Stanford Cardinal -- 18-12, 11-7 Pac-10 (t-3rd)

There are some interesting similarities between Stanford and Mississippi State as we approach Friday's NCAA first round match-up in Charlotte. Both programs have a heavy emphasis on defense and rebounding from their head coaches, and both teams have had their rosters battered and beaten this year.

But the trajectory that the Cardinal and Bulldogs took to this #8/#9 opener could scarcely be more different. While MSU started the season red-hot and then cooled, Stanford started on the skids before they found success. When the Bulldogs were at their peak, with their 14th win on January 8 versus just two losses, the Cardinal were scraping rock bottom. Stanford started the year 6-7 overall and 0-3 in Pac-10 play before they found their first conference win.

You had to go back 20 years to find the last time a Stanford team started their conference season with three straight losses, and you had to go back to the abysmal 1992-93 season (7-23) to find a year when the Card sported a losing record that deep into the season. Players openly admit today that they did not think they would play in any post-season come March. That was a dramatic turn of events for a program that was ranked #1 in the nation just a year earlier, starting the season with a nationally heralded 26-0 start. That was a surprising outlook for a program that had been to 10 straight NCAA Tournaments.

There are plenty of places to point a finger for the early season malaise. It started last spring when Mike Montgomery, the one and only architect of basketball success on The Farm, made the shocking jump to the NBA to coach the Golden State Warriors. Stanford had not sniffed at anything approaching respectability since World War II in men's college basketball before Montgomery arrived on campus in 1986. Trent Johnson was hired within a week of Montgomery's departure, and he was the most logical choice. Johnson was an assistant under Montgomery for three years at Stanford, including the school's famed 1998 Final Four team, and he built a heralded Nevada program the next five years that culminated in a 25-win season and Sweet 16 appearance in 2003-04.

But the first two months of this season, there were transition pains for Stanford under Johnson. Though he emphasized defense and rebounding above all else in his coaching philosophy, the Cardinal were woefully inadequate on both fronts to start the season. Through their first two months of the schedule, they were the defensive laughingstock of the Pac-10, punctuated by a 44.0% three-point defense. There were offensive disappointments as well, with their two expected superstars both slumping. 6'11" Matt Haryasz was averaging less than nine points per game while shooting 41% from the field - an awful percentage for a big man. 6'2" point guard Chris Hernandez had little offensive rhythm and early lacked his famous shooting touch from outside the arc.

Hernandez started the year with a high ankle sprain that kept him out a month, derailing his timing and the sharpness of his skills. It would take him months to regain his preseason form. Haryasz developed plantar fasciitis just as the season tipped off, forcing him to play with pain the next two-plus months and robbing him of his spring and explosiveness.

While Stanford was getting murdered by opponents behind the three-point arc, they were equally inept shooting the ball from long range. The Card could hit only 31.6% of their shots from downtown. They had just one player who provided any potency and consistency scoring, and he was ironically the greatest surprise story of the year. Shooting guard Dan Grunfeld had shown sparks of promise as a freshman but endured a year-long sophomore slump that left him off the radar for most observers of the Stanford program heading into the 2004-05 season. But the 6'6" junior broke out and delivered a consistent 17-20 points per game, after averaging only 3.4 per contest as a sophomore. He was the least athletically gifted of the Cardinal wings, but he showed game after game that the could drive and create through traffic, with supreme savvy and a deft shooting touch.

Grunfeld's scoring alone could not carry the Card, but when Hernandez and he both started to heat up with their three-point shooting, the offense picked up in late January. At the same time, Stanford's defense clamped down. It is hard to be sure which begat which, or where the trigger came. But after two months of futility and confusion, players started to find their roles. There were veterans on the team who tried to play outside their abilities, but they slowly stepped back into themselves. Stanford rolled off six straight wins and went from last in the conference to sole possession of third place.

Earlier in January, Stanford lost reserve shooting guard Tim Morris, who was the team's best athlete and had started to put things together in his first (redshirt freshman) season. He earned the first start of his college career on January 2 at Washington, and he played well. The next day, he was declared academically ineligible for the season. The pre-med student-athlete had taken the difficult Human Biology core during the autumn quarter and did not pass his classes. He was a different player from Grunfeld, but he was alike in that he could create his own offense off the dribble.

