No DeFense Leads to DePaul DeFeat

Stanford entered with hopes of its second victory of the week and left with a second defeat on the season. This time, unfortunately, there can be no comfort in the quality of the opponent. DePaul was coming off a defeat to Lehigh while Stanford had trounced the Blue Hens of Delaware. Making the NCAA Tournament is as much or more about avoiding bad losses as it is about accumulating great wins.

After a 87-72 DePaul victory, Stanford moves into its annual two-week bye for finals. It’s becoming increasingly clear where the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie. The bigger question is which aspect of the Cardinal’s game, the good or the bad, is going to define its season.

To the Four Factors from yesterday’s game:

Basically, the reasons for the Cardinal’s downfall were twofold: offensive self-destruction compounded by defensive futility. DePaul (3-1) offered the Cardinal (4-2) a chance to face full, three-quarter, and half-court trapping defenses, and while the Blue Demons’ commitment to pressure defenses undoubtedly amped up the pace of the game, it’s hard for me to pin the turnovers on Coach Oliver Purnell’s tactics alone.

Stanford wasn’t overwhelmed by the pressure, it was simply careless on most occasions. Stanford turned the ball over on 24% of its possessions, a significant click above its 17% season average. DePaul had a whopping 25 points of Cardinal turnovers, good for a +13 margin that quite nearly explains the 87-72 final score. The issue is not just the points allowed, however, but that each turnover cost Stanford a shot attempt on a day when the Cardinal ended up shooting well enough to win the game.

The other area in which the Cardinal experienced a drop-off was in producing points at the foul line. Stanford made eight free throws on 62 shot attempts, when on the season the Cardinal has been producing foul-line points at a 29% clip (i.e. a season average of 0.29 made free throws for every shot attempt). An inability to reach the line was especially frustrating because Stanford spent most of the game in the bonus due to overaggressive DePaul defense. When you are fortunate to get enough calls to spend more than 10 minutes of a half in the bonus, you have to take advantage, and the Cardinal did not.

Stanford did a great job crashing the offensive boards, but could only come up with a +5 advantage on second-chance points. That wasn’t enough to overcome the Cardinal’s generosity with turnovers and a porous defense that warrants legitimate concern.

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt: Despite producing 30% of Stanford’s points, Chasson Randle struggled overall in this game. He made only 1-of-7 from three, and he turned the ball over a whopping seven times. Perhaps pushing things a bit too much playing in his home area, Chasson repeatedly dribbled himself into traffic and ended up on the ground, watching DePaul scramble upcourt with the ball. He finished the game with an offensive rating of 86, a season low. Anthony Brown carried a 118 offensive rating, but continues to play too small a role in the offense, in my opinion. Turnovers also plagued Anthony, and he had one of his sporadic mental errors, committing a double dribble with no defender anywhere near him in the second half. On the plus side, he hit two threes in the second half, and his coast-to-coast and-one brought the Cardinal to its smallest deficit. Still, Stanford needs way more out of its backcourt to compete, especially on the road.

The Triangle Offense: One player who is quickly rising in my estimation is Roscoe Allen. Specifically, his ability to move without the ball is producing easy “system” buckets that Stanford sorely lacked before instituting the triangle offense. Roscoe has a high IQ and seems very comfortable working off the ball. He made a number of great back cuts for layups. He is also one of Stanford’s two best passers and decision makers. The other is Stefan Nastic, so Stanford is in an unconventional position. Normally, you expect passing and decision-making to be backcourt strengths, but on this team, the expertise in those areas comes from the frontcourt. Fortunately, Stanford is in the right offense to accommodate this predicament. However, no system can mitigate the four turnovers that Roscoe had in Rosemont last night. Nastic only had one turnover, and looks more comfortable dealing with double- and triple-teams. He had three assists, at least two of which were to a cutting Allen.

Reid Travis: The McDonald’s All-American continues to prove himself worthy of the hype. On Sunday he displayed a glimpse at a promising offensive future by executing a nice dribble drive from the perimeter, an 18-foot jumper from straight away, and excellent body control to avoid charges. He was 6-of-8 from the field, with 15 points and only three fouls. He struggled from the line, and I thought Steven Bardo had an interesting comment about Allen rushing his free throws. His stroke suggests the ability to hit charity shots regularly, so we’ll see if he gets any better during the course of the year. As with Roscoe Allen, Travis' four turnovers were quite costly, but as a frosh they were more understandable. He also needs to be more of a presence on the defensive boards. Two rebounds in 37 minutes isn’t going to cut it, but overall I like what I’ve seen so far from No. 22.

