Stanford did well to rebound from a disappointing performance Thursday night against UCLA to defeat USC in overtime, 79-71, Sunday afternoon at the Galen Center. Ultimately, Stanford was able to rely on some opportunistic shooting and some gritty defensive sequences to hold off a game Trojan squad that refused to go away late in the second half.
It was a crucial win for the Cardinal on a couple fronts: namely, avoiding what would have undoubtedly been a bad loss for the résumé, but also—and perhaps more importantly moving forward—winning a game against a non-cupcake where it didn't shoot the ball particularly well.
It bears mentioning that the Trojans are probably not quite as bad as their record (10-10, 1-6) would indicate. In fact, in many ways, they are a tougher out than Washington and maybe even Oregon at this point in the year. For one, they actually show some interest in playing defense. USC flashed a couple different looks against Stanford, but had particular success with their extended zone pressure, forcing the Cardinal into a couple turnovers and more importantly keeping Stanford out of rhythm offensively. Indeed, Stanford was repeatedly late in getting into sets against USC, the result being a number of hurried possessions and poor shots. The Trojans also had success in keeping the Cardinal at bay by playing zone in the half-court for extended stretches, especially in the first half. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with the Cardinal's maddening insistence on swinging the ball around the perimeter in an all-out hunt for jump-shots when facing a zone (look no further than Thursday night against UCLA). Even for a team like Stanford, which has some very good three point shooters, operating as such completely plays into the defense's hands. You saw just how much the offense opened up when the zone was forced to guard more than just the three-point line in the latter stages of the first half. Chasson Randle decided to finally attack the SC zone off the bounce after a couple passes, and was able to convert on a couple finishes while also finding Dwight Powell for an easy bucket. Regardless, SC's changing looks kept Stanford off-balance.
The Trojans are also able to throw quite a bit of size at you across the board, from 7-foot center Omar Oraby to 6 foot 3 point guard Pe'Shon Howard. To that end, USC found some success in converting some tough shots around the basket—often through contact—the result being quite a bit of and-1s as well as several Stanford players in foul trouble. Moreover, the Trojans actually out-rebounded a good boarding Stanford team 40-39.
As such, the Cardinal found itself in a game where it would have to string some stops together to get the win. The good news: Stanford finally earned its first passing grade in such a contest. So often these reviews focus on poor Stanford defense (and rightfully so!), but against USC it was clear that there was more good than bad. Again, step in the right direction. Before we get into some of the good we saw, though, there are of course some caveats that we would be remiss not to point out:
- USC is no cupcake, but their talent level is frankly not top half of the Pac 12 quality. This was a game Stanford should have won. Moreover, the Trojans are a very poor shooting team, especially from the guard position. The Trojans shoot just 30 percent from beyond the arc, and not one of Howard, J.T. Terrell, or Byron Wesley (the three SC starting guards) shoots better than 33 percent from three. Those three actually got free for a number of wide-open looks from beyond the arc, most notably Terrell, but only managed to finish 4-12 from three. One of those makes was a bank from Terrell from straightaway.
- The Cardinal's transition defense was very poor in stretches again on Sunday. For a team with athletes, Stanford is unacceptably slow in getting back. These lapses keyed some USC runs—especially early in the second half—and often resulted in late-arriving, out of position Stanford bigs picking up bad fouls, sending Trojans to the line to complete three point plays.
- Speaking of the first 5 minutes or so of the second half, Stanford came out of the locker room looking frighteningly disinterested defensively for a team playing in a must-win type game. Credit to the team for showing some grit and some real intensity in righting the ship, particularly in overtime, but the sense of urgency in stretches—or lack thereof—was puzzling.
- Stanford continues to lack activity in its zone. It's interesting that proven, capable man defenders like Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell are so often caught out of position, watching the ball in zone. There were several lob opportunities that SC failed to convert against an overly ball-focused Stanford back line (although John Gage did well to break one up—more on Gage later), and that should never happen. Stanford has played its best defensive stretches in man this year, bottom line, and they probably should be playing more of it. Sunday was obviously a special case considering the foul trouble, but one thing that has remained consistent is that Dawkins utilizes the zone to protect bench players Robbie Lemons and Gage. It's a bit of a dilemma, as Lemons in particular is a good zone defender, but with Gage flashing some tough defense late against SC, you wonder if someone like Marcus Allen shouldn't get some more time at the guard spot based on his ability to defend alone. Either that, or get Stanford's starters to buy into zone concepts.