Morris' loss was difficult, but the team rebounded and somehow won seven of their next 10 games. Stanford came into the year short on bodies, with just 10 scholarship players, so losing Morris was significant. Three walk-on players supplemented the roster, but one broke his foot in December and was lost for the year, while the other two quit the team to focus on football and school. Down to just nine players, Stanford was held together with chewing gum and twine... and then they suffered their biggest blow of the year.

In the February 12 game at home against California, Grunfeld was enjoying one of his best performances of the year. That says something, given that he scored in double figures for 16 straight games and eight times cleared 20 or more points. But against the Cardinal's Bay Area rivals, Grunfeld tore his ACL as he went to the basket for a fast break lay-in. Another player lost for the year, this not only knocked Stanford down to eight active players, but the injury also devastated the Cardinal offense of unquestionably their best and most consistent scorer.

As Grunfeld's ACL popped, you could hear Stanford's bubble burst. Any faint hopes of making the NCAA Tournament went up in smoke with this last and most devastating loss. Then, defying all logic and expectations, Stanford resumed their winning ways. They won five of their last eight games, including victories over Tournament teams Washington and UCLA.

When you look at the talent still available on this Stanford roster, it is hard to see how they not only survived their losses, but then rallied to higher heights. With just a few exceptions, their defense has carried the day. The Card clamped down and finished the year #2 in the Pac-10 in both scoring defense (68.4 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (41.2%) in conference games. The biggest individual surge has come from Haryasz, who has scored in double figures his last 15 games, raising his average by more than four points per game. He has become a possessed rebounder during that same stretch, adding a rebound and a half to his average. Haryasz has notched 10 double-double in his last 14 games.

Hernandez has taken a more aggressive stance on offense since Grunfeld's loss, including a 37-point performance in a home win against UCLA. But without Grunfeld in the backcourt, defenses have smartly focused their efforts on the Stanford point guard. He is now drawing opponents' top perimeter defenders, and the open shots are becoming scarce. The Cardinal floor general has seen his three-point percentage dip to 40.5%, and his total field goal percentage is just 43.1%. In Stanford's last three losses, he has shot 4-of-12, 3-of-16 and 8-of-18 from the field for a combined 26.8%.

Another hit Stanford has taken since they lost Grunfeld has come on the boards. The Cardinal were a consistently dominant rebounding team through most of the last decade, but this year, they have been mediocre at best on the glass. In the 22 games when Stanford had Grunfeld, they held a meager +1.4 rebounding average over their opponents. In their eight games without the wing, they have slipped to a -1.3 rebounding deficit. In Stanford's last three losses, they have suffered a -5.0 rebounding average margin.

Defensively, Trent Johnson swears up and down in favor of playing man-to-man. Particularly recognizing that this Stanford team is not a strong rebounding team, he prefers not to use a zone defense unless his hand is forced. But Johnson has more often the last few weeks gone to zones after Stanford made offensive baskets, if and only if he feels his opponent is doing too much damage to his man defense. The zone is not necessarily a strategic weapon employed because of match-ups or opponent shooting ranges. Johnson instead throws his zone onto the floor to disrupt the rhythm of his opponent.

Starting Lineup

#11 PG Chris Hernandez - redshirt junior - 6'2" 190 15.2 points, 4.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 34.7 minutes 43.1% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 80.6% FT

He is Stanford's most recognizable player, and that holds for opposing coaches as well as college basketball fans. He surprised opponents last year when he shot 46% from three-point range, but now he is at the top of scouting reports and has to work harder to achieve a lower shooting percentage. Open looks have been few and far between, which means Hernandez is taking more shots coming off screens. His mid-range pull-up jumper is made more effective by his drives to the basket. He controls the tempo for the team and moderates their style of play, but his turnovers are up and his assists are down from a year ago. Hernandez has enough quickness to score and defend, but not enough to dominate opponents with either. He is playing monster minutes, the most on the team, and he probably has to work the hardest on the court of any player - either handling the ball or running around screens. Though the starting point guard, Hernandez is playing major minutes as the shooting guard when Jason Haas comes into the game and plays alongside him in the backcourt.

