Rocky Mountain Low

Results: Lost at Utah 75-59, Lost at Colorado 64-58

    Stanford completed its slide right past mediocrity and right onto the NCAA Tournament Bubble by closing out the past month of play with a 3-5 record.  This particular road trip loomed all season long as a difficult one, one that would really give the team a good idea of where it stood both within the conference and nationally.  If you grant that premise, than Stanford stands on some incredibly shaky ground as its season now confronts four consecutive elimination games with regard to qualifying for the NCAA Tournament on the strength of its regular season resume alone.

    Stanford ventured into the Huntsman Center  and initially looked like it had a shot at stealing a galvanizing victory from the Utes.  Unfortunately,  the last 2:00 of the first half happened, and then Stanford was cruelly forced to come back on the floor and play a second half against a nationally elite basketball team.  At 2:12 Anthony Brown tied the game at 27 with a three pointer off a Marcus Allen assist.  Stanford then went turnover, turnover, while Utah made three of its final four shots including a Dallin Bachynski buzzer-beating fallaway off a missed three pointer that sent the Utes sprinting into the locker room with a nice energy boost.
    The second half saw elite Utah offense join with the great defense the Utes had already been playing to completely blow Stanford out of the gym.  The Four Factors do a pretty good job of cataloging the wreckage.  Stanford was out-shot, out-rebounded, out-muscled and couldn't take care of the ball.  Other than that, things went great.  It's hard for me to pound Stanford for losing this game, because Utah is just a very, very good basketball team playing great ball.  They haven't lost at home, their worst loss is to UCLA, a team that swept Stanford, and they are pushing hard for either a one or a two seed in March.  Given the personnel losses, it would have taken a perfect effort for the Cardinal to win, and that just wasn't in the cards last Thursday night.
    Stanford's only hope was to outscore Utah, and the struggles of Chasson Randle short-circuited any hopes of that happening.  More on the reeling Platinum Backcourt in a bit.  The bottom line is that Utah basically got anything it wanted all night long, and while Stanford did have some inspired stretches of defensive effort, they were undone by the greatness of the Utes and some tough luck.  The Loveridge three after the expired shot clock was garbage, and it pretty much extinguished what was probably still a long shot at victory.  That sent the Cardinal into Boulder for a game that many felt confident it could win.

    We can go back and forth on the whole "great defense/bad offense" debate.  Yes, Colorado is not a good offense, not by any means, but Stanford deserves credit for playing tenaciously on Sunday in Boulder.  Even its oft-criticized zone defense befuddled the Buffs for long stretches of the game.  The problem for Stanford wasn't forcing missed shots on Sunday.  The problem is that defense isn't over until you have the ball.  Stanford was active and physical and made the Buffs look every bit the 9th-rated Pac-12 offense that it is.  What killed Stanford was that it couldn't keep Colorado off the boards.  The Buffaloes roamed wild and free in chasing down their missed shots, and ended up +7 in 2nd chance points as a result.  Stanford exacerbated its own problems by uncharacteristically turning the ball over and ending up -5 on points off turnovers.  Add to that two basket violations by Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey, and Stanford's self-inflicted wounds proved to be just too much to overcome.
    A look at the line score shows that the margin of defeat came in the first half, one in which Stanford held CU to only 29 points.  The problem was that Stanford was in the midst of a miserable offensive quarter that capped off the only weekend of the year in which Stanford has had ORtg's of less than 90 in consecutive games. And that brings us to our talking points.

What To Like:

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt
:  The Engine of this basketball team is sputtering.  I remarked on Twitter that the minutes of these two have been a problem all year long, starting with the first exhibition game.  Chasson has hit a real wall.  He went 6-27 overall and 3-19 from three point land on the weekend, to go with five turnovers.  The eyeball test confirms what most have suspected for a while:  he's playing on tired legs.  The three three pointers is troubling, but it's the 19 attempts from three point land that is the real indicator of fatigue.  Yes, when players get tired, their jumpers often come up short.  But before that, the first thing that happens to tired players is that they stop driving. Chasson tried to rally the Cardinal in Boulder by attacking at the very end, but for 19-27 FGA to be threes is just not going to work when we are talking about a tired ballplayer.  Chasson himself conceded that as a team Stanford couldn't be "50/50" in terms of 2PT/3PT shot selection.  Against Colorado, he managed only 3 FTA, after getting seven in Salt Lake.  He's not drawing fouls successfully enough, and part of that comes from just not doing enough attacking.
    Anthony has been more of a mixed bag, but he's been nowhere near the bedrock Stanford needs him to be moving forward.  He shot 7-20 overall on the weekend, and the five threes he made left him with a 48% eFG for the two games.  That's a click below the 55% he's carrying on the season overall.  Again, though, the story was inconsistency.  He was a respectable 5-9 against Utah, but on Colorado he wasn't able to bring much to the table.  He went 2-11 (2-6 3PA) and compounded that with four turnovers.  Both he and Chasson are resorting to rise and fire threes that don't evolve as a function of good ball movement or screening actions and it's killing an offense that lacks for other options.  Anthony has played below his season ORtg in each of the last three games, and he's also not getting to the foul line (2 attempts Sunday).
    It makes sense that Anthony is not suffering quite as much from fatigue as Chasson is, given his larger frame.  Nevertheless, the task remains for the coaching staff to find ways to get them back to their usual modes of productivity.  I've advocated putting Anthony in the post, and also having Chasson handle the ball less frequently, but the bottom line is that these two need rest.  More on that in the close.

