Beware the Palouse

Stanford hits Friel Court tonight in Pullman, WA for the first of two final and fretful regular season games in the Northwest. Most media hounds have Saturday's game in Seattle circled as the date when the other shoe drops on the #1-ranked Stanford Cardinal season, but recent history teaches us to give the proper respect to the Palouse. Dick Bennett has Washington State turned around and ready for tonight's upset bid...

When you hold road winning streaks of seven at Pauley Pavilion and four at the McKale Center, it is easy to overlook tonight's game at Friel Court in Pullman, WA.  Stanford has won eight straight in the Palouse, with the last road loss coming back in 1995.  But there is something about Pullman that has provided a number of disturbingly tight games the last few years.  The last time a Stanford team rattled off 20 wins to start the season in 2000-01, it was a single-point affair inside the eight-minute media timeout in Pullman that shocked a nation of fretful Cardinal fans.  Stanford won by just 11 that night, which was the third tightest game to date for that 19-0 team.  The fabled Duke win was by a single point, and the Arizona win in Tucson came by a nine-point margin.

Last year saw the feel-good Cardinal stretched to a gut-renching overtime victory, despite playing a pitiful WSU squad that was without any conference wins and would finish 2-16.  If Cougar redshirt sophomore Chris Schlatter had hit both his free throws with 3.1 seconds left in the game, the Card likely would have sunk to an ignominious defeat.

Washington State is much improved this year under head coach Dick Bennett's new regime, so there is cause for a little white-knuckled worrying as we await the 7:30 pm (PST) tip-off.

Two factors that contribute to the dangerous Friel Court advantage are the difficult travel logistics getting to Pullman, as well as the cavernous arena feel.  To understand the latter, if you have never been to a game in Pullman, take a look at some numbers:

  • Friel Court at the Beasely Coliseum holds a 12,058 person capacity.
  • The most fans they have drawn in the last three-plus years came when #1-ranked Stanford hit town in 2001.  That attendance was just 6,493.
  • Average attendance this year is 3,909 fans at Friel Court.

No matter how big the opponent, the place will look large and mostly empty.  Sounds reverberate differently, and crowd noise strikes players very differently than they expect in a visiting gym.  The view of the basket for shooters is one of the more difficult vantages in the conference.

"Sometimes the atmosphere in their gym is a little different," Mike Montgomery offers euphemistically.  "We've always had close games up there.  Sometimes it's been that we haven't played well."

"I think we've taken them for granted," admits junior center Rob Little.  "We've overlooked them before and not brought our A game.  We just have to come out ready to play."

But being 'ready to play' has been hampered in some years by the time Stanford has made their way to the Palouse.  Easily the most remote destination in the conference with the most difficult travel logistics, players have notoriously dragged by the time they get to Pullman.  On top of that, you get inclement weather and its accompanying delays and discomforts this time of year.  Sure enough, snow is covering the Palouse today.

The good news is that Stanford now has an easier time traveling to the Cougars than in years past.  The Cardinal charter a plane they share with cross-Bay rivals Cal when they hit the Evergreen State, and that meant the team pulled directly onto a Pullman runway this year.  While not a direct flight, that is still much preferred over a flight into Spokane, WA or Moscow, Idaho...

If you bring all this up to Mike Montgomery or one of the Stanford assistants, they'll brush it off with a vigorous wave of the hand.  They'll tell you that games are won between four lines on the floor, regardless of where you play.  It still comes down to five versus five on the court, and WSU brings some interesting matchups and styles tonight.  The defining characteristic of a Dick Bennett team, of course, is their deliberate and grinding style of play.  Defensive intensity has been a premium on Bennett's teams through the years, and he is already on track at Wazzu with a conference-leading 59.3 points per game allowed.  Look for the tall and athletic Cougar guards to play tough pressure defense on the perimeter.  Some of the pressure difficulties that Stanford has faced this year have come from quick-footed and opportunistic guard overplay, but Bennett's boys are more disciplined and tenacious.  In a sense, this is a good matchup for basketball fans to watch as WSU's defense stacks up against Stanford's offense.

But low-scoring Washington State games are just as much a product of the Cougars' patient offense, which is starting to come together late in the season.

"He has a very specific thing he wants to do and how he wants to get them there," says Montgomery of his WSU coaching adversary.  "He's changing the way kids think about the game...  They're looking to make five, six or seven passes before they shoot, and we're looking to shoot as soon as we get a shot.  Dick likes to play in the 50's and has been successful with that."

With a 6'6" starting point guard who shoots 32.1% from three-point range in senior Marcus Moore, as well as a frontline trio that averages just 6'7", you will not see a typical style of play in this game.  They run a lot of motion that looks to create lanes off picks and screens, rather than perimeter shooting opportunities.  However, beware the home court advantage.  While Moore has been a horrifically streaky shooter this year, he can "feel it" and takes a full half of his shots from behind the arc.  Smaller players inside like what WSU brings might typically put Stanford at risk for foul trouble, and both Rob Little and Joe Kirchofer should be mindful of that, but Nick Robinson is a perfect matchup at the power forward in this game.

You would love to have a quick but powerful Justin Davis to hammer the Cougs inside tonight, and he indeed led Stanford in scoring when these teams met at Maples Pavilion in the conference opener two months ago.  He of course is not available, but I do have a mild bit of good news to report.  This week in practices he has done a little running and jumping.  He was dunking the basketball, and that is an important first step.  The next stage of his return will be when he is moved to 5-0 defenseless drills.  Once he shows that he can run those without pain or awkwardness, look for Davis to then start working his way back into drills against defenders.  That is the progression we should see over the next week or two, and I will keep you updated, good or bad, along the way.

If you want to bemoan the East Coast Bias that pervades from the talking heads at ESPN, with their unrelenting digs at the undefeated Cardinal and the Pac-10, that's fine.  But when I hear some Stanford fans direct their angst toward St. Joseph's, I can only shake my head.  The facts are, folks:

  • St. Joe's has a higher RPI because of a tougher schedule.  The Hawks have the #43 schedule in the country, while Stanford owns the #107 opponent strength to date.
  • You might laugh that off because the RPI hammers Stanford for their very worst opponents (i.e. Harvard and Florida International), but the Card cannot really boast a stronger top-end of their schedule either.  Both teams are 4-0 against top 50 opponents this year, but St. Joe's has 15 wins this year against 100 foes versus Stanford's 11.
  • Bashing the Atlantic 10 doesn't help either, folks.  They are a superior conference as ranked by the RPI this year, including seven teams in the top 100.  The Pac-10 puts five in that first hundred, though Washington and Oregon sit at #97 and #99.

One man's opinion is that you should keep your trap shut when the Card's schedule and conference come under criticism.  The Pac-10 flat out stunk up the joint this year in non-conference play, and a near-win by Washington at NC State the other week didn't mask the festering rot of the conference this year.  It is what it is.  Just hope the Card keep winning, as that's the only thing that matters.  Conference pride is completely meaningless in my book.  Stanford is playing for Stanford, and fans don't need to concern themselves with the dead weight of the other nine also-rans.

When asked if he was surprised that Nick Robinson took part in Monday's team practice, just hours after his baby girl was brought into the world, Mike Montgomery offered this response:

"I don't think the delivery was all that tough on Nick.  He wasn't in labor all that long."

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