Stanford's Slide Towards Mediocrity

The weekend on The Farm was a split. A frustrating loss followed by a tough win.

Results: Lost to UCLA 69-67, Won vs. USC 70-62

    Stanford came into its rematch with UCLA coming off a dispiriting defensive collapse against Washington State in Pullman.  The Bruins came in feeling good about a home sweep of the Rocky Mountain schools.  This game is a great example of how you should always look at the numbers, but there is a context that comes with watching the games that will always be crucial.
    What do we mean?  Well, let's look at the final numbers above. We have spent the better part of this season concerned about Stanford's defense.  Somebody could look at the Four Factors and conclude that Stanford's defense rebounded nicely, but was betrayed by its offense.  This notion would be further evidenced by the fact that UCLA had three separate stretches during which they missed, five, seven, and eight straight shots.  That 0-7 stretch actually ended the game for the Bruins.  If I'd have told you that UCLA would end each half by producing zero points on its final seven possessions, there's no way you'd expect the Cardinal to lose.  If you further knew that Kevon Looney would go for only 5 points and fail to reach a double-double, you'd be asking about the great performance of the Stanford Bigs.  And finally, after complaining about all the fouling Stanford does routinely, that .203 FT rate would almost certainly assure victory and suggest that Cardinal had cleaned up its defense.
    Unfortunately, the numbers don't tell us the full story of the "effort" Stanford put forth at Maples.  UCLA sandwiched a 9:23 stretch during which the Bruins put up 26 points that created a 22-point deficit that Stanford could not overcome.  During that stretch the Bruins simply destroyed Stanford's defense, either making shots, drawing fouls, or bullying the Cardinal aside and grabbing offensive rebounds.  Occasionally, it was a combination of all three. During one sequence, Kevon Looney grabbed two offensive rebounds off his own misses (?!?!) and eventually turned that effort into an Isaac Hamilton layup.  The truth is Stanford played pretty terrible defense for most of the game.  It was only the closing stretch that saw Stanford put together a prolonged sequence of efficient defense.  The rest of the game saw only UCLA's own ineptitude keeping the Bruins off the scoreboard.
    Time after time, Bruins beat Stanford defenders off the bounce.  Norman Powell, who had a high-volume, low efficiency shooting night, nevertheless was able to get to the paint at will, and his misses often ended up in the hands of his teammates anyway.  UCLA got sloppy during the game's closing chapter, but it wasn't like Stanford was suddenly forcing tougher looks.  Most of the Bruin miscues were not induced by any severe Stanford pressure.  UCLA came into the game the worst three-point shooting team in the Pac-12 but made eight at Maples.  It was an ugly game from both offenses, but it's hard to attribute too much of UCLA's ugliness to Stanford's defense.
    It's also hard to credit the Bruins for a night when Stanford's normally high-powered offense was discombobulated and forced to endure an ugly shooting night.  The overall ORtg tells a big part of the story, as the Cardinal's 100 was well below the 115 average it carried into the game.  However, it was actually a far uglier night.  It's time to talk about Stanford's free throw shooting.  The team is currently shooting just under 70% in conference, which is good for 7th best.  Marcus Allen, who is rising so quickly for the Cardinal, is struggling at the line.  He was 2-4 against UCLA and is now shooting 45% on the season.  He has too good a stroke to struggle like that.  Michael Humphrey is shooting 53%, and Rosco Allen is shooting 62%.  Even with all the offensive sputtering and the inconsistent defense, Stanford could have won this game with good free throw shooting.  Stanford shot 12-20 from the line against UCLA.  Just three more free throws and Stanford has the points it needs to win the game.
    The Cardinal did show some good fortitude in staging its desperate comeback attempt.  The problem is that like against Arizona, you have to have an almost flawless stretch to complete a mission like that, and Stanford was nowhere near flawless on this night.  That set up a Sunday night matchup against the lowly but improving USC Trojans.

    Stanford got a desperately needed win on Sunday night against the USC Trojans.  The game was in doubt for nearly its entire duration.  So what changed from Thursday, besides a massive drop-off in quality of opponent?  First of all, USC got the pace of game it much preferred. Stanford acquiesced and increased turnover numbers were both cause and effect of that frenetic pace. Stanford once again struggled defensively until the end, when the Trojans' inexperience and some bad luck combined to sweep away any chance of an upset victory.  The Four Factors show pretty much how this game was won and lost.  Despite outshooting Stanford, USC could not protect its defensive glass and just could not get any points at the foul line.  Stanford finally put together a clean game on defense.  That .048 FT rate helped lead to only 3 points for USC.  The Cardinal meanwhile ended up +17 at the line, as they enjoyed a rare effective night from the line (20-25).  One reason USC didn't get much production from the charity stripe is that they shot a good number of threes.  27 of its 62 points (44%) came from the free throw line, and that doesn't take into account the 13 three-balls the Trojans shot that didn't fall true.  As discussed in our preview of the weekend, USC is a team that plays in a rush to no real benefit.  Their ORtg of 82.7 is an example of that.  Stanford's poor shooting made this a game much longer than it should have been.  The Trojans were a game foe for the second time this year, and both Katin Reinhardt and Jordan McLaughlin played very well considering both were suffering from the flu.
    Stanford's defensive effort in the final 5:17 was impressive, and overall the Cardinal played a sound second half.  USC scored five points in the final 5:17, and they went the final 2:15 of the game without a bucket.  The Trojans went 3-10 from the field with two turnovers.  After going 8-14 (57%) from three in the first half the Men of Troy made only one of their final nine three pointers.  Once that shot stopped falling, USC couldn't counter the avalanche of free throws and second chance points Stanford produced.

