as some 2-3 zone. In either case, the Stanford zone rotates around on the perimeter to clamp down on the wings with Stanford's energetic and aggressive guards. Because it rotates players toward the ball, it leaves openings on the backside which are succeptible to attack and open shots, but that requires quick and accurate ball rotation or skip passes to get there.

Montgomery has been superb this year in switching between man and zone defenses, and few coaches have found answers against that arsenal. If a team cannot prove that they can shoot over the zone, Montgomery is happy to stick with it into perpetuity. When Stanford knocked off then #1 Kansas back in December, Bill Self and the Jayhawks learned that the hard way. Alternatively, if Stanford is playing a base man defense (which is still how Montgomery likes to play, in his heart of hearts) and experiments with the zone for a possession or two, they will switch immediately back to man if hit by an open three-pointer. The 18-year Cardinal coach frankly does not have the patience with a zone if it is immediately proven succeptible.

Two reasons that Stanford has added zone defenses to its repertoire:

1) The nature of its guards. While both players are committed to defense and work like heck at it, this year's starting backcourt lacks some of the lateral quickness that has been found in recent Cardinal guards. In individual matchups, Chris Hernandez and Matt Lottich can be beaten by the quicker guards and wings out there. The zone lets them cover space on the floor rather than putting them on an island against a ballhandler. The zone also takes advantage of the great hustle and energy these two put into defense. It's a perfect match.

2) The thin frontcourt. Stanford has been historically stacked high and deep with post players but these last two years have been saddled with a thin rotation. Injury or foul trouble have made the margin for error even smaller with big men. Protecting them with zone defenses, when appropriate, can help Mike Montgomery get more mileage out of his men.

On the other end of the court, Stanford runs some offense that also differs from what you might have seen in past years for this program. Montgomery is rather famous for his number of set plays that his teams run, and there is no lack of depth or complexity this year. However, there is more motion now than ever before, in addition to some set plays. The evolution of this program, with the athleticism and versatility of its players, has engendered a much more attacking style of offense. Josh Childress is the poster boy for that evolution, and for attacking the defense from all angles. You may be surprised when you see the number of plays where individuals like Childress are allowed and encouraged to freelance out of the motion offense and create baskets.

Starters

PG #11 Chris Hernandez So* 6'2" 190 10.0 ppg 4.4 apg 45.7% 3FG
SG #33 Matt Lottich Sr 6'4" 210 12.3 ppg 3.5 apg 35.6% 3FG
SF #1 Josh Childress Jr 6'8" 207 15.8 ppg 7.5 rpg 50.2% FG
PF #22 Justin Davis Sr* 6'8" 245 10.7 ppg 6.4 rpg 57.5% FG
C #42 Rob Little Jr 6'10" 265 9.7 ppg 5.4 rpg 57.8% FG

As the scoring averages tell you, this is a balanced offense, which has been its hallmark all year. When this team is its best, individuals don't grab your attention. Neither do they do that for opposing coaches, because all five players can be scoring threats. As soon as a defense keys on one or two players, the other starters and positions should be talented enough to make that coach pay.

Chris Hernandez is the most unassuming scorer, though there have been spurts this year where he has surprised and taken over games. He is possibly the toughest kid on this team, and that says a lot for a roster that is most often praised by its coach for its toughness. Hernandez sets up the offense and is an excellent distributor, with an assist:turnover ratio just shy of 2:1. In recent weeks he has taken it upon himself to drive to the basket a little more - sometimes finishing, sometimes dishing out. I don't expect this from him unless he feels his teammates are just too flat. Where the redshirt sophomore has killed opponents has been his three-point shooting. The other players on this team demand enough defensive attention that he often is left alone on the perimeter. A great passing team like Stanford will find him with smart ball rotation for open shots, which he knocks down. #1 three-point shooter in the Pac-10, as well as the top free throw shooter (91.4%).

Matt Lottich is a great complement to Hernandez, with a fearless shooter's mentality at any point in a game. He is the gunner who buried Gonzaga and Kansas, plus the miracle shot two weeks ago to beat Washington State at the buzzer. Lottich is a streaky shooter, however. He hit 3-of-6 Thursday and 4-of-5 in the first half of the Pac-10 Tournament title game, but he also shot 0-of-6 in the Washington loss... with some ugly airballs in there. Rarely is he open for simple catch-and-shoot situations, given how coaches have defended him with overplay this year. But he runs around the floor until he is red in the face (literally), weaving under and around screens until he can get enough space to let a shot rip. Very high release point over his head lets him get off his shot almost whenever he wants. Like Hernandez, he has driven to the basket a little more than usual of late. Very, very underrated passer has a 1.83 assist-turnover ratio and makes sweet entry lob passes into the low post.

Josh Childress is the best known superstar on this team, though he is so loved by his teammates because he has an incredible lack of ego for all that talent. Long frame includes a big wingspan that makes him a tough defender on any perimeter player, but more importantly his length and explosiveness make him possibly the best rebounding small forward in the country. He is a real high-flyer, which you have undoubtedly caught on SportsCenter. One look at him shows you that he could be stronger, and that is occasionally a liability, but not often. Despite size that could let him play the power forward, Childress very clearly is at his best facing the basket and attacking from the perimeter. His explosive first step and long stride helps him blow by defenders, with his favorite path coming along the left baseline. But a big key for Childress this year has been his improving shooting touch, which now has him hitting career highs in field goal and three-point percentages. Also an effective shotblocker. He has really come on strong after missing the first nine games of the year with a stress reaction in his foot. Joined the starting lineup for the 15th game of the year, after he was rehabilitated and integrated. Clear NBA talent and probable lottery pick in 2005, if not this year.