Offensive Cohesion: Stanford’s assist-to-turnover ratio is currently a turnover-to-assist ratio, and that’s not good. To a certain extent, that’s to be expected with lineup combinations accumulating their very first minutes with one another. The players are in an offense that is appropriate for them, one that produces high-percentage shots with regularity when not turning the ball over. What hamstrung the cagers yesterday was discomfort with ball pressure. Too often, too many players gave up their dribble before they were ready to pass or shoot, and it led to turnovers. Again, the players will clean some of this up with increased time on the floor together, but in that regard, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, which leads me to the next topic….

Depth: Again, all five of Stanford’s starters logged no fewer than 33 minutes, with Brown, Randle, and Travis playing virtually the entire game at 37, 38, and 37 minutes respectively. This has been a problem all season long and the Cardinal cannot sustain this kind of imbalance. It’s ironic that after years of railing about Rotation Roulette, I now find myself wanting Coach Dawkins to utilize more of the bench, but that’s clearly the case. I’d argue that it would be worth it to eat some unpleasant results in the regular season if it means developing and identifying the core rotation players coming off the bench. Marcus Allen looks increasingly comfortable out on the floor, but then made one of the biggest mental errors of the year at the end of the first half. With Stanford in possession and the shot clock extinguished for the half, Allen cast up a jumper with 11 seconds left on the game clock. It missed, and DePaul predictably raced up the court and ended the half with a dunk that galvanized the Blue Demons, as well as the two or three dozen fans in attendance. The frosh continue to look, like, well, frosh. Michael Humphrey is a promising player, but physically overmatched by college players at this point. He committed three fouls in only eight minutes, though he did have two blocks and a steal. The Cardinal really miss Grant Verhoeven’s size, as it doesn’t appear Coach Dawkins is ready to commit to Schuyler Rimmer as a viable frontcourt option. Foul trouble and fatigue are inevitable foes for any team’s frontcourt over the course of the season, and this is an area in which Stanford appears excessively vulnerable so far this season. Dorian Pickens stuck a nice three pointer, but committed two turnovers in only seven minutes of action. Sanders and Cartwright split five total minutes, so it’s hard to judge either, but this is a classic case where Coach Dawkins needs to decide on one or the other, because they are essentially the same player. Even if it’s only going to be five minutes, those five are better served going to one player and not two. Make no mistake, this is going to be a huge factor for the Cardinal in conference play.

Life Without Defensive Security Blankets: DePaul’s 116 offensive rating was a giant departure from its season average of 102. Its 61% eFG was a leap from its season rate of 54%. When a good offensive team like Duke lights you up, that’s one thing. DePaul is not a great offense, but Stanford made the Blue Demons look like Blue Devils, and that’s a huge problem. The departure of Huestis and Powell certainly hurts, but the team needs to make some serious strides during its hiatus if it’s going to have a top third finish in the Pac-12. Right now, the Cardinal yields an overall defensive rating of 97, but against Duke and DePaul, that number was well north of 100.

The Cardinal has the length and perimeter athleticism to be a decent defense. Its lack of size, shot blocking, and rebounding will render the Cardinal vulnerable all year long, but there still needs to be some improvement. One step the coaches can take is committing to one type of defense. As with last year, Stanford dabbles in multiple defenses and has mastered none. My vote is for man. Yes, it leaves the Cardinal susceptible to foul trouble, but Stanford is not a strong enough rebounding team to be in the zone, where that weakness is significantly exacerbated.

Stanford showed some fight in the second half, and Brown’s coast-to-coast three-point play sliced the deficit from as many as 18 to five. What followed was an excruciating five offensive possession sequence in which the Cardinal produced two points, three turnovers, and a missed Roscoe Allen three. The lights were essentially out on Stanford at that point.

I have always considered the finals break as an advantage, a kind of in-season reboot opportunity. It’s clear what Stanford has to work on to be ready for the end of non-conference play. Hopefully, the Cardinal hits more than the books over the next two weeks.

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