What To Like:

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt
:  Stanford is not built to overcome a subpar performance from its two Senior stars.  In the Pac-12 opener, Stanford endured an 0-7 first half from Chasson, but he turned it around and regained his form in the second half.  Against UCLA, he had the second worst ORtg of the year at 86 (matched in the DePaul Loss) and his worst in conference play.  In fact, it was only the second time in conference he was under 100.  Chasson made 2-15 3PA on the weekend, and his decision making seemed off, especially against UCLA.  He took some out of rhythm three pointers, seemed to force things too much, and just didn't look like the player we have been watching all year.  He was able to contribute on Sunday night by getting to the FT line and making all eight of his attempts.  He played 76 of a possible 80 minutes in the two games.
    Anthony played 73 of a possible 80 minutes, and I think you can see where we are going here.  It's not surprising that he's had his two worst games in conference in the last three games.  It makes even more sense when you look at the sequence.  On the second game of the week against WSU, he had an ORtg of 86 after posting a spectacular 146 in the first game of that week against UW.  It happened identically this week, with a 146 against the Bruins followed by a 90 against USC.  It makes total sense.  Given the maximum amount of rest (from the last game of a weekend to the first), he has been the player we've seen all year long.  But the back end of these weeks is killing him, when the rest is not as great.  The eyeball test confirms it as well.  Shots are consistently missing short, his defense is dropping off in effectiveness, and he shot 5-8 from the FT line against the L.A. schools.  He just looks tired.  They both did for stretches against USC.  Had Stanford been able to close out WSU and UCLA, it would have a much bigger margin for error down the stretch.  Now it doesn't seem like there are going to be many opportunities to rest these two, and I'm not sure Coach Dawkins would do it even if there were.  We list these two under "Things We Like" for obvious reasons, but there is no bigger candidate for sabotaging this team's March aspirations than these two losing their legs.

The Triangle Offense
:  Struggled for the first truly prolonged stretch of the season.  Like all offenses, it bogs down when players stop moving off the ball.  Marcus Allen had a  nice off-ball weakside cut into the lane that led to two crucial points, but the Cardinal looked lethargic against USC for much of the game, and was just impatient and bad against UCLA. The Bruins did present the Cardinal with a number of zone looks, including a 1-3-1 look for crucial times in the game.  Eventually the Cardinal made the proper adjustments, but no tactical move was going to overcome the awful shooting night Stanford put up against UCLA.
    Overall, this is still the third best offense in the conference, and really the only team to shut it down has been Arizona.  The struggle this past weekend was to a large part self-inflicted.

Reid Travis:  Played only 24 minutes this past weekend theoretically as part of the process to ease him back into the rotation.  I can't state this plainly enough.  He HAS to play.  Quite simply, he offers athleticism and strength that no other big on the team can match.  Stanford killer Tony Parker found some legit resistance in his brief confrontations with #22.  Yes he has his offensive limitations and teams will leave him open in an attempt to jam up the Cardinal's offense, but what he brings to the table is worth it.  He had three offensive rebounds in nine minutes against USC. Rosco and The Nasty Man had three apiece as well, but it took them over 30 minutes each to get them.


Depth:  We covered this in discussing Randle and Brown, but that issue notwithstanding, I'm pleased with the development of Marcus Allen and Michael Humphrey.  I thought Humphrey would be bulldozed by Parker, but truth be told Stanford's defense improved when he was in for Nastic during the Cardinal's furious but doomed comeback attempt.  He's a heady and talented player, and he's doing a better job of avoiding foul trouble in limited action.  He only picked up one foul in each game against the L.A. schools.  He had two offensive boards in 7 minutes against the Bruins, and 2 blocked shots in 7 against the Trojans.
    Marcus Allen had an absolutely necessary double-double for the Cardinal on Sunday night.  The sophomore had 10 points and 11 boards.  The only problem was that he had an uncharacteristic five turnovers against USC, a clear illustration of the folly of this team speeding things up during games.  Considering he had 5 TO's in his previous six games, I'd consider this an anomaly.
    I continue to hold out hope for more Dorian Pickens.  The bottom line is that he is really the only player who can sit Anthony at small forward.  Stanford really doesn't want Rosco guarding smaller players with his foul tendencies.  A line-up of Chasson, Marcus, Pickens, Rosco, and Nastic should be able to score, and if you put Reid in for either Nasty or Rosco, you'd have a decent defensive unit as well.  Pickens' minutes have been up and down all year, but with a trip to the Rockies looming, I can't imagine him not getting some run if the Cardinal hopes to successfully deal with the elevation for the next two games.

Defense:  Wasn't the only culprit this past weekend, but clearly is still the weak link of the team.  It's not that teams shoot well against Stanford, it's that the Cardinal is the most charitable team in the conference, gifting foul line points at an absurd 45% rate.  Add to that the team's inability to generate turnovers (16% TO rate, 9th in the conference), and you have a defense still stuck in the bottom half of the conference.  Three major areas of concern:  on-ball defense on the perimeter, transition, and off-ball negotiation of screens, primarily by the perimeter defenders.  We'll take a look at all three in the future, but for now, suffice it to say, there remains tremendous space for improvement.

    So three straight weeks of .500 ball have wobbled the Cardinal's footing.  Now facing perhaps the most difficult road trip in the conference, Stanford needs to find its groove quickly.  It has lost the separation it had been gaining against the Oregon schools, and any chance of catching or passing Thursday night's opponent seems dubious.  On the road, a team with defense and depth issues now faces a ranked team with an elite offense at elevation.  What, me worry?

The Bootleg Top Stories