Collapse: Is Time Running Short?

Stanford was in excellent position to make a true statement after its fairly recent win over UCLA. Wednesday's ugly 59-56 home loss to shorthanded Colorado, though, means that the mood has changed. The Cardinal have lost three straight, and as Andrew Santana notes, possibly much more.

Stanford had a chance Wednesday night against fellow bubble team and loser-of-six-of-its-past-seven-on-the-road Colorado to silence the doubts that had begun to creep after the debacle in the desert last weekend. The Cardinal fell squarely and flatly on its face, losing 59-56 in front of a numb Maples Pavilion crowd that frankly seemed like it could care less.

Not too long ago, I wrote here that the Cardinal had turned the corner, that barring an absolute meltdown, it had not only secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but was also in position to play for seeding and maybe even a semblance of a run in March.

Cue the music.

The loss to the Buffaloes, coupled with the wholly uninspiring and noncompetitive play against the Arizona schools, has Stanford on the outside looking in Joe Lunardi's latest—

Wait, Lunardi—who is, give or take, as good an insight as you'll get to the field before Selection Sunday—still has the Cardinal in with some room to spare?

What do you have to do to play yourself out of this thing?

Remarkably, then, the loss to Colorado does not spell doom for the Cardinal's tournament hopes. The game against Utah this Saturday now looms large, and with the Utes making a bit of a late-season push, one in which a Stanford victory might in and of itself be enough to plant the Cardinal into the field. A loss, you say? What will that do? By all accounts, maybe not much, maybe move Stanford into "must-win" mode in the Pac-12 tournament, but breathing nonetheless.

So, it seems, is life on the bubble.

Which really contextualizes, once and for all, how far this program has fallen.  For without a doubt, this underachieving, maddeningly inconsistent, crumbling-down-the-stretch-yet-again season is by far and away the best the Johhny Dawkins era has to show for six years of work. We are still, then, but a win away from what the administration hailed as the benchmark for a successful year. This? Surely, being close has to feel different than this, right?  For indeed, after wandering in the woods of absolute postseason darkness for five years, you really do have to see it to believe it, that sobering clarity that living on the bubble brings: That is, a good handful of mediocre, underperforming teams make the tournament every year. Stanford is merely the new guy at the party.


Time is Up
I'll be the first to admit that I fell prey to the trap, that as the season wore on, I pinned myself to a tournament berth like a supporter of some mid-major, letting out a big sigh of relief after the UCLA win because I knew what it meant for Stanford's postseason hopes. That's what five years of mediocrity and irrelevance will do for you. That's the sign of a battered fan base.

 The bottom line is that a season on the bubble—with no major injuries and a veteran core of players that has been in the same system for several years, mind you—can't be judged as successful at a place like Stanford, certainly can't be regarded as something to hang your hat on. Shame on me for even merely suggesting otherwise, and shame on me for losing sight of the bigger picture in the process.

And the bigger picture is this: As the Cardinal makes a final push for a tournament berth, the end result of these next couple of weeks—barring some unforeseen run deep, with deep meaning second weekend at least, into the tournament—should take a backseat to both the body of work and prospects for the future when judging the state of the program.

Whether the Cardinal ends up as a 10 seed in Raleigh on a Friday or a 12 seed in Dayton on a Wednesday; whether it ends up as one of the "last four in," "first four byes," or "first four out"; there is little as of now that can be done within the realm of reason to suggest that we should see "one more year."

Bruised by the Buffaloes
As for the game itself…

The loss essentially boiled down to two key stretches, both of which unsurprisingly highlighted issues that have been masked at times in victories, but that nonetheless have persisted throughout this season and in some cases even further back than that.

The first stretch lasted about five minutes beginning at just under the 16 minute mark of the second half, with the Cardinal down just four, 42-38.  During that critical juncture, with Stanford having weathered a mini Colorado blitz to start the half after a largely even first period (thanks almost singlehandedly to Josh Huestis' work on the offensive glass), Stanford had seven offensive possessions. Those seven trips broke down as such: Stefan Nastic turnover posting up, Chasson Randle turnover throwing the ball away, Nastic offensive foul away from the ball, (intermission for a Dawkins timeout), Anthony Brown turnover throwing the ball of Dwight Powell's foot, Brown chucking an out-of-rhythm three with 30 seconds on the shot clock, John Gage trying to take his man off the dribble and shooting a contested jumper, Powell offensive foul away from the basket. For those counting: That's seven possessions, five minutes of game time, four turnovers, and two ill-advised shots. Stanford didn't go cold on offense; it wasn't even giving itself a chance to score.

Where's The Point Guard?
What is one to make of the ineptitude? Who's to blame?

The coaching staff isn't out there throwing the ball away and playing selfishly. That much is sure.

But what became painfully apparent during the stretch and what would rear its ugly head again later in the game is what has been so for the entirety of Dawkins' tenure: Stanford has failed to recruit an effective point guard in six years. There is not a player on the team capable of pulling the ball out, taking stock of the situation, getting the team into a meaningful set, and creating for others if need be. There is not a player on the team that holds his teammates accountable with his play. Not a one. And it sure could have used one against Colorado (Ed: zero assists from the point guard position).

