Buried in the dessert

Results: Lost at Arizona State 67-62, Lost at Arizona 91-69

Stanford's NCAA Tournament Resume had been on a collision course with the Selection Committee's paper shredder for over a month, and that was before the Cardinal made the Arizona road trip and spontaneously combusted like a Spinal Tap drummer.  Lethal doses of all the Cardinal's flaws plus a stunning loss of a season-long virtue made for a 'Cat-astrophic Cocktail preceded by a devastating Diablo Martini.  Stanford's season went up in flames from Tempe to Tucson, and now it's time to sort through the wreckage and rehash how nothing went right for Stanford.

    Stanford went into Arizona State and four minutes into the game, it seemed that the Sun Devils were attempting to set a new record for fouling.  Unfortunately, at the four minute mark, Stanford lost Michael Humphrey to an injured left ankle, completing the Trifecta of Big Man Injuries that more than anything else undid the Cardinal's season.  Reid Travis, Rosco Allen, and now Humphrey all lost time in Pac-12 play, and the Cardinal simply couldn't compensate for their loss. The first half in Tempe continued a trend of first half struggles.  Stanford went into the locker room down two touchdowns thanks to a horrendous half that saw the team commit ten turnovers while making only eight baskets.  Four of the turnovers came from Stefan Nastic, as he and his fellow Seniors suffered through what must be one of the worst final weekends (and months) of any class in recent memory.

    Stanford has been the best team in the conference at taking care of the ball, so to watch the team break character at at time when they needed to be at their best was especially frustrating.  Stanford went -11 in points off turnovers in the first 20 minutes.  Another source of frustration was that despite the fact that ASU wracked up a number of fouls early, the Cardinal was unable to get to the free throw line with any consistency.  In the second half, Stanford shot nine free throws while chucking up 12 three pointers.  The Cardinal hit the offensive boards, but ultimately to little advantage. Stanford's meager +2 in second chance points wasn't nearly enough to offset the Turnover Fiesta they hosted in honor of their hosts.
    Once again, the endgame was a nightmare for Stanford.  Stanford sandwiched an Anthony Brown three and a meaningless Anthony Brown  layup at the game's very end with a sequence that went thusly:  missed three pointer, missed three pointer, turnover, made three pointer, turnover, turnover, made three-pointer.  Stanford did fight back in the second half, utilizing a 3-2 zone that forced ASU into missing six of its seven three pointers in the half. Before the aforementioned endgame, the Cardinal erased all of its 14-point halftime deficit less than 10 minutes into the game.  Unfortunately, the spirited comeback fell short, sending the Cardinal down the highway to be served up as fodder for the best team in the conference.

Stanford was blown off the court in Tucson in a matter of moments.  The Cardinal mustered one good run, cutting Arizona's 11 point lead to two at 29-27.  Unfortunately, there were still over six minutes to go in the half, and the Wildcats responded with the games next 13 points on the way to 47 in the first half.  As it was in the first meeting, Arizona's base offense was simply too much for Stanford to confront, especially without Michael Humphrey.  To be sure, there are miles between Stanford and Arizona, and  no single player is good enough to  make up all that distance.  However, that Stanford had to play a team that good without Travis the first time and without Humphrey the second time made for cruel and unusual punishment.  Arizona played at a level entirely foreign to Stanford for virtually the entire game. The Wildcats, though content all season long to play a modest tempo, hit the accelerator on Senior Day and left Stanford in the dust. 
    The 'Cats shot the ball exceptionally well, due in large part to their relentlessly efficient offense leading to dunks and high percentage shots. Arizona assisted on a spectacular 69% of its baskets, deftly moving off the ball and leaving Stanford desperately chasing the ball and their opponents.  Arizona finished +12 in points in the paint.  The rare Arizona missed shot was too often secured by the 'Cats themselves, as Arizona parlayed a 34.6% OReb rate into a +9 in second chance points.  Stanford also continued to turn the ball over as it had in Tempe, and they suffered a -15 in points off turnovers as a result of it.  The game was incredibly foul-filled, but 'twas the case on both ends of the court, so Stanford had little chance of moving the needle in this category while being outclassed in so many others.

What To Like:

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt
:  The swoon of Stanford's two best players came to an inglorious ending last Saturday.  Chasson came into the game against Arizona with a particularly salty attitude, and I liked the fight he showed throughout the game.  Unfortunately, he was simply up against too much talent, and he finished the Pac-12 play with his game in total disarray.  His 87 ORtg was one of his worst of the year, and though his three-point shot returned (40% on the weekend), he went 2-11 on his two-point shots while turning the ball over three times in both games.

    Anthony's numbers were decent but hardly impactful.  For long stretches he seemed to simply float out on the court with very little purpose or initiative. Both games saw stretches when Chasson was on the bench and the Cardinal needed him to assert himself.  He shot 58% on eFG for the weekend, but only mustered 27 points total in the two games.  His ORtg's of 107 (ASU) and 96 (Ariz) were well short of the 114.7 season total he's amassed in Pac-12 play.

The Triangle Offense:  The aforementioned turnovers were among the largest culprits behind the twin low 90's ORtg's.  Against Arizona State, Stanford shot its three pointers at a rate (38%) below its normal season performance.  It took a couple more three pointers than normal, but not too far beyond its normal ratio.  Aside from the turnovers, what hurt the Cardinal in Tempe was the inability to get to the free throw line.  On the season, Stanford has a free throw rate of 43% and against the Sun Devils, it was 22%.

