Results: Lost vs. Arizona, 89-82, won vs. Arizona State, 89-70
Stanford headed into the week that was on a high from its non-conference win over Connecticut. The hype built to a high boil on Thursday when the Arizona Wildcats came to town. Unfortunately, Arizona played to their lofty #7 ranking and put on an offensive display that left a game Cardinal squad scrambling for defensive answers. The truth is that despite the fact that Stanford put up 82 points against Arizona, the offense also had difficulties of its own in the second half during the stretch of the game where the Wildcats ran away from Stanford. Coach Dawkins' squad deserves credit for making the Kitties play the game out, but the outcome was essentially decided well before the final horn sounded. Tough losses like this are often an opportunity to grow, learn, and get better, so let's take a look at how things went down last Thursday night:
The first thing that jumps out is the pace of the game. Despite the choppiness and "disjointed" nature of the contest, to use Coach Dawkins' words, the game was played well beyond a pace that either team was accustomed to playing. It became clear that Arizona had the athleticism and depth to accommodate that pace, whereas Stanford just didn't have the horses to keep up with the Wildcats and chase them up and down the floor. A couple anecdotal examples help illustrate the problem for Stanford. Twice in the second half, Cardinal players drove hard to the basket and didn't get foul calls, leaving them stumbling off the court and into the first row of seats. Twice, Wildcat point guard T.J. McConnell alertly drove the ball up court quickly, leaving Stanford shorthanded in transition, and ending in Wildcat baskets. A third time, Marcus Allen failed to get back in time to match up with his man, triggering a domino effect that ended with Brandon Ashley all alone in the corner, where he proceeded to burn Stanford for three points.
These three examples aren't the plays that "lost the game" by any stretch, but they illustrate just why Stanford plays as the pace it does. Another glance at the four factors shows that the Cardinal turned it over on 18% of its possessions, more than it has in conference play. That translated into a +6 in points off turnovers for Arizona, which is only one point off the game's final margin. The depth issue was also a factor, as Arizona was quite comfortable playing any combination of five players for long stretches, while Stanford remained reluctant to pull Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown off the floor. Chasson played all 40 minutes, and clearly looked gassed as the game drew to its conclusion. Stanford shot well, and did end up with a high score, but the tax on the defense was too high a price to overcome.
The pick and roll execution on both sides also provides a good insight into the game as a whole. Stanford's defense was repeatedly shredded by this action, not so much by the shots created for the screener or the ballhandler, but by the shots created when Stanford would either overhelp or not rotate fast enough to one of the other three players on the court. Arizona got dunks and layups off this action, and that combined with the numerous dribble drive threats the Wildcats put out there was too much for Stanford to contain.
On offense, the Wildcats hedged hard with their big men, driving Stanford's ballhandlers far off course and towards the half-court line, where they were unable to hit the screener or another player. There are options within the Triangle to deal with this type of aggressive defense, but Stanford just couldn't get to them on this night. Credit Arizona, an elite defensive team, for the fateful stretch when Stanford's otherwise effective offensive night suffered through the 2 for 12 stretch that put them under. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinal adapts to this type of pick and roll defense, both in the season-ending rematch and in the games in between.
All in all, it's tough to be down on Stanford for dropping this game. It would have been a huge win. Arizona is a one-seed caliber team. They are excellent, well-coached, athletic, and deep. That last attribute ultimately did the Cardinal in on Thursday. Regardless, the loss sent them into a late night bounce back test against an Arizona State squad who had made mincemeat out of Cal on that very same Thursday night. How would the Cardinal respond?
Stanford's defensive slump extended through the first half against Arizona State, who lived up to its reputation by putting its fortunes squarely on the shoulders of its three point shooting prowess. Los Diablos del Sol hit 8 of 14 attempts in the first half, keeping Coach Herb Sendek's squad within shouting distance (10 points) of a scorching hot Cardinal team that shot 70% in the first half, including 83% from the three point line. As the second half wore on, Stanford was able to find some better defensive footing, and once the threes stopped falling, it was only a matter of time before win #14 went into the books for Stanford.
This was the rare Four Factors sweep for the Cardinal. The pace was a bit higher than preferred once again, but it was not quite the frenzy that stretches of Thursday were nor was it the foul fest that Thursday was. Both of those facts ended up helping the Cardinal. So did the excellence of the Cardinal's Big Three. Nastic, Brown, and Randle combined for 62 of the team's 89 points and they did so on a combined 62% shooting (69% eFG) from the field. ASU had literally nobody who could stop them. The Sun Devils had a decent overall offensive day themselves. The 101.4 rating they posted was well above their in-conference average of 96, but in the second half could only muster 29 points. Despite Nastic's dominance, the Sun Devils actually outscored Stanford in the paint. However, when you consider Stanford's nuclear shooting as well as its return to low turnover normalcy, the Sun Devils just didn't have a chance late Saturday night. Now let's look at our season-long talking points:
What To Like:
Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt: Stanford's loftily reputed duo didn't do much to harm their reputations this weekend. Combined, the duo shot 26-48 (10-22 3PT) in the two games, for an eFG of 65%. They had only six turnovers in 138 minutes over the weekend. There has been much discussion about Anthony's game against Arizona. He did put up 18 points and 9 rebounds (for the third straight game) to go with two blocked shots. He also went to the basket with both speed and fury, and habit he continued on Saturday night. I do know that you can really call all that a "bad" game under any circumstances, but he did seem a bit out of sorts, struggling at times with his dribble. Coach Dawkins agreed that despite Anthony's final numbers, it wasn't his best game, and he attributed much of that to the early foul trouble that kept him from establishing a true rhythm until the last minutes of the game. Maybe we leave it by saying we should all have "bad" days that still end up with 18 and 9. Regardless, these two continue to cement their status on the All-Conference team.
