John Hefti/USA Today

Stanford Basketball Week in Review: No Easy Way Out

Stanford closed out a three-game road swing with a dispiriting loss in Berkeley. Here's how the squad can pick up the pieces.

“There’s No Easy Way Out

There’s no shortcut home”

-Rocky IV

The Week: Lost to Cal 76-61

Record:  11-10 (4-6 Pac-12) 7th Place (Tied with UCLA)

Pac-12 ORtg: 98.9 (11th)

Pac-12 DRtg: 108.4 (10th)

School

Pace

eFG%

TOV%

ORB%

FT/FGA

ORtg

Stanford

65.0

.418

7.1

19.4

.273

93.8

University of California

65.0

.646

20.8

32.0

.561

116.9

 

                A three-game road trip that looked daunting before it began concluded with a winless fortnight for Stanford, who now finds itself reeling and on the outside of a conference that potentially boasts as many as nine NCAA Tournament participants.  It’s pretty simple to understand what has happened to Stanford’s season over the last month.  The Cardinal’s stunningly bad offense has finally sucked the will out of a defense that started conference play stout and has now collapsed under an avalanche of bricks from Stanford’s offense.

                The overall numbers in this case reflect and verify, but they don’t really explain why Stanford is such a putrid offensive scoring team.  Stanford’s ORtg in conference play is 98.9, which ranks it 11th in the conference.  Stanford cannot shoot the ball, seemingly, from anywhere.  The Cardinal has the worst three-point shooting percentage in the conference at 26.4% and its 44% two-point shooting is second-worst.

                The two numbers we highlighted at the onset of the season are indicative of this team’s struggles.  Stanford’s three-point shooting is abysmal.  That creates serious problems, first because the shots that go up don’t go in, secondly because shots are turned down by players lacking confidence, and overpassing happens which just leads to forced shots taken later when the team is up against the shot clock.  Finally, teams know Stanford can’t hurt them from outside, and that’s clogging up driving lanes and post spacing.

                We also talked about assist percentage at the beginning of the season, as ball and player movement were points of emphasis over the summer while the team was in Italy.  As we’ve discussed before, having a high assist percentage is not mandatory in terms of having a very efficient offense, but in the absence of transcendent offensive players, it becomes increasingly crucial.  Stanford’s assisted on 48% of its baskets overall this season, which ranks 274th out of 351 schools.  In conference play, that number is down to 42%.

                That 42% is the lowest rate in the conference.  Of course, it’s tough to get many assists when the majority of your shots aren’t going in, but this is a number that deals with the percentage of made baskets that are assisted.  Stanford has struggled mightily to find any offensive flow that sustains it through significant stretches of games.   Call it a chicken or egg debate, but Stanford’s coaches have resorted to trying massive amounts of different lineups in the hope that one will stick.

                Instead, Stanford’s rotations have become a seemingly random ferris wheel where players are shuffled in and out of the game at staggeringly small intervals.  In Stanford’s game against Colorado, for instance, the Cardinal used 22 different lineups, including a stretch in the second half where four straight combinations failed to last one minute on the court.  One group played 18 seconds, then was changed.  The next group played a whopping 52 seconds, then was swapped in favor of a quintet that lasted 19 seconds.  That stretch culminated with a group that played 56 seconds.

                It’s tough to get any cohesion when the five-man unit is in such flux.  And it’s reasonable to counter that it’s tough to stay with any specific five-man group when no such unit has stepped up and distinguished itself in practice or in games.   Wherever you stand on this particular debate, the results have been unequivocal.  A relatively inexperienced group of individuals has even less experience playing alongside one another.  It’s a tough situation with no easy solutions.

                To be fair, Utah and Colorado are awful matchups for Stanford.  Both have size that negates Stanford’s considerable length, and on the Rocky Mountain Roadie has been tough for most teams this year.  The loss to Cal was far less excusable, as Stanford was simply awful in every way a team can be awful.  It was a very disappointing result given the team had a week to be ready to play.

                So what’s left for Stanford?  First, any talk of the postseason is ludicrous, not because they can’t make some version of the postseason, but because with an NCAA berth seemingly off the table at the moment, there’s no value in projecting what Stanford can and will do with an NIT or alternate bid come season’s end.  This team’s focus should be on development, and on finding a five-man group it trusts moving forward.

                The good news is that regardless of the quintet, there’s a good chance that it will be comprised entirely of returning players.  Rosco is without question the team’s best player, so let’s start with him.  Humphrey is without question the team’s most talented player, so let’s add him to the mix.   After that, let’s double down on the Marcuses, Allen, and Sheffield. 

                Marcus Allen’s area for improvement is clearly shooting.  At this point he’s only shooting 25% from the behind the line.  However, he’s still an off the dribble threat, he’s averaging 3.1 steals per game, and is overall a definite asset for the Cardinal.  Sheffield has also emerged as a player capable of at least generating some decent looks, and despite a rough last two games, is most definitely a worthwhile investment.

                That leaves the fifth spot.   Based on an offensive efficiency rating that is the second highest on the team, I am nominating Dorian Pickens  here.  His 31% three-point shooting is not great, but his stroke suggests that he could improve it with cleaner looks and more floor time.   He’s also started to find some nice midrange shots off the catch through the offense.  And again, as a true Sophomore, it’s time worth investing.

                In Stanford’s last five games, that quintet has only used 5.3% of the available court time.  The fact that even at such a small percentage the group represents Stanford’s third most-used lineup speaks volumes about the instability of the rotation.  Lineups featuring Verhoeven and Christian Sanders have logged more court time together.  Obviously with Humphrey getting into foul trouble, it’s normal for Verhoeven to step in with Reid Travis still shelved.  However, it should not be at the expense of Humphrey.

                Of course, Humphrey has been slumping, and possibly hampered by the injury he suffered in Salt Lake, so that throws a bit of a wrench into the plans.  Then when Verhoeven gets hurt, what happens?  Nobody’s saying it’s easy to stick with a lineup or a rotation, but it’s the best bet for Stanford to get something out of what remains this season.

                Despite their struggles, this team does do a number of things well.  First off, they force the most turnovers in the conference, while committing the fewest.  That’s a big deal.  They are also the best team in the league at earning free throw attempts.  Finally, they play hard.  Every guy is willing to dive on the floor and fight, and that spirit should not be dismissed.  Unfortunately, all that activity is not yielding much achievement of late.

                Things do get a bit better for Stanford moving forward.  Even some of the good teams the Cardinal will face are better matchups for them.  Stanford’s already beaten Oregon State, and while Oregon is playing fantastic ball right now, they don’t pose the size threat that Utah and Colorado do, so Stanford may be able to push the Ducks at Maples.

                This is a situation lacking a clear and comprehensive panacea, but it’s still a season with plenty of basketball left.  If Stanford wants to turn things around, identifying and building around some core pieces might be the best place to start. 


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