Justin Davis might be the best offensive rebounding forward in the nation, and he has unmatched quickness for his size and strength. The fifth-year senior can drive to the basket from 23 feet out if you give him a lane, but he is never a threat to shoot from any range even close to that. Used to face up out to 10 or 12 feet, but he is just a few games into his return from a knee injury he suffered in late January and is much more conservative. His offensive array of moves, when put together with his quickness and explosiveness make him almost unstoppable when he's on. But he has never earned the star power of a Childress because Davis has been plagued with inconsistency as well as injury in his college career. Some nights he is hitting every fadeaway jumper he tosses up, plus a nifty array of up-and-under moves and dribble-drive scores. Other nights he picks up fouls faster than baskets with thoughtless reaches on defense, and then a multitude of missed chippies on offense. It's hard to say what you will see from Davis on Saturday, just because those of us who watch him and know him best do not know what to expect on any given day. The fact that this is just his third start since a six-week injury layoff compounds his unpredictability. Great leaper and also quick hands on defense.

Rob Little is the most unsung of the starters, but he has been pretty valuable to Stanford this year. If you happened to watch Little and Stanford get beaten by UConn a year ago in the NCAA 2nd round, you may not recognize the big-bodied center. He carried 30 pounds more on his cheeseburger-filled frame then than his reshaped physique of today. The benefits have been many, including better endurance to play in the second halves of games, better lift on his rebounds and better ability to run the floor. He has surprised even Stanford fans with his improved scoring this year, especially while Davis was out of the lineup. He still has some pretty bad games and halves, though. Old tendency is to pick up tired, silly or frustration fouls. Good passer but not always the softest and most alert hands to receive passes in close quarters. Has totally disappeared from a few games this year. High beta player, much like Davis.

Bench

PG #32 Jason Haas So 6'2" 191 1.6 ppg 1.3 apg 37.1% FG
SG #20 Dan Grunfeld So 6'5" 211 3.5 ppg 0.8 apg 23.3% 3FG
G/F #21 Nick Robinson Jr* 6'7" 206 6.2 ppg 3.5 rpg 46.6% FG
PF #52 Matt Haryasz Jr 6'10" 225 6.8 ppg 4.1 rpg 52.0% FG
C #00 Joe Kirchofer Sr* 6'9" 250 3.9 ppg 3.2 rpg 56.7% FG

Montgomery loves to tighten his bench late in the season, but he has had so few games this year with all five of his staters healthy that the rotation has still been fluid. Jason Haas has to play minutes every game to spell Chris Hernandez, if for no other reason than to keep down the beating that Hernandez' back takes when he plays his instictively physical and fearless style. Haas is pretty steady by now, though his weakness has been his unwillingness to score. It was not at all uncommon to see take zero shots in a game, though he has turned the corner a little bit in that respect and is being much more conscientious about scoring now when he has the ball. Classmate Dan Grunfeld has similar problems, though he shouldn't. The savvy sophomore has an outstanding feel for the game and knows how to score in traffic, as well as how to shoot a textbook three-pointer. But his confidence in his offense in games has been uneven at best. Pretty good at putting the ball on the floor and weaving through the key to get fouled at the basket. Clever passer and underrated defender, especially at midrange.

But Grunfeld's minutes should in theory be drying up right now as Nick Robinson takes more of the reserve minutes at the two-guard. Robinson is a name you might recall from that 35-foot running jumper to win at the buzzer against Arizona in the classic game of a month ago, but the talking heads on ESPN erroneously labeled him a third-stringer. He in fact has been a starter almost all year, at both forward positions. He has even spent stints at point guard and is used to bring the ball across midcourt. There is no more versatile and valuable player for Stanford this year, and now he is taking on an even more varied role with Childress and Davis both healthy and starting. Look for Robinson to play reserve minutes at the two, as well as the three and possibly the four. Montgomery would like to keep him at the two wing positions, but occasionally Stanford needs to go small and put Robinson at the power forward. Gets more loose balls and steals than you would believe, and he is a great defender. Long legs allow him to drive to the basket with big and deceptively quick strides. His one weakness has been his reticence toward shooting from the perimeter. To that end, the scouting report on him is to play off and make him shoot.

Matt Haryasz and Joe Kirchofer are the guys who you know will play big minutes and you know which position you will see them. Haryasz is a springy sophomore with great leaping ability, agility and quickness for his size. He has enjoyed somewhat of a breakout year with his added size and strength, which allow him to better hold onto rebounds. Most importantly, Haryasz is playing with a lot more confidence. Super-sweet shooting touch out to 18 feet. Loves to shoot from the free throw line, and like Davis he can blow right by big forwards from outside. Best natural shotblocker on the team, with great timing and leaping. But officials often tag him with fouls on his surprising blocks. Can still get pushed around a little by bigger and more physical players. He is going to be a great one, and this year has real sparks of splendor - just don't know when and for how long at a time. Kirchofer has almost none of the athletic abilities of Haryasz, but the fifth-year senior has played great the last few weeks and is earning more minutes. He has learned a lot in his years and is very solid in the low post. He does not have a very effective high post game, but on occasion he has shot a free throw line jumper. His best scoring move is a little jump hook. Gets most of his points off offensive rebounds and putbacks.

-- If you would like to share some friendly banter before (and after) Saturday's game with Stanford fans, please visit our basketball message board at TheBootleg.com.


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