The Triangle Offense: On the weekend, Stanford assisted on 52% of its made baskets. During Pac-12 play, that number sits at 45%, second lowest in the conference. This was a very good offensive weekend for Stanford. Even in defeat, they put up points. Yes, the 20 they put up in the Arizona game's final 2:46 are a bit skewed by the altered state of the game and Arizona's defense (i.e., playing with a big lead and preoccupied with avoiding fouls), but 82 points is 82 points. Follow that up with 89, and the strength of this team this year was obviously the strength of this team this past weekend. Tactically, there are some adjustments to be made as previously mentioned against teams that blitz the pick and roll, but overall Stanford continues to space the floor, work the ball into the paint, and find open shooters.
Another area that improved was Stanford's ability to generate points at the foul line. Yes, the Arizona game was an outlier for both team, but Stanford still managed a 48% FT Rate against an elite defense, and came back Saturday to post a 36% rate against Arizona State. In Pac-12 play, that number sits at 40%, and Stanford is now in the top half (5th) in the conference. That's important because it was an area of concern at the onset of the season and it's going to be vital this week against the Washington schools.
Reid Travis: After the darkness comes the
dawn, Gotham City's Harvey Dent once told us, and perhaps that
sums it up for Stanford's heralded Freshman. His absence
was conspicuous against the athletic and physical Wildcats,
but word came late Saturday night that he was a probable
inclusion on the Washington trip and could even see limited
floor action, with a return the following week against the
L.A. schools the first, best chance to see him get substantial
minutes on the floor. He can't get back soon
enough. Though unlikely to move the needle on the team's
fortunes much this week, a return now makes it likely
that he'd be in full shape when March rolls around, barring
Depth: The runaway second half against Arizona State afforded The Platinum Backcourt a rare and well-earned respite from logging heavy minutes. After a stretch where he had played 102 of the Cardinal's previous 108 minutes, Chasson "only" played 32 minutes. Anthony played 34 and then was allowed to sit out the conclusion of the victory on Saturday night. There is no question in my mind that minutes were a factor against Arizona. The Cardinal's starters played 147 minutes, while Arizona's played 135. That may not seem like much split over five players, but consider Arizona's total was impacted by Brandon Ashley's foul trouble limiting him to only 16 minutes. Stanford had three of its starters were in foul trouble, yet only Rosco played less than 27 minutes. Arizona had the luxury of absorbing the foul calls and was not forced to keep any one player out on the court. This included Stanley Johnson, who didn't have to play 30 minutes at all for Arizona to win. I maintain that Cartwright, Marcus Allen, and Dorian Pickens give Coach Dawkins the option of finding some rest for the big three, regardless of foul difficulty. It remains to be seen whether that reality materializes at some point.
It's been the weaker area for Stanford all season, and it's
never going to surpass the offense, but I'd maintain that
there is still room for improvement. The truth is that
when you factor the athletic limitations of Stanford's front
line players (excluding Reid), the injuries, and the
inexperience of so many of the Cardinal players (not just
the freshmen, but also Rosco and Marcus Allen), the ceiling
is only so high for this team defensively. Add to that
Chasson's huge offensive responsibilities, and it's unlikely
we are going to see a dramatic turnaround like the one we
saw in St. Louis last march. Also remember that the Cardinal
subtracted two All-Conference defenders from the roster.
That being said, this team has far from maxed out its own
defensive potential, and as we sit with 11 games to go
before the postseason, there are some problems that can be
addressed. First of all, Stanford's on ball defense
must get better. The players on Arizona are quick
and explosive, as are so many in the conference,
and so I understand the challenge in front of the Cardinal
defenders. That being said, Stanford gets hurt way too
often by penetration into the lane. It puts so much
stress on the help defense, which because of the
aforementioned limitations can't always complete rotations and
stop the ball without fouling. This fouling is really
where the team has really hurt itself. Stanford
currently gives up points at the foul line at the highest rate
in the conference. This is despite a defensive eFG% of
47.8, which is 5th best in the Pac-12. Not great, but
again, still the top half. If Stanford can maintain that
number but play cleaner, it can improve enough defensively to
stay on the floor with elite offenses like Arizona's.
I said two weeks ago that the Cardinal had
to win three of four on the Bay Area fortnight to keep pace
with its March aspirations, and it did just that.
Despite its flaws and areas for improvement, I am still high
on this team's overall outlook. All we learned this week
is that they are not ready to beat a team the caliber of
Arizona in January. A treacherous trip does await the
Cardinal this week. As Anthony pointed out, he's never
won in Seattle, a town which seems to exist solely to torment
every waking aspect of my life as a sports fan. Both
these games will be difficult to navigate, based on venue and
the difficulty both the Cougars and Huskies gave Stanford at
Maples. Hopefully the Cardinal will be inspired by the
return of its One-Man Cavalry.