Finally Tested - And Failed
Coming off a three game stretch during which Stanford feasted on some poor defensive Pac-12 foes, we wondered aloud just who in the conference would guard well enough to force the Cardinal's hand into defending to win—and by extension, how game would the Cardinal be if backed into such a corner?
Well, our answer came sooner than we expected. Stanford finally ran into a team that played some defense in UCLA Thursday night, and proved to be not very much game at all in answering the bell, losing rather convincingly 91-74.
With the opportunity to take a step forward in another litmus test type game—and not to mention, a chance at an increasingly rare quality win in what is shaping up to be a not-quite-as-good-as-we-thought Pac 12 (see Oregon, Colorado)—the Cardinal turned in one of their worst efforts of the year. They were out-played, out-hustled, and out-executed—all while playing with an urgency level so frighteningly low that it's hard to move forward without feeling at least the slightest bit unnerved. That is to say, Stanford's inability to stay competitive for extended stretches Thursday night is probably much more ominous warning flag than fluke. We're confident in saying so because it went a long way in solidifying our thoughts about the Cardinal's defensive performance during the winning streak: a) it isn't good enough to beat clear tournament teams (which UCLA is and Oregon is as of now not) and b) it really hasn't improved that much at all from November.
More on UCLA
To be clear, UCLA is not a great defensive team. They are far from elite laterally on top and don't have anything close to a shot-blocking presence down low. Moreover, outside of Kyle Anderson, not a single Bruin rebounds particularly well for his position. UCLA relies on keeping offenses off-balance by switching defensive looks and being opportunistic with some of their length in passing lanes and double teams. Sound man-to-man principles? A tight and focused zone that moves as a unit and locates shooters in corners? Smart, effective aggressiveness that utilizes the length of players like Anderson, Norman Powell, and Zach LaVine? Sound familiar? Yes, ironically enough, then, what UCLA should be—or at the very least was Thursday night—is a defensive model for this Stanford team.
If the difference in Thursday night's contest was defense, then the key for the Bruins was Powell (and to a lesser extent, Lavine). Probably the lone elite defender on the court, the junior guard did an excellent job on Chasson Randle, holding Stanford's leading scorer to 14 points on 3-16 shooting. Randle came into Westwood on quite the hot streak, but ran into an unfavorable matchup in Powell. As we've noted, Randle isn't particularly quick, relying instead on his strength to create effective angles in his attacks to the basket. That type of offensive game played right into the hands of the bigger and longer Powell, who was largely able to both stay in front of Randle and use his lower body strength to ride Randle away from the rim when the Stanford guard did get a step. When Powell did get beat, the Bruin bigs (David Wear, Travis Wear, and Tony Parker) did well to provide strong help without fouling, even coming up with a couple blocks and deflected passes. All this made for a tough, out-of-sync night for Randle. He was forced into some really difficult looks around the rim, and seemed to get frustrated as the game wore on, trying to bully his way to the basket to no avail.
When UCLA flashed its zone, especially in the first half when the game was to a large extent decided, the Cardinal didn't fare much better. Stanford seemed intent on hunting for threes, swinging the ball around the perimeter without much thought to attack gaps. They were the beneficiaries of some open looks early, but as the UCLA zone tightened and did better to locate shooters, Stanford found itself settling for tough looks late in the shot clock. The Bruin zone was far from suffocating, but rather found success in forcing Stanford to work on offense. Unlike the Cardinal zone this year, this UCLA zone was willing to stay focused for 30-plus seconds of defense. Frankly, it's what we've been asking of the Stanford zone all year: to maintain intensity, to track offensive players in places like the free-throw line and short corners, and to simply make the offense labor. It really isn't that much at all to expect.
About Those Turnovers
Solid UCLA defense aside, Stanford had a sloppy game offensively. Of course, the stat that stands out is the 19 turnovers, 11 of which came in the first half. For a team that has turned the ball over less than 10 times its past three games, the number does stand out as a bit of an anomaly. That being said, Oregon, Washington State, and Washington are hardly world-beaters on the defensive end. Some credit has to go to some of the effective traps and quick hands of the Bruins. Nonetheless, both Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell had some real head-scratchers throughout the game. The turnovers on inbounds plays probably had you yelling at the TV. The Cardinal seemed a little surprised by the relative speed and length the Bruins displayed in playing the passing lanes, and that's a bit understandable considering the recent competition. The inability to adjust and value the basketball as the game wore on, however, is inexcusable. Throw in a number of missed layups—many of them off second chance opportunities—and the Cardinal again came up short in the "little things" department Thursday night.
