From Husky Tamers to Cougar Prey

It was a split decision for Stanford on the trip to the Northwest

    Stanford went up to the Pacific Northwest this weekend feeling pretty good about itself, having righted its ship against Arizona State following a tough loss to the Wildcats.  On paper, they were looking at a road game in Seattle against a depleted Husky squad and then a trek across the state into a Cougar Den that had proved to be increasingly hospitable to opponents as the season went along.  Stanford was a team on the beam, getting mentions from national announcers as a team to watch.  Four days later, the tenor and tone of the season received two distinct and altering jolts that left the Cardinal frustratingly stuck in the same place that it was four days ago.  As we've mentioned in the Pac-12 Whiparound, Stanford occupies a unique space in the conference hierarchy.  Coming into the week, they were looking up at Utah and way up at Arizona, but had gained a measure of separation from the rest of the league.  They started off the week on a positive, taking a strong step towards the lofty height of second place, bolstered by a Utah stumble in Pauley Pavilion. Then on a Saturday night they appeared ready to cement their new place in the stratosphere, before it all came crashing down in a 30 minute regression towards every criticism that's been levied on this team for the past seven years.

Stanford came into American Airlines Arena and displayed absolutely no sympathy for a Washington squad that was reeling and shorthanded from injury and the dismissal of Center Robert Upshaw.  A Husky frontline that had given Stanford all it could handle in Maples during Week 1 had really no sustainable answer for Stanford's attack on this night.  The Four Factors give a pretty clear indication of Stanford's dominance.  The Cardinal shot a lofty 62% from three, but only got 24 of its 84 points from that shot.  Stanford pounded the paint all night via the drive and the pass, they crashed the offensive boards, and they got 20 points on free throws. The biggest area of separation came in points off turnovers, where the Cardinal was +10.  Ultimately, they came out strong in both halves against the Huskies, including a 17-3 start to the second half.  They built up a 26-point lead with 15 minutes to go that ultimately got whittled down to what would eventually be a 10-point victory.  The blowout nature of the second half masked an ominous result for the Cardinal:  Stanford surrendered 50 points in the second half, and got away with it.  They'd not be so lucky in Pullman.

    Stanford got an extra day to prepare for its iditarod to the Palouse, and to further tip the scales in its favor, Washington State played on Thursday and got taken to the woodshed by California.  Stanford had a chance to cement a second-place standing in the conference, notch its 16th win of the season, and head home with as much momentum as any team in the conference besides Arizona. Instead, it played party to an epic farce, a total system fail in which all the progress the team had been making towards defensive improvement was mauled and torn to shreds by the eager claws of the rejuvenated Cougars.
    The Four Factors leave no doubt as to the comprehensive and profound lack of anything even resembling defense on Stanford's part.  To be fair, the Cougars' defensive effort was also commensurate with their status as the worst defensive team in the Pac-12.  That Stanford also felt entitled to completely ignore this side of the floor this late into the season strongly implies that at its core, it's either unwilling or unable to put together a solid and consistent performance defensively.  Putting it simply, Washington State got whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, and on the rare occasion when the Cougars misfired, the misses were either followed or preceded by Stanford fouls.  A .638 free throw rate is patently absurd.  I have emphasized the need for Stanford to play a cleaner brand of defense, but on Saturday night, the Cardinal looked more like the Washington Generals than a top-tier Pac-12 team.  The WSU offensive efficiency rating of 134.8 is by far the highest the team has allowed all season.DaVonte Lacy had the lowest individual rating of any Cougar who played at 123.  It was a pitiful and untimely effort for a team with lofty regular season ambitions and NCAA Tournament expectations.
    We'll get back to probing the rank Cardinal defense in a bit, but there were two crucial coaching choices that helped lead to Stanford's fall that need to be addressed. One of them I support, but with an asterisk, and the other, I just cannot understand at all.  Both will be addressed in the "Concerns" section.  