#21 SG Nick Robinson - fifth-year senior - 6'6" 205. 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 33.3 minutes 36.4% FG, 25.4% 3FG, 72.1% FT

Robinson hit that famous shot across halfcourt at the buzzer to beat Arizona last year, which was celebrated as the play of the year in college basketball. It is ironic that his greatest claim to fame came on a three-point basket, given that he is having the worst shooting year of any starting Stanford wing player in the last decade. Robinson has been a "glue" player for the Cardinal throughout his college career, with stints as a starter at both forward positions in his sophomore and junior seasons when injuries struck the roster. But as an everyday starter this year, he has too often tried to be a shooter and scorer that outstrips his skills. To crystallize for you his ceiling as a shooter, he has only four times in 112 games made more than one three-point basket. Only once has he made more than two treys in a game. His shooting percentages accurately portray his scoring skill level, which has been poor both from the perimeter and driving to the basket. The fifth-year senior did show marked improvements in his shot selection after the Grunfeld injury, though he regressed in the Pac-10 Tournament last week with 32% shooting. In the quarterfinal game against Washington State, he took a third of the team's field goal attempts. Robinson's strengths are his versatility, his length and his athleticism. He can play and has played every position this year for Stanford, save the center spot. He has started as a shooting guard the last eight games in replacement of Grunfeld, after starting the first 22 as a small forward and playing most of his remaining minutes as a power forward. He is a hustle player who creates steals on defense and can be a strong rebounder. His length and quickness make him Stanford's best defender.

#44 SF Fred Washington - sophomore - 6'5" 210. 4.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 15.4 minutes 45.6% FG, 67.9% FT

Washington was the player who moved from the bench to the starting lineup after Grunfeld's season-ending injury. The sophomore averaged just 9.5 minutes per game before Grunfeld was hurt; as a starter he has averaged 30.3 minutes. Washington's peak performance of the year came in his first career start, when he scored 22 points and recorded an electrifying five dunks in a home win over USC. No game since has touched that performance level, but the Trojans provided a unique environment for Washington's success. They spread the floor with a pressing and gambling defense, which left wide-open lanes for Washington to operate. That is when he is at his best - playing in the open court. His offensive game is entirely predicated upon attacking the basket, and he can excite when he navigates open driving lanes successfully. But when Washington cannot squeeze through traffic, he is exceptionally prone to offensive (charging) fouls or turnovers. In four of his last six games, he has fouled out, and he picked up four fouls in a fifth game. An athletic and fearless player, Washington is a wild card with a high beta. His best consistent strength is probably his rebounding, though he has at times picked up fouls there, too.

#52 PF Matt Haryasz - junior - 6'11" 230. 12.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 31.1 minutes 45.0% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 77.1% FT

There were high expectations coming into this season for the athletic junior big man, who had shown a few flashes as a sophomore but finished the season below par with a bum ankle. He is long, a good jumper, runs the floor well and has the shooting touch of a wing. Of all the players on Stanford's roster, he is the best bet for a future in the NBA. His best example of dominance came in a home game against Oregon when he scored 20 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. That performance came during his current 15-game stretch, during which he has recorded 10 double-doubles and averaged 16.5 points and 10.4 boards. Though a visibly emotional player who can suffer some inconsistencies as a result, his consistency as a rebounder has improved greatly the second half of the season, and with that has come more confidence as a scorer. Despite his size, Haryasz does not score much with his back to the basket. He is truly a forward on offense, preferring to face the basket and shoot face-up jumpers or drive the lane. Even when he catches the ball with his back to the basket, look for him to turn and shoot a fade-away jumper. He rebounds so effectively because of his length, his leaping and his high-energy aggression, but his numbers could be higher with greater strength. His body is still a work in progress, and he can lose battles on both ends of the floor against bigger or stronger players. Haryasz plays a good deal of center when Little is out of the game.

