Results: Beat Cal, 72-61
Stanford returned to the friendly confines of Maples Pavilion last Saturday and took a big step towards climbing back onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Cardinal parlayed a strong defensive first half into a victory over a Cal team that had won five of six. There were a number of interesting storylines in this game, most of which focus on the rise of a number of individuals who are going to play critical roles in determining the postseason fate of this team. We'll get to those in a moment. First, though, let's look at the Four Factors.
Stanford got the game played at the pace it wanted, and that help set the table for the success the Cardinal had throughout the game. The most welcome sight was the return of the Stanford offense, which slumped badly in the Rocky Mountains. The 109.1 rating was far more indicative of the level of play Stanford's maintained over the course of the season. The Cardinal got there with a hybrid formula of expected and unexpected elements. First of all, the Cardinal shot the ball reasonably well. While their two-point shots were not spectacular, they were able to hit five of nine three pointers, and both numbers were important. First, the five three pointers gave the Cardinal a +6 on Cal from that line, and considering they both struggled with two-point shooting, that left the foul line as the only place for Cal to make up points. More on that in a moment. Secondly, the Cardinal limited itself to nine three point attempts, showing a team-wide effort to attack the paint and to feed the post. Getting three-point crazy has hurt Stanford earlier in the year, but the team showed patience, poise, and purpose in attacking a Golden Bear defense that had shown signs of improvement. Furthermore, Stanford was its usual protective self in terms of turnovers. Their 10.8% TO rate was actually significantly better than their already league-best 14.5% ratio, and though they didn't force many turnovers, the Cardinal ended up +1 on the day.
Coach Dawkins' squad received a pep talk from the great Ronnie Lott before the game, and like he did on the field, #42 clearly had an impact. If there was one constant to Lott's game, it was aggression. Stanford honored his message about energy and intensity by really getting after it on the offensive boards. Stanford secured 35.7% of the possible offensive rebounds, and that aggression meant a +6 in 2nd chance points. Freshman Michael Humphrey spoke candidly about the perception that Stanford was "soft" and that the team had resolved to make a physical stand a big part of its effort on Saturday. The boards are a pretty good manhood litmus test, and on Saturday the team passed with flying colors. Stanford also kept Cal off its own offensive boards, and the bottom line is that the Golden Bears didn't shoot it well enough to overcome Stanford's superior effectiveness on the glass.
The free throw game provided another significant plot twist. As we all know, Stanford has had difficulty playing defense without fouling, leading to way too many free throws from the opposition. That got corrected on Saturday. In the first half, Cal had but two free throw attempts on 31 FGA. Conversely, Stanford was able to get to the line at a 35% rate, a click below it's 40% average in conference. Nevertheless, the Cardinal went +7 for the game at the line. Take that and add it to the advantage in 2nd chance points and you essentially have the margin of victory.
What To Like:
Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt: #'s 5 and 21 made triumphant, if incomplete returns to form against Cal. Anthony stepped up in the first half, going four of eight (3-4 3PA) for 13 points in carrying the Cardinal to its big halftime lead. He also finished tied for the team lead with 11 rebounds, while logging 38 minutes and pestering the likes of Tyrone Wallace (4-14), Jordan Matthews (1-4), and Jabari Bird (4-12) on defense. It was a great showing from the 6'6" swingman, and it couldn't have come at a more desperate hour. Chasson showed aggression in the first half, though it didn't translate into points. He was 1-8, including 0 for his last 7 in the first 20 minutes. However, he did dish out five assists in the first stanza, and ultimately his assertiveness paid off. Through the first half, Chasson was on a 15-60 slide from the field. In the second half, however, he wasted no time at all, getting a layup to start the half and then following that up with a jumper from a Humphrey assist. He finished 4-8 from the field and also dropped three more dimes. His final stat line included 19 points, 8 assists against only two turnovers, a block and a steal. TPB combined to go 10-26 from the field, but that included 4-8 from the three point line and did not include a combined 11-14 from the FT line. It wasn't a complete return to form, but it was more than enough to stop Stanford's slide towards the NIT.