The Triangle Offense:  As we said, Stanford's offense never got out of Salt Lake baggage claim, if the Cardinal packed it at all.  We've already looked at the struggles of two of the major cogs.  The Nasty Man bounced back from a slump of his own to get 24 points on very solid 8-15 shooting against Colorado. He had his usual struggles with foul trouble in Salt Lake and his fourth foul in  Boulder was frustrating to many Cardinal fans.  However, the bottom line remains that Stanford just doesn't have the firepower to overcome the loss of Rosco overlapping with the slumps of Brown and Randle.  As a team, Stanford has done a good job of earning free throws, as they are now third in FTA/FGA.  The problem is the "A's" are not leading to converted points.  Stanford was unable to parlay 88% FT shooting on Sunday into enough points (14-16) to offset its shooting woes.  Against Utah, they got 20 FTA, but could only convert 13 of them, finishing -7 to the Utes at the line.
    Stanford has been able to overcome the lack of assisted baskets until this point in the season.  Now, however, they are really going to have dig deeper into the offense and work at producing more system buckets.  The alternative is just hoping that Chasson and Anthony get their legs and jumpers back. 

Reid Travis
: Continues to be worked back into the line-up slowly, logging 34 MP over the two games.  It's hard to criticize a cautious approach to ramping up his minutes, and considering that his main strengths are defense and rebounding, he wasn't really missed against Colorado, given that his rebounding hasn't returned to its full-time effectiveness (3 in 16 MP on Sunday).


Depth:  I"ve dismissed the massive bench scoring discrepancy Stanford has endured all season long for two reasons.  First is that with the trio of Seniors, shots and points were not going to be abundant for many outside of the Big Three.  Second, most of the guys coming off the bench are inexperienced and don't yet have fully formed offensive games.  The one exception has been Rosco Allen.  Stanford sorely missed him this weekend.  He probably doesn't move the needle against Utah, but he very easily could have made the difference on Sunday, when Stanford was desperate for some offense from somebody other than  The Nasty Man.  Right now, it remains to be seen if he will be back at any point during this year, and if he's not, this concern may finally be the one that fatally undermines the Cardinal.
    That being said, attention should go to the further development of Michael Humphrey.  His effectiveness is starting to gain ground on his constant energy, and it's been a very encouraging subplot within the overall nadir of this past month.  Although his numbers are not yet jumping off the page (7 Reb/2Blk vs. Colorado), it's his minutes played that are the clearest sign of improvement.  He played 26 minutes against Colorado. Earlier in the year, he'd have needed approximately 325 fouls to play that long in a single game.  He is by far the quickest of the Cardinal back line defenders, and he has shown some spring off the floor as well.  Against Utah, he played 19 minutes and gave the Cardinal 9 pts on 4-8 shooting.  His stock is rising, and the only question will be whether or not he can ascend to the point where he truly impacts the Cardinal's craving for solid depth this year.  If he plays well, Nastic can rest.  If Nastic can rest, then Brown and Randle can rest.  If that happens, then all three should be able to recover in time for this final stretch run of the regular season.

Defense:  The Cardinal defended well against Colorado, in terms of forcing missed shots.  Even against Utah, they were active and aggressive, so the question here has never been about effort overall.  Utah is a great team, and they are hard for good defenses to stop, especially in Salt Lake.  That being said, the real problem on defense has to do with the Seniors.  Nastic lacks the athleticism to be the rebounding and shot-threatening presence Stanford needs.  Chasson has never been a great defender, and with his offensive responsibility being so high, it's hard to hammer him too hard for his performance on that end this year.  Rumors have been swirling about Anthony playing through an injury, but it's speculation at this point.  We do know that he's been a plus defender for Stanford for most of his career, so it wouldn't surprise me to find out he's got something slowing him down physically.

    There's no way to sugarcoat the descent of Stanford Basketball over the past month. We can parse through the wreckage and find some factors that nobody could have prevented.  The injuries to Reid, Grant, and Rosco have been devastating.  The team may have been able to overcome one or even two, but to have been incomplete on the frontline for so much of conference play is really jamming up the team's growth.
    As bad as it's been, it's not time to jump ship.  Stanford doesn't have a lot of slack anymore, but there's nothing to say that Chasson and Anthony don't get the rest they need this week and the team makes its stand on Saturday.  Cal has played much better ball of late, but they aren't so much better that Stanford can't beat them at Maples, even shorthanded.  I have no doubt that we are looking at a tired team lacking confidence.  However, confidence is something that can return in the blink of an eye, especially with 18-21 year old kids.  Aside from the Utah and Arizona games, Stanford hasn't been outclassed by any of its conquerors over this stretch.  Even against Arizona, they managed to hang with an elite team for 30 minutes, and that was without Reid Travis.
    It doesn't look great, but there is still a great deal of season left.  This is a team that has played with purpose and poise for much of the year, and it's not time to dig their grave just yet.
    But it is time for them to get up off the deck.

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