Lackadaisical on the Other Side
Defensively, well, what more is there to say at this point in the year? For starters, it must be noted that UCLA is a very good offensive team, one able to score in a variety of ways. In Anderson and LaVine it has two clear cut NBA talents, and in Jordan Adams a very good offensive college basketball player. Anderson, in particular, is having a phenomenal season, looking all the part of a frontrunner for Pac-12 POY. In that regard, both Josh Huestis and Powell actually managed well against Anderson for extended stretches in the halfcourt. In fact, early in the game, Anderson seemed a bit neutralized by the Cardinal length, much like Randle was going against Norman Powell. It's no secret that at 6-9 with guard skills, Anderson is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Yet with the athleticism and length of Powell and Huestis, you got the feeling that Stanford could actually churn out some stops so long as it guarded around Anderson.
Well, the Cardinal didn't—didn't come close really. Rather, Stanford merely carried over the uninterested, lackadaisical defensive intensity it had displayed during the winning streak; in fact, the defensive performance Thursday night was eerily similar to that of the Washington win last week. Early man and zone looks gave up a staggering number of open shots for the Bruins. UCLA started off cold, but unlike Washington, didn't remain as such. By the time the floodgates had opened midway through the second half, Adams, LaVine and co. were knocking down jumpers they had missed earlier in the game. Again, when your "defense" consists of opposing teams missing open shots, you won't go very far.
The zone, at this point, is especially disjointed. Cardinal defenders are slow to both locate and close to shooters in the corners. Moreover, the backline—in both zone and man, actually—does an extremely poor job of help defense, particularly of helping the helper. As such, anytime a Stanford perimeter player is beat, the entire defense crumbles. Watching less athletic and slower footed players like the Wears and Tony Parker clog up lanes effectively and rotate around the help to cut off easy dump offs, while Stanford bigs repeatedly saw themselves caught under the rim or flying over late to block a shot they had no chance of getting to was particularly frustrating. Watching the third Stanford defender in the play with his hands in his pockets as Parker scooted in for the umpteenth time to catch an easy dump off or put-back a miss was even worse.
Speaking of Parker, the much-heralded but rarely productive UCLA sophomore big must have been salivating after having watched the tape of undersized Washington center Perris Blackwell have his way with Stanford post defenders because he exuded a confidence in demanding the ball not normally seen during his time in Westwood. And rightfully so: Parker had the game of his career, finishing with 22 points (9-14 FGs) and 7 rebounds. He was, in fact, the catalyst in what turned out to be the decisive run of the game late in the first half. With Stefan Nastic sidelined because of foul trouble, John Gage was forced into action against Parker, and the Stanford senior big man had about as rough a stretch as you can have defensively. Parker bullied him down low for early post position and had his way on the offensive glass, scoring on three consecutive possessions to help fuel the 14-3 run that put the Bruins ahead for good. In fairness to Gage, he's far from suited to defend the post, and his having to do so probably speaks more to the lack of Stanford post depth than anything else. That being said, a couple of hard fouls to stop easy buckets and to at least make Parker earn points at the line should have been in order. Gage finished with 0 fouls in 13 minutes of play. As a sign of desperation, Johnny Dawkins even turned to Grant Verhoeven, who had played a combined 9 minutes the previous three games (8 of which came in mop up time against Washington State) to try and slow Parker, and found little success. Dwight Powell had similar struggles against Parker, although his seemed to come from disinterest more than being overmatched, unfortunately. You're obviously trying to just hold on at that point if you're Dawkins, but you have to wonder if it wasn't maybe worth bringing Nastic back to give Parker a different look.
Stanford managed to pick up the slack offensively late in the game—spurred on in large part by some tough made shots by Powell—but thanks to some poor transition defense, could do little more than trade baskets with the Bruins for the majority of the second half. The final nail in the coffin came at the 6-minute mark on an exclamation point, run-out dunk by LaVine, the beneficiary of an Anderson outlet pass and a Randle missed layup on the other end. That basket pushed the Bruin lead to 12, large enough to cruise home the rest of the way.
Undoubtedly, you hoped for a better effort from the Cardinal Thursday night, hoped that they were further along than your eyes may have led you to believe. But the reality is that if you can't guard, you can't win. Nonetheless, if you're into silver linings, you at least have to be happy with the way Stanford rebounded (a 42-33 advantage over the Bruins). In fact, it was about the only thing that kept this game from turning into a complete blowout. Furthermore, you have to hope that if there's one thing Stanford takes away from the UCLA tape it's the realization that there's no reason at all why it shouldn't be playing the solid, very-good-in-stretches defense the Bruins showed Thursday night. For indeed, the Cardinal's success during this next stretch of conference play (@USC, AZ, ASU, @Cal) will be riding on it.
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