#42 C Rob Little - 6'10" 260. 8.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 24.2 minutes 51.6% FG, 47.1% FT

Of the regular starters through this season, Little averages the fewest minutes. Trent Johnson will sit his big center and play a smaller line-up for long stretches when facing undersized or quick opponents. Little has also wrestled with foul trouble throughout his Cardinal career. In sharp contrast to Haryasz, the senior center thrives in the paint and does his scoring close to the basket. He will shoot a short jump hook when a defender plays behind him, but more often opponents have him scouted to front him and deny entry passes. Little is the #10 all-time career field goal percentage leader for Stanford, but his scoring has been limited as his touches and minutes have been limited. His free throw shooting has been abysmal throughout his four-year Cardinal career, and this year has been his worst yet. Little has shown, and he has also said, throughout his college years that he operates most comfortably against similarly big-bodied post opponents. Even if a Lawrence Roberts is vastly better as a player, the match-up may bring out some of Little's better play. But a post player who can move away from the basket to shoot or put the ball on the floor can be a problem. Watch his play early in the game to set the tone for the contest -- early fouls or failures can handcuff him while an offensive rhythm can bring out his best.

Reserve Players

#32 PG Jason Haas - junior - 6'2" 190. 3.3 points, 1.8 assists, 17.2 minutes 30.6% FG, 20.0% 3FG, 86.7% FT

Haas was easily the most lightly recruited player on the active roster, and he has overachieved relative to expectations. He has significant limitations, including his athleticism and quickness on both ends of the floor. He has a nice shooting form and should be one of the team's best shooters, but the statistics do not bear that out. Haas' confidence in his shot suffers badly, and only a rare few games this year have shown us otherwise. He broke out and doubled his career high when he scored 18 points in the regular season finale upset win over Washington, and he chipped in 11 points against the Huskies again the next week in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals. He loves to play at a high speed, tracing back to his prep days at Blair Academy with Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng. Haas ironically finishes poorly on the break, scoring at the basket. He was a huge turnover risk early in his Stanford career, and he still has spots where he makes unforced turnovers today, though he typically does a reasonable job taking care of the ball. He will play a lot of minutes alongside Hernandez in the backcourt - even more so if Stanford goes "small" and limits Little's and Prowitt's minutes. Haas has shown in a few games this year that he can be a tenacious and harassing defender. He has scored 40% of his points from the free throw line, driving hard to the basket and drawing fouls.

#31 PF Taj Finger - freshman - 6'8" 185. 1.4 points, 1.5 rebounds, 9.0 minutes 33.3% FG, 73.3% FT

This lanky freshman is something of an enigma. He has gone through significant swings in his play and minutes this year, starting off strong but then cooling through the middle of the season. Since Grunfeld's injury, he has played double-digit minutes in seven out of nine games. With Robinson moving to the shooting guard, the paper-thin Stanford frontcourt became even thinner, which has created a greater need for Finger's contributions. He has answered the call, with his strongest performances coming in the two games last week at the Pac-10 Tournament: 10 points and six boards in 26 minutes, with three assists versus no turnovers. He is rail-thin physically, and that creates obvious problems on both ends of the floor. But Finger is a good athlete and has long arms, as well as a craftiness to his game. He does not realistically have it in him currently to provide a breakout offensive performance off the bench, but it is a big lift if he can be just solid rebounding the ball and defending.

#55 C Peter Prowitt - freshman - 6'10" 250. 1.6 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 8.3 minutes 33.3% FG, 76.2% FT

The big freshman center has played in just 20 games this year, including one of Stanford's last four. Much like Little, at least at this stage in his career, Prowitt is most comfortable against big centers who operate near the basket. Trent Johnson does not want Prowitt roaming out to the perimeter to defend. He has major problems with foul trouble already when defending near the basket, picking up 10.4 fouls per 40 minutes of play. When his mind correctly sees the angles and understands how to play within himself on defense, he has the ability to be a nice shotblocker and a good rebounder. Though this bench is thin, Trent Johnson will keep Prowitt glued there if he does not like the match-ups. But if the Bulldogs play big enough with their line-up, then you could see this big freshman make his NCAA Tournament debut Friday.

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