This isn't meant to be a knock on Randle—he all but won the game by himself on the offensive end the final eight minutes—but he is playing out of position. His idea of playing point guard amounts to playing hero ball with his four teammates watching, which is great when he's making tough floaters and difficult to stomach when he's driving head down into three Colorado defenders. In fact, Randle's best offensive possessions on Wednesday came with him playing off another ball handler, as it freed him to move and spot up away from the basketball.

All this is to say that the lack of a floor general during that five minute stretch only fueled the chaos and clutter, only fueled the utter lack of accountability on the court.  

Some Good Defense
And yet, by the time Randle broke the drought with a three off a (surprise!) Robbie Lemons drive and kick out with 10:48 to go, Stanford found itself down just five, 46-41. The lack of separation created speaks to a couple of things. For one, it must be said that the Cardinal was at the very least playing good defense on the other end. They had success in both man and zone, and a back line of Huestis, Nastic, and Grant Verhoeven had an extremely good stretch protecting the rim. Nastic, in particular, did very well to hedge ball screens, effectively keeping much quicker and smaller Colorado guards in front of him. Verhoeven, to his credit, also did well to anchor the defense, pulling down a couple key rebounds in traffic and stepping up to take a perfect charge. In fact, Stanford's defense on the whole—but for a couple of crucial breakdowns late (we'll get to that in a bit)—performed well against the Buffaloes.

Bubble Mediocrity
At the same time, however, the stretch speaks some to what Colorado is as a team: Namely, one on the bubble, and we all know what that means. The Buffs are a tough bunch, but nonetheless a squad missing its best scorer, playmaker, distributor, and unquestioned leader in Spencer Dinwiddie. As such, Colorado is a team that asks the next man in line, Askia Booker, to do too much, and it shows. Booker repeatedly gets himself into trouble by dribbling (and by dribbling, I mean over-dribbling) into tough spots and has a penchant for settling for hero jumpshots. He's surrounded by wings that had a tough time even coming close on some wide open looks throughout the second half. It's not much to suggest that the Buffs weren't exactly a tough guard.

To revisit the Dinwiddie injury for a moment, however, can you imagine where this Stanford team would be right now if it would have had to have played half the season without Randle? Now, consider that Dinwiddie is a much more complete player than the Stanford lead guard and that Stanford has a better supporting cast than Colorado, and you probably have the biggest difference between these two bubble teams: Tad Boyle is getting about as much as he can out of his group of guys.

Powell's Struggles
The second key stretch, and that which ultimately decided the outcome, came in the game's final stanza. Up three after a Brown driving layup with 3:55 to go, Stanford appeared poised to pull out a win despite its subpar play, especially considering the way it had been playing defense. Yet in arguably the most important moments of the season, Stanford turned in about as bad a stretch as possible. At the center of the bad play was Powell, who chose a rather inopportune time to have his worst outing of the season. The senior was in foul trouble all night, repeatedly picking up inexcusable fouls either away from the action or as a result of being out of position. This was a game during which his team absolutely needed him on the court. He was out of control and, frankly, uncharacteristically selfish on the offensive end and -- even more damning -- his normal wandering self on defense.

Indeed, it was Powell's undisciplined defense away from the basketball that swung the momentum in Colorado's direction in the game's waning moments, beginning with the possession with 3:55 to go.  Up three and needing a stop to get the ball back and at the very least run clock, Powell wildly left his man Xavier Johnson to double Colorado center Josh Scott in the post, and then was late rotating out of it. By the time the ball had swung to Johnson, now clear on the other side of the court, Powell was forced into one of his patented flailing close outs, to which Johnson calmly responded by pump faking and getting to the rim. Johnson missed the jumper, but with Powell out of the picture, was able to easily stick back his miss and pull the Buffs within one.

Moments later, Powell again found himself leading the chaotic charge towards a complete defensive breakdown, one that resulted in Xavier Talton knocking down a backbreaking three pointer to put Colorado up four with 2:10 to go. I alluded to it on the board, but it was perhaps the worst Stanford defensive possession of the year. A detailed breakdown would probably be much more than this space would warrant, so I'll spare you the details, but I encourage you to watch if you have the game on DVR. Watch Powell switch on to a guard, watch him follow the ball as if he has never been taught help principles, watch him pick up the closest guy to him with no regard for the other Stanford defenders, and then watch how his wandering rubs off on his teammates, who are left to scatter around the court as the ball zips past them and finds a wide open Talton.

How Not to Win
Powell fouled out seconds after that Talton three pointer. He was called for a charge attacking the basket one-on-four. Sandwich in Nastic clanking a horrific jumpshot (one which he seemingly paused to acknowledge was a bad shot, yet decided to chuck anyway) with 2:45 to go and Stanford down one, and the Cardinal added another installment to the ongoing Stanford anthology of how not to win close games.

Credit to Randle, who actually saved some heroics for the final minute, but by game's end, Stanford had gone to the well one too many times. The junior guard's potentially tying three pointer barely drew iron as the final buzzer sounded, bringing a fitting end to a comeback effort, a chance at a "statement" conference season, and, perhaps most far-reaching of all, a wearisome era of Stanford basketball that all came close at one point or another but that far too often fell just short.

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