What To Like:

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt
:  Stanford went down on Saturday, but there is very little in the way of blame headed towards Chasson Randle, who continues to step closer and closer towards Pac-12 Player of the Year Honors. Chasson shot 53% eFG and against WSU heroically tried to shoulder the entire load for Stanford.  He succeeded for long stretches, finishing with 33 points and even grabbing 9 rebounds in 38 turnover-free minutes.  Unfortunately, Anthony's weekend was a bit more uneven.  Against Washington, he was all over the box score, scoring 23 with seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Remember that last number, because it's a good segue into our concerns section and one of the previously alluded to coaching choices.
    Unfortunately, Anthony's weekend was an uneven one, and in a game where the Cardinal's offense was successful overall, his inability to support his running buddy proved costly.  Anthony had an efficiency rating of 85 for the game in Pullman, a shell of a performance from a senior playing at an overall rating of 119, who hadn't fallen below triple digits since the Cardinal's loss to BYU on Dec. 20, a span of 12 games.  Anthony was 2 for 11 from the field, and unlike in Seattle where he was able to overcome shooting struggles by getting to the line for 15 free throw attempts, he only got to the line six times against the Cougars.  That he fouled out just further established this game as an outlier, but on a night where Stanford's only hope was to outscore its opponent, it needed Full Platinum Status from this duo.

The Triangle Offense:  Hard to criticize an offense that produces over 80 points with high efficiency.  On Saturday, Stanford was phenomenally efficient.  Its only cold stretch came during the end of the first half in Pullman, but overall, Stanford has remained a very effective and strong offense.  In fact, Stanford  now has the second-best offense in the Pac-12.  The formula is straigtforward.  They shoot it well and they don't turn the ball over to the opponent.  And while they are not assisting on a high percentage of their baskets, they still manage to generate a few "system" buckets every game, including the requisite backdoor alley-oop to Chasson.  The only real time where they do run into trouble, in fact, is when they stray from  their structure.  That was never more in evidence than on the team's penultimate possession, when the coaches called time out and let Rosco try to go the hoop off an isolation set.  Stanford's been great all year at letting the right guys shoot the ball, and for most of the year, I've included Rosco among the "right guys."  In this situation, however, it's hard to justify not giving the ball to Chasson, given his overall skill, the game he was having, and the officials' ongoing love affair with their whistles.  Despite my dispute, this isn't one of the two coaching decisions that sealed the Cardinal's fate.

Reid Travis: The weekend saw the return of the jewel of Stanford's very good freshman class.  He looked very spry and comfortable in the 13 minutes of limited action he received Saturday, and that's good because Stanford is going to need him Thursday night.


