NCAA Tournament a Realistic Possibility
Stanford continued its recent trend of playing better basketball Wednesday night and picked up a quality road win in the process, soundly and rather comfortably defeating a good -- if at times sloppy against the Cardinal -- Cal squad 80-69 in Haas Pavilion.
The win is the Cardinal's sixth in eight games and moves Stanford into a tie with both the Bears and Colorado for third place in the Pac-12. Moreover, with a more-than-manageable slate of games against bottom tier conference opponents (at UW, at WSU, vs. USC) looming on the horizon before a showdown with UCLA at home, Stanford suddenly finds itself in somewhat solid shape with regards to its NCAA Tournament prospects. It may not be saying much, but at this stage in the season, we're going to venture a guess that it's the best you've felt about any Stanford team making the tournament the past 6 years.
If you feel as such, however, fear not. There is, indeed, something to that belief—and it has a lot more to do with the way Stanford is playing than the way its schedule plays out. In fact, for the optimists among you—and I don't know how the version of me in the aftermath of the UCLA beat-down would respond to what I am about to write—there is reason to believe that the Cardinal is a win or two away from not having to do much else besides hold serve to avoid sweating on Selection Sunday.
However, if following Stanford basketball as of late has taught us anything here at The Bootleg, it's that the concept of projecting down the line is, well, an inexact science. But if you're feeling bold—it is a win against the Weenies, after all!—have at it.
Defense Asserts Itself
We'll stick to baby steps.
And there's no denying that the Cardinal scooted forward Wednesday night. To put the victory in a sharper focus—and perhaps more appropriate context when considering the development of this Stanford team—the win is the Cardinal's fourth consecutive standout performance defensively. After showing signs of defensive life against SC, breaking through against Arizona, and holding ASU to 41% from the field, Stanford turned in another active and disciplined defensive effort against the Bears. It wasn't the best defense the Cardinal has played this year; there were undoubtedly lulls in intensity (especially during a 7 minute stretch spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second half)—lulls that not surprisingly opened the door for the Bears. Yet nonetheless, the newfound commitment to the defensive end was once again readily apparent—certainly hard not to see it when it had been dormant for so long—and so too were the corresponding results.
In essence, there is a reason to feel confident about the Cardinal right now, and the reason is this: Stanford is finally honing in on a sustainable formula for winning basketball games against quality opposition, one spurred on primarily by a sound yet intense man-to-man defense (zone be damned!); a concerted effort to work through a suddenly engaged Dwight Powell; and, if the win against Cal is any indication, the resolve and maturity of a veteran basketball team.
We noted after the disappointing performance against UCLA that Stanford's success in righting what looked to be a sinking ship moving forward would be predicated on the Cardinal's ability to play inspired and effective defense for extended stretches. We called upon the Cardinal to not necessarily turn into a swarming, attacking defensive juggernaut but rather to play out entire possessions, to communicate and rotate, and to be opportunistic in creating turnovers without turning into a bunch of lazy gamblers. We called upon the Card to play tough enough defensively to hold down the fort when the offense hit a lull and to spark runs when the chance presented itself. Wednesday night you saw what that looked like in practice.
The one truly impressive stretch of Cardinal defense spanned the first 13:30 of the game, and unsurprisingly, turned out to be the difference in the contest. Stanford came out the aggressor from the tip, playing quite the inspired man defense. We alluded to it above, but Stanford seems to have settled in as a very solid man to man team. In fact, the Cardinal flashed a zone for just one possession against Cal—and were promptly burned, giving up in just that one time down the court a wide open missed three in the corner, an offensive rebound, and a clean look at another three put in by Justin Cobbs with a minute to go in the first half.
Indeed, Stanford's man defense during the stretch is particularly noteworthy considering that the Bears have a couple of guys in Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace that are rather shifty off the bounce. Neither blows you with quickness, but both are effective in utilizing the dribble to get to their spots on the floor. Credit then to the Cardinal perimeter defenders (Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Robbie Lemons off the bench) for repeatedly forcing those two into difficult, contested pull up jumpers throughout the first half. The Stanford guards were content to give a little space and then close and contest, and the strategy proved quite effective. Moreover, the Cardinal did a nice job defending the pick and roll—even if it did so in an unorthodox manner. That is, Stanford defenders repeatedly switched ball screens against the Bears—and they did so quite a bit considering that Cal runs a large amount of high screen action with Cobbs. As such, Cardinal big men found themselves having to do a good amount of work on the perimeter, and, to their credit, did a fine job in corralling Cal ball handlers. Dwight Powell, Stefan Nastic, and John Gage all had nice moments in these supposed mismatches, forcing the Cal guards into some tough spots. You probably want to see more hedging and recovering moving forward, but it was nonetheless encouraging to see the Cardinal communicating through ball screens and then rotating accordingly down low to provide help in any mismatches. Again, the wonders of disciplined and smart defense on display.
