Midnight In the Garden of Good and Meh

Stanford won its second NIT title in four years by beating Old Dominion 67-60 and Miami 66-64. Here's some perspective and a season-ending podcast. Listen and read below.






   
So Stanford waltzed into Madison Square Garden for the final dances of 2015.  The Cardinal used its homecourt "advantage" to dispatch three opponents and showed up in Manhattan looking like King Kong to Old Dominion. Stanford was up 15-0 and eventually 25-4 before the Monarchs stabilized behind a partisan New York crowd.  A game that should not have been close at any point was very much in doubt as late as a Jonathan Arledge lay-up gave the Monarchs a 51-49 lead. The Cardinal was wobbling, the broadcast team of Fran Fraschilla and Bob Knight were picking the coaches apart, and Stanford had every reason to fold.

    They didn't.

    Javonte Douglas drove the lane and Marcus Allen was able to knock the ball loose and into the hands of Christian Sanders, who alertly snapped the ball upcourt to the streaking Allen for an easy lay-in. After that, Stanford's newly ascendant all-time leading scorer, appeared just in time to hit back-to-back three point shots that gave the Cardinal a five point lead. Seniors Stefan Nastic and Anthony Brown showed up with four free throws and some key rebounds respectively, and the Cardinal found itself  up six with :44 to go once Randle hit two free throws and a jumper. Old Dominion's furious comeback came up short, and Stanford had advanced to the finals.

    The Four Factors tell most of the story pretty accurately.  Stanford shot the ball extremely well and was able to get to the line at with uncommon frequency.  As a result, they were +12 from behind the three point arc and +7 from the free throw line. That was enough to overcome a -5 in points off turnovers and then the fact that ODU was unable to turn its offensive rebounding advantage into points.  The Monarchs also took excellent care of the ball, so the turnover that led to a crucial Marcus Allen run must have been especially frustrating. The bottom line is that despite setting excellent screens and playing extremely hard, ODU couldn't make enough buckets to hang with the Cardinal, and that set up the finale against the Hurricanes.


    Spin artists would look at this game and use some sort of combative metaphor like "bare knuckle brawl, donnybrook, fistfight, etc.," to describe the championship, but the truth is that this was an ugly, ugly basketball game and there's not enough lipstick at the Manhattan Macy's to beautify this pig of a contest.  Two teams with sub-90 ORtg's make for some brutal viewing, and the game's measured pace clearly didn't help with execution. Stanford flipped the script from the semi-final by gaining more offensive boards than the Hurricanes but Miami still had a +1 advantage in 2nd change points, as well as +1 in points off turnovers and a 9-0 advantage in fast break points. Honestly, the difference in this game was that one team had Chasson Randle, and the other didn't, which leads us to a final look at our season-long talking points.


What To Like:

Brown and Randle, the Platinum Backcourt
:  It is entirely fitting that the week in New York City, like Stanford's season, begins and ends with talk of Chasson Randle, who became Stanford's all-time leading scorer, passing Todd Lichti and finishing his career with 2,375 points, the final 49 of which came in Madison Square Garden and without which Stanford's NIT dynasty would have gone unrealized. In the finale, he went 8-16  when the rest of team shot 32%.  He played all 45 (big surprise) of the game's minutes and did not turn the ball over once. He had the savvy and stones to pump fake off an extinguished dribble and draw the shooting foul that would lead to the points that delivered the Golden Apple. Prior to that, he had two gutsy driving layups that propelled the Cardinal into the overtime period. He rediscovered his three-point shot in March/April, and while he didn't return to his scorching January form, the 38% he did shoot was a welcome relief following a frigid February (19%).

    After literally collapsing from exhaustion in Vegas, Anthony's offensive game was basically the same, as he shot 36% eFG in March/April after shooting 37% on eFG in February. He did, however, improve his two-point shooting dramatically, going from 29% in February to 50%, and in March/April shot 93% from the free throw line, including a 10-10 performance that helped Stanford survive Vanderbilt and get to New York City.

    Overall, these two had outstanding senior seasons, and they can honestly say that they gave the Cardinal everything they had. The season-long inability of the team to find sufficient depth so as to provide rest was ultimately the only obstacle they couldn't overcome. Nevertheless, it was great to see them leave with the opportunity to cut down some nets.

