This is a basketball team that plays in two markedly different gears, and two completely opposite gears only. Just a couple days ago, I wrote that the Cardinal play games either as hard as a rock or as soft as a pillow.
Well, as if to atone for a fluffy second half collapse against Oregon Sunday, Stanford delivered one of its most rigid performances in recent memory to bludgeon the Buffaloes in Boulder Thursday.
Colorado entered the game leading the Pac-12 in rebounding, yet Stanford walloped them 45-23 on the boards. Josh Owens (12 rebounds), Dwight Powell (9), Josh Huestis (8), and Andrew Zimmerman (7) - the same guys who had let a comparatively small Oregon team out-muscle them down the stretch just days earlier - pounded their way to loose balls and throttled the Buffalos physically.
Suddenly - out of nowhere - the Cardinal looked like a physically elite team.
On top of become the first visiting Pac-12 squad to ever win a conference game at the Coors Event Center, the Stanford men beat Colorado more soundly on the road than the Cardinal women did Thursday night at Maples Pavilion.
Impressive but perplexing, to say the least. But there is some logic to it all. Some insightful patterns are becoming apparent in the ebb and flow of the Cardinal's bipolar season.
To begin, good defense has been a constant for Stanford this year. Offensive play, on the other hand, had taken a wretched turn after a hot start. And as recently as Sunday, the Cardinal's rebounding performance had been joining the offense and going along for the nosedive whenever points became hard to come by.
Basically, Stanford had been aggressive whenever their perimeter players had shot the basketball well, and they'd completely broken down in ‘toughness categories' whenever the help from the offense had been scarce.
So, in this feast or famine type of season for the Cardinal, Thanksgiving dinner was served on Thursday night in Colorado. Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle, and John Gage each buried three bombs from downtown, and Stanford appropriately responded by gobbling up the game's loose balls like a pack of hungry wolves. The team shot 53.8% from the field in the first half. Their rebounding edge was 25-10 by halftime, and 22 by the final buzzer.
Matters were aided, of course, by Colorado's horrendous offensive performance (29.6% FG), but Stanford's dominance of the game's flow was evident nonetheless: the Cardinal took three more shots than the Buffalos (57-54) on the contest despite shooting at a clip nearly 20 percentage points higher.
Since common sense suggests that more made shots should result in less attempted shots, that's an absurdly dominant advantage that illustrates just how good Stanford was at corralling rebounds and loose balls to set up extra opportunities.
Most notably, it is a stunning contrast to many losses this season, in which poor shooting percentage had correlated with Cardinal passiveness on the glass. Remember the 76-63 defeat at Washington in which Stanford shot only 35.9% from the field and was dominated 47-32 boards? How about the 56-43 home loss to Arizona that saw the team's 25.4% shooting percentage go hand-in-hand with another rebounding failure?
Games like those were night-and-day differences from a handful of Stanford wins, all of which saw shooting percentages well over 45% and considerable advantages in the rebounding department to go along with them.
The conclusion is simple: whenever the Cardinal can just find a way to shoot the basketball decently, they also muscle up in the toughness department and have the ability to threaten any team in the country. After all, even a somewhat decent 42.9% shooting clip energized Stanford enough to defeat Syracuse 36-34 on the boards and have one of the country's top teams on the ropes at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, shooting the basketball effectively is much easier said than done, as Stanford painfully learned during its midseason conference slide. But the fact is that no basketball team at any level can shoot the lights on every single night.
So, the Cardinal must be able to deliver aggressive rebounding performances like the one they displayed against Colorado even when Bright, Randle, and Gage are cold from the field. They must be able to corral loose balls with the same vigor even when the shots aren't falling.
That consistency must emerge as the team's backbone so that Stanford can reach the next level. Otherwise, the Cardinal will remain in Jekyll-and-Hyde purgatory, a fickle land in which nightly success is dependent only on unpredictable field goal percentage.
Good defense has become a near-constant for Johnny Dawkins' program. Good rebounding must now follow suit and emerge as the next consistent fixture for the Cardinal. Thursday, at 5400 feet above sea level - in the kind of thin air that could have easily caused Stanford to physically wear down again - the Cardinal bucked a trend and physically shellacked Colorado.
That's a very encouraging step in the right direction for Stanford basketball.
About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link.
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