The Triangle Offense: Stanford's offense has been a strength all season, and while this game wasn't exactly a masterpiece, it was still an efficient offesnive performance and within it were some very encouraging signs. First off, despite its success, Stanford does not get a very high percentage of assisted baskets. On the season the Cardinal has assisted on 49% of its buckets, good for 9th in the conference. Against Cal, that number rose to 62.5% (15A/24FG), and it started right away. Seven of the team's first eight baskets were assisted, setting the offensive tone early. Cal's defense was never really able to stop Stanford's offense for a prolonged stretch of any kind. Stanford's spacing and the individual talents of Nastic, Brown, and Randle have made the team a tough cover for most of the year. If they are able to increase the amount of possessions were they are functioning as a true five-man unit, they become very dangerous, because the emergence of Humphrey and Marcus Allen means they can put four or five legit offensive threats on the floor at the same time. It will be interesting to track the assist numbers and the overall offensive numbers as the season progresses. It may very well be that this group has another level of offense within its grasp come Tourney time.
Reid Travis: THIS was the Reid Travis missing from the roster for the past month. I said it on Twitter and to Coach Schrage after the game: There is NO way this team loses four of five with the version of #22 that Cal got on Saturday. He was a physical presence, he was all over the floor, and Stanford's toughness doesn't really seem much of a question when he's out on the court. He had eight points (including a nice little face-up jumper), six rebounds and two steals, while only committing one foul in 28 minutes of play. The coaches have gradually and steadily increased his court time since he returned in Pullman, and it's fair to say that he had an impact on this game. The Cardinal is going to need more of this version of this guy starting Thursday night.
After a week where the "things we liked" (The Platinum
Backcourt, the offense) became concerns, it's fair to say that
Stanford flipped things around and turned its concerns into
things we liked. First of all, if I'd known that Stefan
Nastic would foul out after giving Stanford 22 minutes and 1-7
shooting, victory would have struck me as an unlikely
outcome. Instead, Michael Humphrey stepped up and played
his best game as a freshman. Those who have been following
the Cardinal should not have been too shocked that he played as
well as he did, but nevertheless, few could have expected him to
be the headliner he was against Cal. He recorded his first
of many, many double doubles with 14 poitns and 11 rebounds,
shot 7-8 from the field, and also had two blocks in 29 minutes
of play. He finished with only three fouls, perhaps the
best indication that he has really adjusted to the game at this
level. Like Travis and the rest of his teammates, he was
all over the floor, diving, forcing jump balls, and along with
Travis, pcking up The Nasty Man on a day when the senior was not
quite the force he was in Berkeley. It might seem a bit
paradoxical in this space to note that Coach Dawkins essentially
went after Cal with 8 players, but after years of railing
against Rotation Roulette, the team and coaches showed some
well-timed line-up focus. The players did their jobs by
not fouling, and the coaches stuck with a core group.
Certainly if Rosco were available there would have been time
made for him, and it'd still be nice if Chasson and Anthony
didn't have to log the minutes that they had to, but the
emergence of Humphrey and Marcus Allen (Stanford was +14 with
him on the court) may have finally solidified a defined rotation
for Stanford. If so, there's yet another thing going for
the Cardinal headed into March.
Defense: The Pac-12 refs had their hands all over the game in the second half, sending both teams to the line for a combined 39 free throws after a first half that saw both teams combine for 10. Cal was able to shoot 50% for the second half, but overall this was a strong defensive effort. Defense wasn't the problem in Boulder, so there is some hope that Stanford can improve here at least a little bit moving forward. Again, the key for the Cardinal was playing such a clean first half. Coach Dawkins acknowledged that defending without fouling has been a challenge for the squad this year, but added that in fairness the younger players needed time to learn what they can and cannot get away with in games. Judging by the minutes of Travis, Humphrey, and Marcus Allen, it seems like they are figuring it out. Again, this team isn't going to morph into a defensive juggernaut within the framework of this season, but if they can just get a little better, their offense will have a chance to take them places.
So it was a good day for Stanford. There was a palpable sense of relief from players, coaches, and fans after things had gotten so grim so quickly for the team's NCAA hopes. Michael Humphrey acknowledged that despite the "next game" focus, the Tournament is the team's stated goal. That being said, there is still much to do. Stanford gets two more elimination games this week, with the game versus a suddenly Tournament-worthy Oregon growing in significance IF the Cardinal can handle the Beaver Invasion on Thursday. And if those things come to pass, there will be no doubt where and when the team made its stand: On a late afternoon in February where both Youth and Experience were Served, and once more everything got better by beating Cal.