The Triangle Offense
:  Last year, we talked about Stanford's "systematic inconsistency" on offense. It was the first year of the Triangle Offense, and while the overall average was respectable (106.5, 4th in the Pac-12), the team got there by vacillating between extremely efficient games and extremely inefficient games. So how did the Cardinal's offense perform in the NIT?  Let's take a look, but before we do, remember a few numbers. The D-1 average for Offensive Efficiency (Points per 100 possessions) this season was 102, down from 104.3 last year. Stanford's ORtg in Pac-12 play was 107.7, again good for 4th in the conference. All right, let's take a look:

Opponent
Points
ORtg
Opponent National Defensive Rank
UC-Davis
77
122.2
212
Rhode Island
74
97.4
9
Vanderbilt
78
111.4
114
Old Dominion
67
103.1
39
Miami
66
89.2
76
Total
362
106.4


    First off, Stanford's offense in the NIT was not as efficient as it was overall on the season (111) but it was essentially the same as it was during conference play. Considering the relative quality of the opponents, we are looking at an offense that basically played to the level of its opponent. Its best performance was against the worst defensive team it faced. The two best defenses the Cardinal faced in the NIT were Rhode Island and Old Dominion. Stanford  struggled offensively against Rhode Island but was able to play above the D-1 Average against an above average defense.  It might seem that the better performance was Rhode Island because of the point total, but remember we are adjusting for pace and evaluating efficiency here. The Cardinal's worst offensive performance came in its final game, against a good but not dominant Miami defense. In the macro, we have a good, but not great offense.

    One aspect of the Cardinal's offense that changed was its assist ratio.  After assisting on a modest 48% of its baskets during the season, only 37% of the team's buckets were assisted in NIT play.  This suggests that the Cardinal became reliant on one-on-one play, put backs, and free throws for points. Obviously, the one-on-one aspect is a concern, as you'd expect a team operating at peak efficiency to either maintain or improve on its assist rate at the end of a season.

    One of the advantages of the Triangle Offense is that it's not dependent on a classic point guard, which made it a good fit for Stanford's personnel.  Two years in, it's fair to question whether or not some tweaks are necessary, especially given the personnel returning next season. The results have been good, but not great, like so much of the output of this program.  Of course, Stanford doesn't run the Triangle 100% of the time, but this section is trying to evaluate what the Cardinal is accomplishing with the ball. It was hard to ignore the criticism of Stanford's screens from Coaches Knight and Fraschilla in the final two games.  Take that and combine it with the choppiness of the performances in the NIT, and it's clear that what started out as a "thing we like" has become a "thing that can improve" headed into 2015-16.

Reid Travis
:  Much like his team, the freshman showed very enticing glimpses at his potential at Stanford.  Unlike this year's team, he's got time to build on what he learned this season. Offensively, Reid had one truly efficient offensive game against Vanderbilt, where he posted an ORtg of 140, and a decent game against Davis, where he posted a 102 efficiency rating.  The other three games were struggles, mainly due to 3-15 FT shooting.  We aren't breaking any news here by pointing out the area of Reid's game that needs the most work, and it should be noted that ORtg means less considering that he takes such a low percentage of the team's shots.  The point of course, is that he's going to be asked to play a much bigger role next season, and is going to need more polish and confidence on offense than he currently has.

    One stat that loves Reid is DRtg, where he posted scores below 100 in all but one game.  I was impressed with Reid's aggressive help and his steady one-on-one defense. It's going to be critical for Stanford to not have to double team the post next season, and if Reid can be this effective while avoiding fouls, the Cardinal's defense has a chance to take a significant step forward.

Concerns

Depth:  Due primarily to inexperience in the backcourt and injury in the backcourt, this crucial concern was never sufficiently addressed, the Cardinal paid a serious price for it. Had the team been able to develop and sustain a rotation that allowed for more rest for The Platinum Backcourt, an NCAA berth almost certainly would have followed. Alas, it wasn't to be, and now Stanford will be tasked again next year with keeping people healthy and developing inexperience players so they can play supporting roles.  Next year's bench is going to be comprised of sophomores, true frosh, and Malcolm Allen who will be returning from a redshirt year. You can pencil this in as as a returning concern heading into next year.

Defense:  Stanford's defense, while not bullet proof by any stretch, showed up in New York. The absence of Angel Rodriguez and Tonye Jekiri for Miami obviously made a difference, and Miami's offense struggled against other foes as well, but the bottom line is that just like last year, Cardinal postseason success hinged on a role reversal that saw timely defense back up shaky offense after a season where it was more often than not the other way around. Players and coaches both acknowledged the need for a reset on the team's defensive mindset, and it remains to be seen who takes responsibility for implementing that on next year's team.

    And so Stanford's hardworking and high character Seniors got to go out on a five-game win streak, they got to cut down nets, and they made the most of the chance to wash away the distaste of a frustrating end to the season. Good on them, and on the team for playing the season through and gutting out two games that recent Stanford teams lost on the reg. It's so hard to evaluate this team and this program this year because of the injuries.  My inclination is to give them an incomplete, and that's where the "Meh" in the title emerges.  Nobody has any lasting interest in being an NIT Dynasty, and none of the 68 teams who qualified for the NCAA Tournament would swap postseasons with Stanford.  This season Stanford fans dared to bring expectation and promise based on last year's Sweet Sixteen run and the returning Seniors. Next year, Stanford heads back into the abyss of uncertainty, with an unquestioned upside but plenty of potential for disappointment as well. For now, however, let it suffice that as a fan I already miss Messrs. Randle, Brown, and Nastic, and hope that as they transition into their new roles as Stanford fans they get to enjoy the fruits of the labor they put in as players but did not get to fully taste as players.



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