Yet for as much as Stanford has struggled defensively this year, it has actually proven to be quite capable in guarding the basketball. Rather, the Cardinal's Achilles heel has been staying engaged away from the action. It's no secret that there have been multiple ball-watching culprits on this Stanford team. The Cardinal's performance in that category Wednesday again spoke to the team's development as of late. For one, the Cardinal did an excellent job working through off-ball screens. They trailed shooters hard, and, as they did with pick and rolls, had success switching a lot of screens near the basket. The Stanford defense against the heavy screening Cal flex action from about the 8 minute to the 6 minute mark of the first half was really a thing of beauty, and a sure sign that the Cardinal has committed itself to playing possessions out. Furthermore, Stanford defenders did an excellent job staying in position away from the ball. Josh Huestis's play in coming up with a couple of steals in the first half particularly stands out. It must be noted that Cal had some downright sloppy, uninspired moments during that 13:30 stretch, at times throwing some inexplicable passes seemingly right to Stanford defenders. But again, to a certain extent, those are passes that are completed against a team that is not particularly active in playing passing lanes. All in all, the focused play was key in helping the Cardinal pull ahead 38-20 during the stretch.
Dwight Powell's Attack
On the other end, Powell fueled the Cardinal all night, finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists. He was, in a word, un-guardable, able to do whatever he liked against the Cal front line. He used his quickness to spin away from help and get to the rim, his length to convert some tough finishes, and a combination of the two to draw foul after foul. Indeed, Richard Solomon's downright putrid performance (4 pts, 1-7 FG, 4 fouls in 29 minutes) had much to do with his inability to handle Powell down low. Along with fellow post David Kravish, Solomon found himself frustrated, in foul trouble, and out of rhythm seemingly from the get-go, never quite getting into the flow of the game.
When not in the post, Powell also had great success catching the ball facing up and attacking with a head of steam down the right hand side. He is certainly quite the matchup nightmare in those situations. And moreover, as Bill Walton noted on the telecast, catching the ball as such is where Powell is most comfortable, so credit the team and staff for working to get him the ball in those situations. If there is one complaint, it's that Powell actually left a couple points on the floor, failing to convert on multiple makeable looks. It's quite the compliment that we can find fault in a game like Powell's Wednesday night.
A final note on Powell: it's becoming clearer by the game that Stanford is at its best when it's working inside out, and obviously most effective when Powell, its most talented player, is clicking. Both Nastic and Powell have good feels offensively, and Powell in particular is a very good and willing passer. Indeed, you saw just how dangerous this Stanford team can be with Powell drawing double teams and kicking out to knock down shooters like Gage, Randle and Brown. Quite simply, when Stanford makes a concerted effort to be patient and work through its posts, it forces the defense to work much harder and focus for longer stretches. And if there's one thing that the overwhelming majority of college basketball players don't like to do, it's defend for extended stretches. When the Card get 1 on1 and jumper happy, as they did at the end of the first half, it lets the opposition off the hook. On Wednesday night, that very loss of purpose on offense coupled with some lazy transition defense fueled a Cal run that saw the Bears climb to within 6 at the half.
Finishing the Job
If there has been one knock on Stanford during the mini run of success, it's that it has lacked the resolve to slam the door shut on a wobbly opponent (see: Arizona and Arizona State). As such, perhaps the most encouraging news from Wednesday is that Stanford finally got over that mental hump Wednesday night. The Cal run at the end of the first half and continued solid play through the first 6 or so minutes of the second half had Stanford in a precarious position: up just 5—after being up 18—against a revitalized team playing in front of a suddenly loud home crowd. From that point forward, however, Stanford did something it has yet to do this year: suffocate the will of a quality opponent. Indeed, the Cardinal finally made the "winning plays" coming home it has shied away from for so long this year. There was Huestis making a tough pull up jumper in the lane, Randle converting on some pretty drives to get Stanford through a lull, Gage stepping up to take a picture-perfect charge, Powell pulling down offensive rebounds in traffic, Brown knocking down a near impossible shot with the shot clock winding down and a hand in his face. In fact, Brown's play down the stretch probably speaks to Stanford's toughness and resolve more than anything else Wednesday night. Cold and out of the flow for much of the game, the veteran guard scored 11 of his 16 points in the final 9 minutes of the game, delivering the final daggers on a couple of drives to the basket in the closing moments.
And so, in answering the challenge on the road, Stanford continued its march towards becoming the tested, gritty, veteran team many of us had hoped for at the outset of the year. Furthermore, with a chance to add to the conference win total against teams the Card has already defeated coming up, we'll go ahead and say what a lot of you probably thought watching Haas empty out on national television: things are starting to get fun around here.
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