Stanford Pac-12 Week 4 Hoops Preview
The Stanford Cardinal
2014-15 W/L: 13-4 (4-1 Pac-12)
2014-15 Current Pomeroy Ranking: 34
Adjusted Pac-12 ORtg (Points Per 100 Possessions): 107.5 (3rd)
Adjusted DRtg: 98 (4th)
Adjusted Pace: 64 Possessions Per Game (8)
Most frequent lineup used in last 5 games: M. Allen (So.), Randle (Sr.), Brown(Sr.), R. Allen (Jr.), Nastic (Sr.)
Stanford heads into the back half of its Bay Area fortnight with the Showdown of Showdowns, as the Arizona Wildcats head into Maples Pavilion. The second game of the week and final game of the homestand features the Arizona State Sun Devils. The hype, the excitement, and the drama are all attached to Thursday night, but don't kid yourself. Stanford needs to take care of business Saturday night regardless of what happens on Thursday. If Stanford wins on Thursday, it will need to sweep the Arizona schools to stay in contention for the Pac-12 title, a stated goal of the team. If the Cardinal falls short against the Kitties, it will need a win on Saturday to avoid a two-game losing streak and what would be an indisputably bad loss. The point is that despite its ridiculous 9 PM start time Saturday night, neither the team nor the fans should go to sleep on that ASU game.
All things appear to be trending up for Stanford at the moment. After two resounding second halves last week secured the Cardinal a pair of victories, the feeling within and around the team borders on giddiness. Stanford continues to play sharp, efficient offense, and the defense has shown signs of improvement. Furthermore, the team continues to succeed short handed, energizing what has been a moribund fan base with hope and an enthusiasm unknown to Maples for many, many years. So what's it going to take for the Cardinal to take two this weekend? Let's take a look at the bad guys and find out.
The Arizona Wildcats
2014-15 W/L: 16-2 (4-1 Pac-12)
2014-15 Current Pomeroy Ranking: 4
Adjusted Pac-12 ORtg (Points Per 100 Possessions): 111.4 (2nd)
Adjusted DRtg: 89 (1st)
Adjusted Pace: 62 Possessions Per Game (10th)
Most frequent lineup used in last 5 games: T.J. McConnell (Sr.), Stanley Johnson (Fr.), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (So.), Brandon Ashley (Jr.), Kaleb Tarczewski (Jr.)
As great as Utah has played this year, Arizona's dismantling of the Utes in advance of the Cardinal's win on Saturday night showed that the Wildcats are clearly the class of the conference. That they are only the second-best Wildcats in the nation is a reflection of Kentucky's other-worldness, not any slight to Arizona. Arizona is good. They are good everywhere. In the backcourt, up front, off the bench, at home, and on the road. They played their usual challenging schedule, and have the conference's best win, a 66-63 win over Gonzaga at McKale Center. The numbers above need very little elaboration. They are elite offensively and defensively. They dismantled Utah, who possesses an excellent offense of their own, and they did it defensively in a way revealed pretty clearly by the Four Factors.
Utah actually shot the same 50% on eFG as Arizona did in that game. What the Cats were able to do is turn the Utes over while themselves protecting the ball, and keep from fouling while holding Utah off its own offensive glass. That's why they won the game. The reason it was a blowout is that like Stanford on Saturday, Arizona eviscerated Utah on the offensive boards. The Wildcats secured a staggering 53.3% of their own misses, and there is just no way to hold a team off when you are allowing them that kind of an advantage. Utah had 41 FG attempts, but Arizona had 53. In a game played at a snail's pace of 57 possessions each, the extra shots Arizona got from the boards and the forced turnovers were simply way too much.
And that brings us to the question of how can Stanford win? Well, that last number about pace is the first bit of good news for Nerd Nation. Like Stanford and unlike previous versions of its own team, Arizona plays slowly. In fact, they play at the third-slowest pace in the conference, which is just how Stanford likes it. Arizona is very, very good, but they don't necessarily knock you out in a burst or a paroxysm of points. They are content to defend and run their halfcourt offense, and they should be. The loss to Oregon State is more instructive than the loss to UNLV. In Corvallis, the Beavers slowed the game down to a pace more dilatory than even the Wildcats typically employ. They slowed the game down and shot the lights out in Gill Coliseum. If Stanford is able to win Thursday night, I'd expect it to be for similar reasons. The Rebels sped the game way up and were able to win. That's not going to be a likely option for Stanford.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Arizona brings is depth. Unlike Stanford, the Wildcats are not overly dependent on any one player to be on the court. No Wildcat plays more than 74% of the available minutes. Contrast that with the Cardinal, who have two players who have spent 92% and 88% of possible time on the court in conference play. Arizona spreads its major minutes amongst only six players, but it does so far more equitably than the Cardinal. The Cats are talented enough to go stretches of the game without any single player on the court, while Stanford has been unwilling to play without Chasson and/or Anthony providing a Senior security blanket. The most likely outcome in my mind is Stanford hanging tough for 35 minutes and then fading just enough for Arizona to win, much like the game at Maples last season.