Okay, done—I even kept the bad to bullet form this time.
As alluded to above, Stanford had some of its better defensive stretches all season to bookend the victory against SC. The Cardinal came out in a tough, active, and long man-to-man, and for about three to four minutes actually looked scary. It was easily the best defense the Cardinal has flashed in conference play. An admittedly slow-off-the-bounce SC team was having trouble working the ball inside the arc. When they did manage to find Oraby, Stanford doubled him effectively—so effectively, in fact, that you had to wonder just where this was Thursday night against Tony Parker. Powell, in particular, was very active in the early going. In fact, throughout the game, Stanford was far more locked in when playing SC straight up. The Cardinal made mistakes playing man, but they were easier to stomach than the lazy ones its especially prone to making when sitting in a zone.
Focusing on the opening stretch is clearly a small sample size, but it shows you how important defense is to this Stanford team—to any team, really. The focused play allowed the Cardinal to build a 12-4 lead, the largest margin for either side on Sunday.
Stanford also particularly shone defensively in the overtime period, and it's no secret that Gage stepped up as an unlikely catalyst. We noted here that the senior big had an extremely poor night on that end against UCLA, yet chalked it up to Gage largely being unsuited to bang down low.
Well, after Sunday, that may not entirely be the case. As a credit to John, we're going to go ahead and reframe his performance against Parker as not so much limitation but uninspired, poor play. Gage was active throughout against the Trojans, deflecting a couple passes in the first half and generally mixing it up more than we've grown accustomed to seeing him do. He's obviously shooting the ball really well right now, including knocking down a couple of back breaker threes against the Trojans (one midway through the second half, the other in OT), but his defense has often put the team in some tough spots. Not in the extra period on Sunday. Gage finished with 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block in overtime, en route to probably his most impactful stretch while at Stanford. His block of Wesley's reverse layup with 1:41 to go in the game and Stanford up 5 was the play of the game, all but sealing the Cardinal victory.
Again, it's quite telling that the play of the game for Stanford came on the defensive end, and on the whole indicative of the type of grit the Card displayed in the waning moments.
Some other notes from the game:
- Josh Huestis had a strong outing with 16 points (6-11 FGs) and
6 rebounds. His three in the corner late in regulation looked to
be the final nail, but alas wasn't enough to put away the
Trojans quite yet.
- Powell and Randle had ho-hum games—for them, that is—finishing with 14 and 17 points respectively. Nonetheless, each was crucial in getting the Cardinal through some offensive lulls at varying points throughout the game. On a related noted, credit to Dawkins for calling a timeout and drawing up a nice play with Powell getting the ball in the mid post moving towards the basket at the end of regulation. Often, Randle gets himself into some trouble tying to bull his way to the basket with his head down in those late game situations. In fact, he called his own number just moments prior, and ended up traveling. To go away from the Randle isolation or even a Randle pick and roll with Powell (things you had to believe SC was expecting) was a nice bit of late game coaching. It's hard to get a foul call late, but there did seem to be a lot of contact as Powell drove to the basket.
- Anthony Brown had an uneven game against the Trojans. He had
the late and 1 that was big, but gave it back with the late game
turnover. On the whole, he seemed out of sorts offensively,
having trouble with both his jump-shot and the SC pressure.
Also, we mentioned it earlier, but for proving himself to be a
very good on ball defender in holding down prolific scorers
Shabazz Napier and C.J. Wilcox already this year, Brown struggles
to carry that intensity over to the zone. He likes to stand up,
seems to have a hard time understanding zone spacing and
positioning, and as a result is often caught in no man's land
watching the play. His play on Howard's three pointer to cut the
Cardinal lead to 2 in regulation is a prime example.
After a bit of a breather, then —if an overtime win could ever be referred to as such—the Cardinal return to Maples this week and face a certain upgrade in talent with the Arizona schools coming to town. You would have liked a better showing against UCLA, but probably would have been expecting too much of the Cardinal to sweep the LA roadtrip. A split seemed to be about right considering where this Stanford team was. A split at home is now probably just as crucial, but will certainly be more difficult to come by. Here's to hoping that some of the tangible steps the team took forward against USC in the grit and defense departments carry over into the coming week and beyond.
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