Stanford took the court for only the second time in December last night, and the Cardinal played perhaps its most complete game of the season in stomping Depaul 79-60. The game featured the continued development of some very encouraging trends as well as some pleasant departures from the Cardinal’s normative performance.
First and foremost, the Cardinal responded for the fourth straight game with an outstanding defensive effort. After St. Mary’s (who looks like an NCAA tournament team, by the way) torched the Cardinal in Moraga for an offensive efficiency rating of 125.8, Coach Dawkins made it clear that defense was going to be a priority moving forward, and the players have turned his words into results.
Since that trip to the Gaels' woodshed, Stanford has not allowed an opponent to post an ORtg higher than 93. Dartmouth and DePaul could only muster 87.7 and 88.2, respectively. And yes, the Big Green and the Blue Demons are two shades of awful (225th and 177th per Ken Pomeroy), but Villanova’s not. The Wildcats are currently the fourth best team per Pomeroy and their season ORtg is 113.2. Against the Cardinal that number fell to 86.8.
Has Stanford become a defensive juggernaut or just enjoying the benefits of a small sample size? It’s hard to say definitively, but there is no question that the team’s effort and tenacity have both increased significantly, as has the use of a personnel grouping about which I am giddy. Ever since closing out the Arkansas game with Freshmen Cameron Walker, Marcus Sheffield, Rosco, and Michael Humphrey, Stanford has shown a willingness to put that quartet on the floor along with either Marcus Allen, Reid Travis, or in the case of last night’s win, Dorian Pickens.
Regardless of the fifth piece, that quartet has shown tremendous potential with its length, athleticism, and effort. Now that lineup hasn’t become a staple yet, but anybody who watched last night saw how productive that group was out on the floor, and the plus/minus of the Frosh reflects it. In only 11 minutes, Walker was +9. In only 12 minutes, Sheffield was +14. Pickens was the +/- leader with +18. Normally you have to be very careful with individual plus/minus, but this group was largely playing together, making the numbers far more trustworthy and indicative of solid play by each.
I speculated that Stanford’s athleticism might encourage the coaches to dabble with some extended defenses, and we saw some of that against DePaul as well. While the Cardinal wasn’t going full throttle with the full court harassment, the team did manage to collect an astounding 13 steals which fueled the margin-creating +17 points off turnover advantage. On the season Stanford opponents turn it over at a rate of 19.5%. That number swelled to 25% last night, and at one point the Blue Demons had turned it over on over 30% of their possessions.
On offense, the team was similarly dominant. One number I’ve been harping on all year is assist rate, and it’s one the coaches have been tracking as well. Last night Stanford assisted on 17 of its 25 field goals, a rate of 68%. That’s insanely high. On the season, Stanford’s assist rate is 52%, good for 115th in the country. The ball movement on the whole was excellent last night, and passes tended to have purpose more than I can recall this year. Player and ball movement created opportunities and helped set up perhaps the most encouraging if suspect aspect of the team’s performance.
Stanford shot a nuclear 10-19 from three point land, with Marcus Allen and Dorian Pickens each hitting 3-5 from the land of plenty. The three point shot has been a very small part of Stanford’s offense, owing mainly to the reluctance of players like Allen to take them. That reluctance is decreasing as Allen sees them splash through the net in games, and that’s very good news for Stanford. A Marcus Allen who consistently hits threes is an All-Conference Marcus Allen, and All-Conference play out of Stanford’s backcourt alters this team’s ceiling significantly.
At 5-3, it’s obviously way too early to project too far into this season for Stanford Basketball. However, the finals break and the comeback against Arkansas seem to have re-focused and energized the team as it prepares for its final non-conference stretch before New Year’s rings in Pac-12 play. If Stanford wants to make hay Saturday night, the Cardinal must follow its blueprint for 2015-16 success: Get after it defensively, share the ball, and step into open threes. Combine that with a potentially dominant front court and suddenly the outlook is not nearly as grim as it was on that chilly night in Moraga.
We’ll see on Saturday night the extent to which the Cardinal Force has truly awakened.