Individually, Stanley Johnson is the standout among standouts. He is currently rated the 10th best player in the nation, and his duel with Delon Wright of Utah only further bolstered his stature. Johnson had 18 points and 9 rebounds in only 28 minutes. He dominates the ball relative to the rest of the Wildcats, using nearly 28% of the team's possessions when he is on the court when no other Kitty uses more than 22.6%. However, that 28% is not nearly as egregious as other players in the conference. By comparison, Chasson uses essentially the exact same number of possessions for Stanford. The difference is that the Nasty Man uses nearly 26% of the possessions himself, so like with the minutes, Stanford's success is far more concentrated on the output of a few players. T.J. McConnell is a very efficient point guard, and he and Hollis-Jefferson carry offensive efficiency ratings north of 110.
The only game with more value on Stanford's schedule is the finale....in Tucson. This is the toughest test Stanford is going to have on its home court this season. It's winnable, though it's going to take the best game Stanford has played this year to get it. Can they do that shorthanded? We shall see.
The Arizona State Sun Devils
2014-15 W/L: 9-9 (1-4 Pac-12)
2014-15 Current Pomeroy Ranking: 78
Adjusted Pac-12 ORtg (Points Per 100 Possessions): 90.5 (12th)
Adjusted DRtg: 105.2 (8th)
Adjusted Pace: 64 Possessions Per Game (9)
Most frequent lineup used in last 5 games: Gerry Blakes (Jr.), Shaq McKissic (Sr.), Roosevelt Scott (Jr.), Savon Goodman (So.), Eric Jacobsen (So.)
While ASU started out as a punchline, the specific spot the occupy in the schedule this week makes them potentially problematic. Hop into the Hot Tub Time Machine back to 1998 when a fired up and undefeated Stanford team took on a star-studded Arizona squad in a midweek primetime matchup. The Cardinal was completely outclassed that night, and clearly hadn't recovered two days later, losing to a lesser Sun Devil squad. All that Stanford team ended up doing was playing in the Final Four, so let's give the Sun Devils their due, as little as that might be.
The first thing killing Arizona State this year is turnovers. They have a horrendous offense due largely to the fact that they give the ball away on the reg. ASU has a 25.1% turnover rate in conference play. There is just no way to win when you are handing the other team opportunities like that. Things don't get better for the Sun Devils when they hold onto the ball. They are an awful three point and free throw shooting team. Their 48.9% on two-point shots is respectable, but they jack up too many threes to take advantage of it. So we have a team that loves to shoot the three despite the fact that the ball rarely goes through the net after they shoot them. On the plus side, they do assist on a high percentage of their buckets, for a rate of 61.3%.
The Sun Devils compound their issues on offense by being a poor defensive unit, though not as colossally inept as they are on offense. Despite the fact that they force the most turnovers per possession in the conference, the Sun Devils offer very little resistance to opposing offenses. This suggests that they are gambling for steals frequently, and when they roll snake eyes, other teams are taking advantage. ASU doesn't defend the three, allowing opponents to shoot a robust 44.1%. This number is very inviting and I am sure the Stanford coaches are going to have to emphasize discipline regarding shot selection Saturday night. ASU is plenty generous with its two-point defense as well, so there should be no excuse for the Cardinal to lose its focus on getting the ball into the paint.
Individually, the Sun Devils are "led" by Junior Gerry Blakes. Despite the fact that he only plays 57.8% of the available minutes, he manages to dominate the ball when he is on the court, and that's not good. He sports an offensive efficiency rating of 91.8, which is horrendous. The minutes allocations for the Sun Devils strongly suggest that Coach Herb Sendek is having trouble finding any combination that can maintain any effectiveness. Seniors Bo Barnes and Jonathan Gilling have good efficiency ratings and really high shooting numbers but for some reason use less than 15% of their team's possessions when on the floor. Shaq McKissic and Eric Jacobsen play the most minutes and are more efficient players than Blakes, but both the Senior McKissic and the Sophomore Jacobsen take a backseat to the junior Blakes in terms of both shots and possessions used.
So what's to fear? Well, when you have a team that is three-crazy, lightning can strike, as it did in Arizona State's last game. The Sun Devils rode 10 three pointers (on 20 attempts) to their first conference victory, and really this is the only scenario where Stanford may be in danger of losing, aside from the aforementioned "trap" aspect. Then there's Karma. With all the shade I'm throwing on them, blame me if Blakes suddenly turns into Steph Curry and Los Diablos del Sol (for those of you not into the whole brevity thing) rain down a boatlaod of three pointers. Barring that, however, the Sun Devils should be another vanquished Stanford foe right before SNL starts. The only question is will they be the first or the second team from the Land of Goldwater to fall on the Farm?