I walked into Maples last night feeling really good about the Cardinal’s chances to upset Texas. The team had been playing much improved ball after hitting its non-conference nadir in losses to SMU and St. Mary’s, and I thought athletically they’d be able to hang with the Longhorns. I was greeted with a dose of curbed enthusiasm from Stanford’s broadcast team, and it didn’t take long before I found out why.
As the team took the floor for warm-ups, Reid Travis emerged conspicuously dressed in red pants, unlike the rest of the team, who was wearing shorts. Sure enough, as they gathered in formation on the floor, Reid took a seat on the bench adjacent to his teammates.
Evidently, Travis endured a stress reaction to his left leg, the same one he injured last year but “not the same injury” per Coach Johnny Dawkins. His return remains indefinite but he was most definitely missed in Stanford’s 75-53 loss to Texas.
Everybody was so concerned about Stanford finding some perimeter shooting to open up the middle for Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis, but the truth of this game is that Stanford’s brilliant outside shooting (largely provided by one Dorian Pickens) and free throw prowess kept it in the game on a night when the Cardinal was simply unable to consistently produce made field goals or even solid field goal attempts against Texas.
Stanford shot a blistering 10-19 from the three point line and 86% from the foul line (19-22). Unable to get much out of its halfcourt sets, Stanford smartly took the ball to the hoop and got the physical Longhorns into the bonus with nearly 14 minutes left into the half. Marcus Allen was particularly aggressive in attacking the paint to start.
Unfortunately Texas had some Lightning and Thunder for which the Cardinal could not account. Guard Isaiah Taylor, a Hayward native making his return to the Bay Area, tore Stanford to pieces to the tune of 26 points and six assists. Taylor’s coast-to-coast dash after a Pickens’ three tied the game was the kill shot for a Cardinal team that admirably refused to die all night long.
The thunder was manifested in the beastly form of Cameron Ridley, who had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots and who was the core of a Longhorn interior that made life miserable for Michael Humphrey and the rest of the remaining Stanford big men. Without Travis to bang with Ridley, Stanford saw the Longhorns annex the paint and finish with a +20 advantage that the Cardinal could not overcome.
If there were two key plays in the game, I’d start with Marcus Sheffield’s missed chippie with about 10:11 left to go in game. Marcus made a great move and found himself all alone under the basket, but just couldn’t convert. He was FAR from alone, and his play really stands as one illustration of a night long epidemic for the Cardinal. Per the play-by-play, Stanford missed 14 layups. Man, that was painful to type.
Granted, some of those were difficult attempts despite their proximity to the cup, but still. You look at that number and then you don’t understand why all coaches are not totally gray-haired or bald. The other key play was not Taylor’s brilliant, game-winning floater, but rather a play he made moments earlier.
At 66-62 with 2:48 left, Stanford played a great defensive possession, forcing the Longhorns into a desperation 3-point heave from Javan Felix. Unfortunately, Christian Sanders got caught watching the paint dry, and the irrepressible Taylor scooted right past him for a put-back layup. It was a crucial sequence, and one I’m sure bothers Sanders far more than Taylor’s mad dash at the end. It’s hard to stop a guy with a full head of steam, but failing to box a guy out is a capital offense per the Hoops Gods.
So what do we take away from this game? It’s hard to get past Travis’ injury, though with only two games between now and the conference opener against Utah he has a chance to hopefully return for the Cardinal to get a full run at the conference slate. Apart from that, I’ve just never seen a team so routinely hit with devastating injuries. Stanford simply has no replacement for what Reid brings to the floor.
Stanford’s assist percentage on the evening was an improved 54%. To give you some perspective on how far the Cardinal has to go to improve, Michigan State has the highest assist rate in the nation at 78.8%. The highest assist rate in the Pac-12 belongs to Colorado at 58.7%. It’s not the end all, but it’s a very good indicator of ball and player movement, and there is a correlation between assist rate and three-point shooting proficiency on both ends of the floor.
Watching Stanford, the lack of synchronicity on offense stands out as the real hurdle for this team to overcome. It’s totally understandable, given the implementation of a new offense, and the real problem of simply not having a single five-man unit who has logged any amount of significant court time together. That again brings us back to the Reid injury, and even Coach Dawkins had to concede to some frustration in this regard.
I asked him about the struggle to establish a 5, 6, 7 man rotation given the injuries. “I was feeling good after the last three games I thought we were figuring it out, we had our rotations down, when lo and behold…after the DePaul game he (Travis) says he’s a little sore…we were feeling pretty good about our rotations, but now we have to make some adjustments,” said Coach Dawkins.
The way this all manifests itself on the floor can be most clearly seen in the ineffectiveness of screens. Time and again, dribblers and cutters were making their moves before the screener was set and able to square up the defender, and it led to no advantage gained, which leads to superfluous passes around the perimeter or dribbling forays that end up in tough, contested shots.
Stanford’s lack of sync really crystallized when compared to the one really excellent solid screen I saw set. Grant set a screen for a ballhandler, and in one pass Stanford had a wide open three pointer that swished through the net. One solid screen is enough to trigger a defensive system fail if the ball movement and spacing is correct. That timing will come once the players log enough time on the court, and when it does, Stanford can be a very potent offensive team.
Until then, the Cardinal is going to have to find a way to grind through some games. Say all you want in criticism, but this team has a lot of moxie. Rosco got knocked from pillar to post on a number of drives but never stopped attacking the rim. He finished with 19 points on 70% eFG% in 39 minutes, during which he committed only two turnovers. Humphrey stuck his nose into the fray repeatedly and also dove all over the place to secure the ball. Take that effort, efficiency, and the rise of Dorian Pickens into conference play, and this team has a great shot to make a run against the Pac-12.
This season occupies a unique space given the personnel upheaval, the new offense and defenses, and the lack of inexperience of groups of players together. Stanford’s 5-4, but efforts like the one they put forth against Texas are going to be enough on plenty of nights once a few more T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.