Depth:  I've been imploring the coaches all year long in this space to find rest for Chasson and Anthony.  Currently, both are playing more than 86% of the team's minutes.  In the first half, Coach Dawkins finally acquiesced.  At 12:05 in the first half, Stanford subbed Anthony out, and the Cardinal went -1 until he returned at 9:21 of the half.  In between, however, The Nasty Man picked up his second foul of the half at 10:24, sending him to the bench.  Anthony came in and Chasson got the only rest he'd get for the remainder of the contest.  From that 9:21 until Chasson returned at 7:27, Stanford added a point to its lead, and the score was 33-22.  All seemed well. Unfortunately, that's when Coach Dawkins sent Sanders and Humphrey in for Travis and Cartwright, leaving a quintet of Chasson, Anthony, Humphrey, Sanders, and Rosco on the floor.  Humphrey had two fouls in 59 seconds, which actually may have lowered his per minute rate.  Nastic would return four minutes later, but at that point the lead was down to four.  By the time Sanders was replaced at 3:22, it was a two-point game.  Washington State scored on seven of eight possessions after Sanders and Humphrey entered the game, with three of those possessions ending in fouls by one of them that led to Wazzu points.
    As it was unfolding, I was tweeting in favor of the move to play Humphrey, as well as Pickens and Cartwright, even though it ground the Cardinal offense to a halt.  I'll still maintain that ultimately, Stanford is going to benefit this season from the minutes it gave to Humphrey, Pickens, and Cartwright.  However, in the short term, the lineups that Coach Dawkins put out just couldn't maintain the control of the game that Stanford had established at the game's first quarter turn.  Washington State went into the half leading, and that would be more than enough motivation to keep the Cougars fighting all game long.  With a better close to the half, Stanford may have been able to coerce the Cougs to pack it in for the night, especially after the stinker they threw up on Thursday night against Cal.  Instead, Stanford rejuvenated Washington State, and it would prove fatal.
    Christian Sanders continues to get playing time, even though at this late stage in the season he is still struggling to find his game.  His 72.3 offensive rating is by far the lowest on the team (Only Elliot Bullock is also below 100, and he's at 94) and his 34% turnover rate is essentially twice as high as anybody else who plays.  We've talked about the competition between he and Cartwright for minutes, and Coach Dawkins seems unwilling to choose.  I think it's time to commit to Cartwright, who at the moment is a better short and long term option for Stanford.  That Sanders played and it didn't even result in rest for Chasson and Anthony only compounded the situation.  Neither he nor Humphrey are to blame exclusively for the loss, but their stretch on the floor was the beginning of the end for Stanford's hopes of an easy win.
    With Travis returning, Stanford has a quartet of bigs in Nastic, Rosco, Reid, and Humphrey. Rosco and Humphrey should certainly be used, but never in tandem without Nastic and Travis on the floor.  On the wings/PG, Stanford has Randle, Brown, Marcus Allen, Cartwright, and Pickens.  That's five guys for three spots.  At this point, I think Sanders has to be the odd man out, as it's now time for Stanford to get comfortable with a consistent rotation for the stretch run of the season

Defense:  This side of the court continues to be a problem for Stanford, and we can now look at the past four games and see a very disturbing trend.  Aside from the second half against Arizona State and the first half against Washington, Stanford has been very porous defensively.  They've allowed multiple 50 point halves, and they can't seem to establish any traction or consistency.  At this point their zone provides the Cardinal's only respite from its fouling tendency, because the threes and dunks the zone allows are so clear and uncontested that Stanford is not close enough to the scoring player to foul.  I've said all year long that there is a ceiling to how effective on defense Stanford can actually be, based on factors that aren't going to change.  That being said, it has to get better than this.
    One thing Stanford's coaches could have done to help the situation was to utilize its best defensive player, Anthony Brown, on DaVonte Lacy.  Lacy struggled mightily at Maples, but in the second half he went off, erupting for 20 points while playing the entire second half.  He was 6-8 from the field and he earned 11 free throws, making seven.  For reasons passing understanding, Stanford had Randle and Marcus Allen guarding him for most of the second half, despite Anthony's availability.  At 6'2" and 6'3", Chasson and Marcus are just not equipped to guard the 6'4", 215 pound Cougar Senior.  Anthony played virtually all of the second half, not picking up fouls four and five until the last minute of the game. He got a chance to check Lacy twice at the end, effectively denying him on one possession, and then fouling him on the other.  Credit Lacy, who played well and to form, but it was frustrating to watch him repeatedly rise over Chasson and go through Marcus while 6'6" Anthony was standing there on the court the entire time.

    So Stanford sits at 15 wins with nine to play.  They will be favored in all but two of those games, so if they go 5-2 in those and/or steal one of the two biggies on the road, they are a lock for the Tournament.  They could have really provided themselves more margin for error by playing any kind of defense on Saturday night, but that train has left the station.  Stanford will go as far as its defense allows its offense to take it, and if the defense doesn't get cleaned up soon, that's not going to be far.  To survive Tournament play, you have to be able to absorb a bad offensive game.  They are going to to happen.  For the past two weeks, Stanford has been scoring consistently and winning inconsistently.  The charge moving forward is to find a way to clean up the defense, lest the Cardinal's season be fated to end with a loss to a lesser team, as it was Saturday night.

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