Stanford Basketball Starts 3-3, Heads into Finals Break

Stanford heads into Finals Break at 3-3 but with some pieces on which to build. Here are the keys to Stanford's potential ascent this season.

                With 6:11 to go on Friday morning, Stanford basketball was behind 17 points to Arkansas and on the verge of their third loss of the week. Then out of nowhere, the Cardinal rallied behind an incredible effort from Rosco Allen, and when Marcus Allen dashed coast to coast to draw a goal tend, Stanford had an improbable 69-66 win and a number of key issues had crystallized for this basketball team heading into the break.

                Before they went to Brooklyn, Stanford was absolutely boat raced in a long second half in Moraga.  St. Mary’s blitzed the Cardinal, who couldn’t defend and couldn’t rebound, a fact Coach Johnny Dawkins lamented openly after the game.  How bad was it?  St. Mary’s offensive efficiency rating (points per 100 possessions) was  a ridiculous 125.8.  The Gaels shot an eFG of 65%, and the shots they missed, they rebounded to the tune of an absurd 36.4% offensive rebounding rate.

                St. Mary’s was known as a good three-point shooting team coming in, but they also killed Stanford on points in the paint, with player after player able to drive into the lane and either finish or kick out for three point shots.  Coach Dawkins was dismayed, and the team had a prolonged meeting after the game, the majority of which was players only.  Those meetings are never a good sign, but Coach was pretty clear that defense would be the priority moving forward.

                The team appeared to get that message against top-ten rated Villanova in the first game at the Barclay’s Center.  Stanford was far more active and focused both on and off the ball, and they held the Wildcats to 36.3% eFG and an offensive efficiency of only 86.8.  You can see the massive improvement compared to the performance against St. Mary’s.

                Unfortunately, the other end of the floor was an unmitigated disaster for the Cardinal, who struggled with Villanova’s physicality and on-ball pressure.  Without effective screen setting or ball movement, the Cardinal just didn’t have the arsenal to overcome a 27% turnover rate and a frustrating night at the charity stripe.  Stanford got to the line for 28 shots but could only make 17 of them. At one point the Cardinal made six of their first 37 field goals.

                Things didn’t look great deep into the Cardinal’s matinee against Arkansas, either.   However, there were some bright spots that the Cardinal can build upon moving forward.  One of those is the fact that Stanford finished the game with two of its true freshmen on the floor.  Marcus Sheffield joined Cameron Walker, Michael Humphrey, Rosco Allen, and Marcus Allen to close out the game.  That group finished on a 21-1 run.

                The best parts of that lineup were the tremendous length and versatility.  The Cardinal was able to switch virtually all ball screens and not get caught in a mismatch, and their length really disrupted Arkansas’ half court offense.   Walker was actually trusted to bring the ball up court on numerous occasions down the stretch.  They once again held an opponent under 40% eFG%, and kept the Razorbacks to an ORtg of 93 despite getting crushed on the offensive boards by Arkansas.

                Individually, there also some crucial developments.  Rosco Allen played with conviction and aggression on both days in Brooklyn, and his 25-point 9 rebound masterpiece was essential in victory.  Michael Humphrey shook off a recent slump to get 12 points on 6-9 shooting, four rebounds and two blocks.  Marcus Allen continued his strong start to the season after coming off the injured list.  Allen has an O rating of 107 and is shooting 73% from the foul line, a huge plus for a player who is very difficult to cover.  He’s only shooting 3-10 from three, which is a foreshadow of one of my points of emphasis.  Not so much the three as the 10 are what matter for Marcus, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

                So here are my revised four big stats to monitor for the Cardinal once they return from finals break.

Defensive Rating-This probably should have gotten more attention from the get go, but Stanford was so uncompetitive in Moraga that it clearly rattled both players and coaches.  The effort was ratcheted up significantly in Brooklyn.  Stanford’s gonna be a work in progress on offense, which means nights that they don’t guard are gonna be super ugly. Points per 100 possessions is the best way to get a good overall snapshot of Stanford’s defense.  I wonder how much more we’ll see from that Arkansas-closing lineup moving forward….

Pace- This is the most athletic roster Stanford’s had in a long while.  That gets mitigated with injuries in terms of the ability to pressure teams full or halfcourt, but Stanford may be able to extend its defense at times given the athleticism they have at their disposal. Also, the Cardinal looked much better pushing the ball up the court and attacking Arkansas press rather than just trying to survive it.  I don’t know that they can make a frenetic pace work for a full 40, but I do know that playing a straight half court offense or defense is not maximizing this roster’s strengths.  The Allen Brothers, Pickens, Humphrey, Travis,  Walker, and Sheffield are gazelles.  Stanford should use them as such.

Assist %- This is big because Stanford struggled with this last year, in part because they had the Big Three who were very effective one on one options.  This year the offense is far removed from the Triangle and Coach Schrage said there’d be more emphasis on player movement, cutting, and screening actions.  Stanford’s going to have to be cohesive to succeed on offense, and this number gives  a pretty good sense of that cohesion or lack thereof.

The Three Point Game- This is a cheat as there is more than one number that matters here.  First is attempts as a ratio of overall shots.   Last year the Cardinal ran into trouble when it got too three point crazy, but this year it’s had trouble from passing down shots.   Right now 25% (328th) of its shots are threes and only 18.1%(335th) of its points are generated from beyond the arc.  Both those numbers are too low and they strongly suggest a team that is passing up shots.  This is the most vital weapon in the college game, and Stanford needs to identify at least two to three guys who can step up and sink it when open.   Otherwise you get short circuited possessions, bad spacing, and clogged lanes for the Cardinal’s strong interior game.

                Stanford showed a lot of grit in coming back against Arkansas, and it’s clear that whatever flaws one may see in Coach Dawkins, he has a group that doesn’t back down from a fight. And yes, Arkansas is not a good team, but they are a well-coached team, and hopefully Stanford can build on that inspired six minutes coming after the break.

                I’ve always considered the finals break a great chances for the coaches to kind of get a resetting “do-over” on the start of the season.  It’s the first real extended practice time the team will have gotten with its key components back and a full complement of players available. Stanford has some players who can be very fun to watch, and though there will be some lumps taken, it will be intriguing to see how they develop over the next couple months. 

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