    Conversely the failure in Arizona was about turnovers and struggles on two-point shots.  The Cardinal shot 36% inside the three point line, whereas they typically shoot 45% on the season.  That 45% is not good (10th in the Pac-12), but it would have made for a more competitive experience in Tucson.
 Tactically, Arizona and Arizona State didn't really throw anything at Stanford that the Cardinal hadn't seen.  It wasn't a situation where the Arizona schools were jumping passing lanes or taking advantage of obvious scouting tendencies.  One of my longest running criticisms has been Stanford's poor execution of its screens.  Very often the screener ends up simply executing a fly-by while the defense is completely undeterred by the action.  This is usually the fault of both the receiver of the screen and the screener himself.  That happened repeatedly in Tucson, and Mike Montgomery reportedly had much to say on this topic during his broadcast of Stanford's second game against Cal.  Really, that's what's happened to Stanford.
    Many will immediately reach for the usual tact of blaming the coaches, but the truth is that the Cardinal hasn't really had a quintet that played enough together to function well consistently because of the injuries.  Yes, the criticism of the screen game is valid, because it's shown up repeatedly over the course of the past eight seasons.  However, after teaching there needs to be repetition and game experience, and Stanford has just not been able to get a group on the floor that it feels comfortable with on both ends of the floor, and that's hampered its ability to execute consistently.  Blame the instruction if you want, but it's not the only cause of Stanford's problems.  Perhaps a team with three seniors on the floor the vast  majority of the time should be executing better at this time of the year, but that only leads us to our other talking points...

Reid Travis:  The freshman continued to show flashes of the strength, athleticism, and tenacity that's going to serve Stanford well for many years to come, but he struggled to make an impact in either game.  Against Arizona State, he did crash the offensive boards well, securing six offensive rebounds for the Cardinal, but only managed two on the defensive end.  He combined that with a modest 2/3 FG's for six points and added two steals as well.  Again, a nice contribution, but not as impactful as one may have hoped against an Arizona State team that was not particularly big inside.
    Strangely, Travis made no buckets against the Wildcats and also grabbed no rebounds.  I had to check the box score from multiple sources, but that seems to be the consensus.  He had three turnovers and did go 3-6 from the foul line, but this wasn't really a game where he excelled.


Depth:  It's interesting the extent to which all these issues are intertwined.  Stanford's offensive and defensive struggles can in large point be traced to its depth.  Actually, that's not specific enough.  Stanford has played enough guys to have a rotation.  The truth is that they have not had any scoring depth.  Nastic's propensity for foul trouble meant the need to have Brown and Randle on the floor for max minutes, because quite honestly there was no way for Stanford to score without at least two of the three on the floor. Perhaps if Rosco had remained healthy it could have been fudged, but the wing support of Cartwright, Marcus Allen, and Dorian Pickens just never seemed to develop offensively enough for the Cardinal to score while resting Brown and/or Randle sufficiently.
    Now if one wants to take the coaching staff to task for not devoting enough minutes to them earlier in the year, I suppose that's valid.  However, as recently as the first week of Pac-12 play, Stanford wasn't blowing people out, even while winning.  The home wins against the Washington schools were narrow affairs, and many of the Cardinal's double digit wins (@Cal, vs. ASU, UConn, Oregon State) were tight through at least the first half.  Few probably remember the single digit wins over Denver and Loyola Marymount.  Also, as much as I've liked what the aforementioned wings were providing, it doesn't just go without saying that putting them in 5-10 minutes a game would have profoundly boosted their games.  Players are on their own growth curves, and yes coaches can make a difference, but ultimately real skill development happens during the offseason.

    Also, you have to account for the injury bug as well.  Losing Travis, Rosco, and now Humphrey has meant more pressure on Chasson and Anthony because Nastic was going to get in foul trouble or have off nights.  With that kind of offensive responsibility, it should have been predictable that the other end of the floor would suffer as well.

Defense:  Stanford's defense ends up statistically as a top half defense in the conference.  That's a bit deceptive because on defense, it's number one flaw was fouling, which of course opens you up to all sorts of depth problems.  Most of the fouls occurred because of breakdowns in perimeter defense, and that has to mean Chasson and Anthony for no other reason that they were on the floor so much all year long. Randle played to a DRtg of 103 for the entire season. The D-1 average is 102.2  Anthony Brown played to an efficiency of 101.3 (105.5 in conference).  Interestingly enough, his defensive rating last year was 104.5, and the D-1 average last year was 104.3.  So this year he was slightly better than an average defender, and last year was in fact slightly worse.  The same goes for Chasson.  Randle actually improved his defense from last year's 106.  He was still slightly below average, but last year he was a full bucket below an average D-1 player.  In other words, both players actually improved this year.

    So what gives?  Well, most fans would argue that it's the loss of Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Powell (DRtg: 99.6) and Huestis (100.7) were both plus defenders last season.  The problem is that I looked up Stanford's defense last year in conference.  Guess where they finished?  That's right.  Fifth place, exactly where they finished this year!  Nastic was the same defender relative to the D-1 averages both last year and this year.  So, essentially you have two excellent defenders replaced by two league average defenders in Rosco (102.3) and Marcus (102.4) with slight improvements by Chasson and Anthony.  On the plus side, Stanford's two best defenders were Humphrey (DRtg: 96) and Travis (99.9), so that bodes well for the future.  Unfortunately, neither played enough to move the team's needle defensively.

    And so when you add it up, you have a team that probably has to win three or four games in Vegas.  Last year's team had to win two.  It's strange because it felt at times that things were much different, but results-wise they really weren't.  Last year's team got to four games above .500 at 9-5, while this year's team did so at 6-2.  Last year's team finished by losing four of six before the NCAA Tournament, with a one-point win over Utah on Senior Day proving to be the margin between NCAA and NIT.  This year's team has lost five of seven heading to Vegas.  If you're all about the bottom line, then it's easy and fair to say "The more things change..."but the truth is there was some bad injury luck that went into this year's collapse.  Then again, maybe it's the use of "this year's" that is the true source of frustration.

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