Kelley L. Cox/USA Today

Stanford Basketball Focuses on Fundamentals During Finals Break

Stanford needs to improve its three-point shooting to hang with elite teams. Just how much improvement is needed and how do they get there?

Stanford Head Coach Jerod Haase has established a number of things in his first season leading the program, and one of the most obvious is his willingness to be candid in assessing his team.  He offered up a number of strong, focused, and clear insights in the wake of Stanford’s loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. You can listen to his full presser here, but with Stanford headed into what Haase has termed “the most important two weeks of the season” it’s a good time to assess where the 6-3 Cardinal stands entering its annual winter break.

It’s not hard to pinpoint where Stanford got beat against St. Mary’s and Kansas. Stanford ran up a 24-point deficit on three-point shooting against the Gaels and then in Lawrence the Cardinal was buried under a -30 from behind the three-point line.  Kansas and St. Mary’s are both very good teams, and they both shot very well against the Cardinal, but to dismiss those two performances against elite teams would be to ignore what’s at the core of the Cardinal’s shortcomings.

The problem has not escaped Coach Haase’s view.  He talked about it Saturday after the game in Lawrence and he used the phrase “the basics of basketball” when he did.  When I interviewed him the week prior to the St. Mary’s and Kansas games I asked him about the spectrum of philosophy between preparing for opponents and working on your own team, and he stated he tended to lean for more towards focusing on the team and not the opponent.

With all that, it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on at practice right now for Stanford.  The first thing that got taught at Stanford Basketball camp back in the Montgomery Era is the necessity of the Triple Threat Position. Coach Haase referred to it after the loss to the Jayhawks.  It’s how you catch a pass in a stance that allows you to shoot, drive, or pass.  Against Kansas, too many Cardinal players were catching the ball in One-Threat positions, and that threat was pass. There is just no way to sustain consistent offense if the man defending the ball knows you aren’t a threat to drive or shoot.

Stanford players were catching the ball and too often weren’t even making eye contact with the bucket. This is where it starts for Stanford during the break.  Now being a “threat” to score from behind the line ultimately comes down to actually making shots, and embracing the Shaolin Stance of the Montgomery Triple Threat isn’t gonna turn the current players into Dion Cross or Ryan Mendez.

However, I’d argue that there is as much damage done to a possession where a player catches a ball with a chance to take a shot and eschews it as there is by taking a shot and missing it. Stanford’s got to be willing to step into the clean looks it’s getting, and stop taking the rise and fires off the bounce for which too many players are settling.  I don’t want to overestimate what can happen in two weeks, but Coach Haase’s track record offers hope that drastic transformation may not be totally necessary.

Last year, 35% of UAB’s shots were three-pointers, which was 198th in D-1.  The Blazers scored 29.3% of their points on threes, and they shot 37% from behind the arc, which was slightly above the D-1 average, which sits at about 35%.  Their top three volume shooters shot 38%, 37% and 39% from on their threes.  So essentially they had three legit producers from behind the line.

Looking at Stanford, the numbers fall short at the moment.  Only 23% of Stanford’s shots are threes, which is 351st in the country and well below the D-1 average of 36%.  Stanford gets only 17% of its points from behind the line, which is 348th in D-1.  The Cardinal’s top three volume shooters from distance are shooting 43%, 26% and 15%, respectively.  And this, interestingly enough, is where hope begins.

First of all, the issue of taking threes.  23% seems like a long way off from 36%, but really we are only talking about four more shots per half.  Against Kansas, Stanford took 8 threes on 50 field goal attempts.  Add four more per half and Stanford is your typical D-1 team.  Against St. Mary’s, Stanford took 12 threes on 55 attempts, which is 22%.  Add 7-8 total within the 59 possessions Stanford had in the game, and suddenly the team is taking a more nominal amount.

That leads us to making threes, which is what matters the most after all. Again, on a per game basis, Stanford is not that far from being proficient.  Against St. Mary’s, they shot 3-12.  Horrible, right?  If they made one more shot, they’d be scraping up against an average shooting performance, and if they made just two more they’d be considered a good-shooting team.  That’s the task in front of this group.  

So how do we synthesize the relatively easy task of taking more threes with the clearly more demanding challenge of making more?  If we accept the template of Coach Haase’s last UAB, team, we need to get to Three Good Shooters.  Few have mentioned the fact that Dorian Pickens is shooting 43% from three, but he is, and that’s 13th-best in the Pac-12.  

Where do you get the other two?  Well, I’m taking the leap of faith that Robert Cartwright, currently shooting 26%, can step into one of those roles.  First, 26% on 23 threes is only two shots away from hitting the D-1 Average. To get to 35% on the season by his next 23 three-point attempts, he needs to make 10-23.  He’s got a good clean stroke, and if Stanford can get him the right looks, there’s no reason he can’t join Pickens as two of its needed “Three” Amigos.

Now Stanford has to get a third shooter.  Right now, Marcus Allen is shooting 15% as the third most frequent shooter on the team.  We can’t write him off, but expecting to him raise his accuracy 21% seems like it’s asking quite a bit.  That brings us to Marcus Sheffield, who may be a true X factor for this team down the stretch.  After showing promise last season, Sheffield has been slowed by a nagging injury as well as the adjustment to Coach Haase’s offense.  He’s shooting 3-11 on the season.  He is great to highlight because he needs to take and make more shots.  Look at that number though.  He’s basically average if he just makes one more shot, but he’s Robin of Locksley if he makes just two more.

The point here is not to minimize the ground Stanford needs to cover to put a functional offense on the court, but that metaphorical distance shouldn’t be blown out of proportion either. No, two more made threes weren’t going to beat St. Mary’s or Kansas.  However, we’re talking about raising the base line here, so that the Cardinal’s strengths (See:  Travis, Reid) can be optimized. The route is just what Coach said:  the basics.  

Stanford isn’t gonna end the year a great three-point shooting team, but it can end the year a better three-point shooting team, and if you couple that with what has been an overall strong defensive performance thus far, you’ve got a team that can be really tough to beat throughout the Pac-12 season, and if Stanford gets that done, Year One of the Jerod Haase Era should be considered a success.

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