Basketball wins two squeakers

In college basketball, there are two kinds of non-conference games: resume boosters and resume killers. Stanford played with fire twice in its first games back from finals, but managed to escape Maples with virtually mandatory victories over Denver and LMU.

Results: Beat Denver, 49-43, and Beat Loyola Marymount, 67-58 The Pioneers and Lions both enjoyed leads late in the game, and considering they are respectively ranked No. 153 and No. 244 by Ken Pomeroy, home losses to either would have been gut shots to the team’s tournament hopes. The bottom line is that bad losses do more damage than great wins do credence in college hoops, so in a way there is almost more pressure to win these dead of winter, seemingly unimportant non-conference games. Losses to either of these teams would have almost necessitated a win in Texas, and I don’t think any Cardinal fan wants that kind of pressure on Dec. 23. Instead, Stanford may have underwhelmed its fans, but did dig out victories for wins five and six, with a tough non-conference road trip now starting Saturday in Provo. To the Four Factors:

Stanford 2013-'14 Offense65.49016.43841107
Stanford 2013-'14 Defense65.47219273096


Loyola Marymount65.9.5292317.9.07887.9

What To Like:
Stanford won two games despite being outshot in both. This is a good thing, and it’s an ability that Stanford lacked as recently as last regular season. The level of competition obviously tempers the excitement, but should the tools Stanford used to secure these two victories become regular features during conference play, the Cardinal will be headed for an excellent season indeed. As we see above, the Cardinal won by doing three things: Winning the turnover battle, crashing the offensive boards, and generating points at the foul line. It made it through a slog against the plodding Pioneers last Saturday, and Wednesday night, in a game more in line with Stanford's typical pace, the Cardinal were able to once again go to the formula and win a game that was in doubt for nearly 38 of its 40 minutes.

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt: Chasson Randle has had a week of extremes, to say the least. He went 2 of 14 against Denver, 0 of 5 deep, and mustered only one assist. Against Loyola Marymount, the Cardinal’s best player was in fact, its best player. Randle scored 31 of the team’s 67 points and absolutely dominated the second half against the young Lions. He was 9 of 19 from the field, and, most importantly, was the key contributor to the Cardinal’s victory at the foul line. Although the game featured his first two missed free throws of the season, Chasson still produced 10 points there, largely accounting for his team’s +13 advantage at the foul line. His ability to get wherever he wanted (and LMU’s inability to do anything about it) carried him to an offensive efficiency rating of 130. Add in his five steals, which led to the Cardinal’s +11 advantage in points off turnovers, and Stanford had a victory it may not have claimed without its best player at his absolute best.

Anthony Brown did the honors for the Cardinal against the Pioneers. In an ugly, ugly game, Brown’s performance wasn’t stellar, but necessary. He put up 17 points, four steals and six rebounds in 36 turnover-free minutes. Against LMU, it was seemingly his turn to struggle. He had seven points and three turnovers. He did, however, have five assists, and one of the game’s biggest effort plays. He crashed the offensive boards and forced a deflection that ended up in the hands of The Nasty Man, and the Cardinal had a crucial three-point play.
In sum, the Cardinal’s backcourt had an inconsistent weekend, which is not a big surprise after the layoff. That one starter played well in each game is the reason that they swept the homestand. Both will need to be good at the same time if Stanford is to have a chance Saturday night and then next week against Texas.

The Triangle Offense: The Cardinal had 11 assists on 22 made field goals against LMU. It had six assists on 14 (?!) of its field goals against Denver. Collectively that’s 17 of 36, so nearly half of its buckets were assisted. Offenses that produce assisted baskets and free-throw attempts are not over-dependent on hot shooting nights, and those offenses are the kind you need to string wins together. The Cardinal is generating foul-line points at a nearly 41% rate. To give context, last year it did so at a 45% rate, and the best 50 teams in the nation do so at a rate of 45% and up. The numbers vs. Denver and LMU may not seem overwhelming, but they were a huge part of Stanford’s offense. The key for Stanford is consistency. On the road against DePaul, the team couldn’t get points from the line (13% free throw rate) so despite a good shooting night, it lost. Stanford has to get its free-throw generating and turnover-minimizing home self to travel in order to win consistently for the rest of the year.

Reid Travis: The freshman looked clearly out of sorts over the past two games. He shot a combined 1 of 6 and managed only eight total rebounds over the two games, none of them offensive. He had only played 15 minutes against Denver, and against LMU, just never seemed to get into a comfortable groove out on the floor. The LMU game is significant as well because it showed that teams know that they can leave him open from ten feet out and that he is worth sending to the line. He still continues to play with a motor, but seems a little off coming back from finals. Long term, I have no concerns at this point, but he is really going to need to step it up if Stanford is going to have a chance against top competition.

Depth: Against Denver, the Cardinal had four players play 34 minutes or more. Against the Lions, minutes were spaced out more equitably, and though there were some struggles and rough patches, Coach Dawkins’ willingness to look beyond his overworked players started to pay dividends. Foremost was the solid effort from Dorian Pickens. The wing hit two critical corner threes, and then had a great box out for an important rebound late in the game. He’s got size, athleticism, and has hit five of his first 10 three-pointers as a collegian. He was on the floor for crucial minutes against Loyola Marymount after logging only three minutes against Denver. He looked capable and it will be interesting to see how much trust he earns for Saturday night.
Cartwright also continues to impress with his defensive energy and overall game. Though he didn’t score against LMU, he had three assists, two steals, and no turnovers in 13 minutes. I like his chances to spell the Platinum Backcourt for at least some stretches in the future. The bottom line is Brown and Randle need to play closer to 30 minutes per game than 40. Nastic and Reid need similar relief, plus help for the inevitable times when they get into foul trouble, as the Nasty Man did against LMU. Hopefully the return of Grant Verhoeven helps stabilize and establish the Cardinal post rotation.

Defense: Ultimately, the D will determine the course of Stanford’s season. The Cardinal buckled down on defense for three of the four halves. They held both opponents to offensive ratings under 90, and the Cardinal’s aggressive second-half defense clearly triggered the win against the Lions. However, Stanford continues to feature a zone and a man-to-man defense, and doesn’t look particularly comfortable with either. Just as on offense you need to be able to get points without shooting well, you also need to get stops without depending on turnovers. LMU, especially in the first half, had numerous open looks both from three and at the rim. As far as the zone goes, Stanford’s bigs just don’t have the lateral movement to close off passing and driving lanes, or recover. In the man, the Cardinal guards struggled to negotiate screens and resorted to calling out switches which put bigs out on the perimeter against guards, and left the guards stuck with bigs down low. Stanford can and must improve here as the competition improves significantly moving forward, save one exception on the 29th. Because fighting through screens can improve and the lateral movement of the bigs won’t, my vote is for a commitment to man-to-man defense.

So off goes the squad, first to Provo and then to Austin. Stanford wants at least a split, but because they avoided resume-killers in these two games, they can go into both with no added pressure on them. The team laid an egg in its only other “legit” road game, against a DePaul team currently ranked No. 148, only five spots ahead of Denver. Moving onto Saturday night, the question is whether the Cardinal’s game will travel this time.

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