Big Focus on Big Men

With so much attention on the frontcourt that the Toreros will bring in today's NCAA opener, plus the spectre of a possible matchup versus Emeka Okafor of UConn in round two, all eyes are on Stanford's starting big men to step up in this tournament. How will they matchup against San Diego's stellar frontcourt, and will fouls be called differently in the post-season? Read on for answers from the players and coaches...

In today's game, Stanford will face the best frontcourt they have seen all year in the form of the "Jason's" - 6'10" 280-pound Jason Keep and 6'7" 230-pound Jason Blair.  They combine for 35 points and 16.5 rebounds, which provides a unique proposition for the Cardinal defensively.  In this day and age bereft of big body talent in college basketball, Stanford has seen precious few talented centers this season.  And never before seen such a skilled power forward to complement such a threatening center.  If you talk to the Cardinal coaches or players, they can offer a few comparisons for Keep.  He possesses a big body not dissimilar to Oregon State's Philip Ricci, and the overall strength and inside presence of Arizona State's Ike Diogu.  But Brian Jackson of the Beavers has stayed on the floor all of a handful of minutes against Stanford with rampant foul trouble, and ASU's lanky forwards have been spotty at best.  So double-team tactics that were employed on Diogu and Ricci might not prove wise today, with the versatile and skilled Jason Blair able to punish Stanford if Justin Davis leaves him.  No, there are no shortcuts available today; Davis and Rob Little have a lot of responsibility on both their shoulders in this NCAA first round matchup versus the University of San Diego.

"What is required of [Davis and Little] is really no different from what all our guys are asked," says assistant coach Eric Reveno, who specializes in coaching Stanford's post players.  "They have to stay on top of their game - no breakdowns and no mental mistakes."

A significant manifestation of those mental mistakes have come for Stanford's starting frontcourt in the form of fouls.  Rob Little is averaging 3.2 fouls per game, 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes of play and has picked up four or five fouls in half of his games this year (15 of 31).  Justin Davis is averaging 3.5 fouls per game, 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes and has picked up four or five fouls in 58% of his games this year (15 of 26).  Davis has actually experienced his worst foul trouble of the year since his return from his January MCL injury, fouling out in six of 15 games, despite starting in just seven of the contests. 

Both players are less than complementary of Pac-10 officiating and are brimming with excitement at the prospect of post-season officials who let basketball players play the game.  Little feels a particular emphasis on the conference's zebras when he plays in games.  "All the Pac-10 refs know me and watch me closely in games," he explains.  "Before each game, they come up to me and say, 'Rob, we're watching this with you today, or we're going to watch that.'  I'm just looking forward to games where the refs don't know me and aren't watching me so closely, and we can then get a lot more physical.  It would be nice to get their big guys in foul trouble."

Reveno feels that Stanford can expect good officiating in these games, which might help his big guys, though not quite with the same rationale.  "The officiating in the [NCAA] tournament is good," the coach offers.  "Whether it's truly different or not, it's usually good.  Just like you get the best teams in the tournament, you get the best officials.  At the least, you're less likely to get bad calls."

Those "bad calls" have been the proverbial thorn in the side of both Little and Davis, with a mix of deserved and phantom calls this season.  "Rob commits some hustle calls, which you can live with.  But some of them aren't there," Reveno says.  "Then some are silly fouls and that's a point of emphasis for Rob.  Whatever the officials, he has to stop those.  When he gets tired, he is prone to the little fouls that you don't want to see."

Likewise, Jason Keep for San Diego has a reputation of poor conditioning and making more than his share of silly little fouls.  A lot of focus in this game will be how Keep and Little matchup against each other, but they average just 26 and 22 minutes per game, respectively.  Stanford has seen its share of games this year with Little in early foul trouble, and one of the lineups the Card has employed in response puts Davis at the center position and either Josh Childress or Nick Robinson at the power forward.  So Cardinalmaniacs™ need not just forecast how Little can handle the 6'10" big man who Mike Montgomery has called "possibly a next level player," but also how the 245-pound Davis might handle Keep.

"I know he has like 40 pounds and a couple inches on me," Davis starts.  "Rev says anytime I have to defend a guy bigger than me, I need to use my quickness to stay in front of him.  I can use my lateral quickness and swim moves.  Make him put a body on me, and he can get frustrated and start to make fouls or mistakes."  Reveno certain has few concerns about how his prized power forward could handle the matchup.  "Justin is a pretty versatile defender," the coach boasts.  "He's strong enough to avoid getting pushed around, and quick enough to handle the smaller craftier players.  When Justin is playing well, I'll put him up against any power forward in the country.  That included Shane Battier and Jarron Collins.  As for big players inside, he probably gave Jason Collins a harder time in practices than any player Jason saw in games."

Reveno and Little both agree that the matchup against Keep might be a welcome change for Stanford's biggest player.  "Rob does better when he can get a body on somebody.  For example, he has a really tough time defending Nick [Robinson] in practice because he has to chase him around," Reveno explains.  Little doesn't want to make too much out of the theory, though.  "I'm not listening to all that speculation from the media and writers," the sophomore center states.  "What I do know is that this matchup has the chance to be a lot more physical, and that could be a lot more fun."

One myth that Reveno wishes to dispel, though, is that a backyard brawl necessarily favors Stanford if the officials let play remain loose.  "If they let it be a very physical game, we don't have an advantage with how big these guys [for San Diego] are," the coach posits.  "We might almost want it called tight.  Tighter games benefit the more skilled post players, and we think we have a lot of skill with our guys."

Little at least argues that his play and that of his frontcourt teammates will be best improved by factors other than officiating.  He charges that inlet passes to the interior are a key for their success, regardless of the matchups.  And he also looks to one area of the game to get him individually fired up.  "I like to go out and hurt people, but the more I rebound, the more confident I am.  When I start a game pullin


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