Hoops Heating Up In Preseason

After catching a couple practices this week, I have an even stronger sense of what the personnel on this team might be capable of doing this year. Stanford Basketball looks strong and deep, and any preseason hype does not look to be creating a lazy streak. Read on for observations, predictions and tidbits from practices... including some very detailed stats from scrimmages.

Much of the drills in practice entail some form of the red (1st) team against the white (2nd) team.  If you watch just a snapshot of one practice, you may see lineups on either team that misrepresent who will start on the team and what players would be first off the bench in reserve.  But watching several practices for chunks of extended time can give a better impression of where the personnel stack up today.  And though we are more than two weeks away from the exhibition opener, and more than three weeks away from the season opener, here is what I see:

Red/1st Team

C: Rob Little
PF: Justin Davis
SF: Josh Childress
SG: Matt Lottich
PG: Chris Hernandez

White/2nd Team

C: Joe Kirchofer
PF: Matt Haryasz
SF: Nick Robinson
SG: Dan Grunfeld
PG: Jason Haas

These lists will not probably surprise you, and they look precisely like what we finished last year with, if you just remove Julius Barnes and insert Chris Hernandez.  But some additional notes are that Matt Haryasz will have a much bigger role in the frontcourt off the bench than last year, able to play either post position.  That means he will likely eat some of Joe Kichofer's minutes.  I should also note that not all players are "frozen" at the positions listed above.  Most notably, Nick Robinson is still playing the '4' in some small lineups, and Dan Grunfeld is playing some small forward.  The two freshmen are getting some time in practices for sure - they are far from second class citizens.  But I don't see either of them threatening anybody at their position on the 2nd team.  Not at this stage.  That is not a criticism of either of them; it is intended to set expectations for fans who each year assume that frosh will make a lightning charge into the spotlight.

At the point guard position, I saw sophomore walk-on Carlton Weatherby this week involved in the biggest role I have seen from him yet at Stanford.  He was rotating for Hernandez on the red team as well as Haas on the white team.  Part of that is due to lingering injury concerns for both of the primary point guards.  Haas still has some occasional inflammation with his right elbow, where he recently had surgery; Hernandez still battles back problems.  Weatherby is spelling the two partially out of need.  But it bears noting that the 6'0" quick PG has markedly improved versus where he was a year ago.  He has room to improve, but a year later his grasp of the offense has really grown.  That is feeding his confidence, which is letting him play his game on the floor more naturally.

I noted last year, and so did other observers, that Weatherby's shot had a horrifically low release point.  That was called out as the glaring weakness that would keep him off the floor in the Pac-10, but I have a different view now.  This is a kid who is going to help this team because of his quickness and ballhandling.  You can obsess about his jump shot as to how it relates to his prospects for scoring, but I don't think that is really his niche on this team.  Weatherby will help out the next year or two in spot situations where he brings a unique skill set to the table.  I see that in practices where he helps simulate the full-court press and press breaking.  He also can help in the 1-1-3 zone defense.  His ability to get on the floor will be predicated upon his confidence and understanding of what to do.

Weatherby is still working hard to learn, and that was evidenced Tuesday by his staying after practice, along with freshmen Fred Washington and Tim Morris.  The three worked with Eric Reveno and Russell Turner to better understand the core principles of movement on the perimeter in Stanford's offense.  Though physical attributes, including the oft-cited "Q & A", are important determinants of success in high-major college basketball, the timeframe for an individual player to realize his talents is often mental.  We have to watch Washington and Morris to see how quickly they can internalize all that is being handed to them.

"On offense, I play my best game when I'm playing by instinct," Morris comments.  "But I'm not yet to the point where my instincts can take over.  I have a lot to think about right now.  The offenses here are quite a bit new.  I can run a simple motion offense, but this is more."

A defensive point of emphasis for Morris has been getting around and through screens, and that has jumped out at me this week.  Think of all the times you saw an opponent hit an open jumper coming off a screen and cursed a freshman for "losing his man."  At this early stage, I like what I see Morris able to do to stick with his man, as he shadows a very savvy and crafty Matt Lottich in scrimmages.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is no evidence of any substantive work for Morris at the point guard position at this stage.  He has more than enough on his plate learning how to be a shooting guard for this team.

Back to defense, the team gave a disappointing rendition of the famed 1-1-3 zone defense in Saturday's scrimmage, so Mike Montgomery has hit them hard this week to get things fixed.  The renowned zone that stole a couple early wins last year against Xavier and Florida will make a return in 2003-04, though it remains to be seen to what extent.  Part of that will depend on how Montgomery rates their execution.  One glaring failure to that end came in an instance I saw where the offense swung the ball around to a wing and three defenders (Hernandez, Lottich and Childress) all charged at the same man.  That will give an offense an easy bucket for sure.

On the a brighter note, Lottich and Hernandez are both excelling at the front positions of the zone.  Both are fiery and have the hustle needed to run back and forth as the ball moves.  Lottich had one nice steal in the zone where he knocked a ball loose off a pass and then charged at Washington to gather it.  Lottich simply outmuscled the freshman wing for the ball and raced down the floor for a lay-up.  He was screaming and jumping on his way back like he had just hit a game winner.  The intensity is not just amusing - it is inspiring.  And it will be a difference maker for this team this year - I promise.

Another very seriously encouraging note of senior leadership and intensity came from Justin Davis, who has typically been a quiet player on the floor.  Sure, he can jaw with Childress or Little as well as anyone, but Davis has not been one to call teammates to action on the floor.  While the red team was practicing the zone, it was Davis, though, who shouted out to his teammates:

"Hands up, red!"

They all did.  One of the coaches could not have gotten a better response.

Returning to Haryasz for a moment, I believe that he is the most improved player on this team and is on a course to be one of the all-time greats to don a Cardinal uniform.  I'll call my shot right now and say that he'll be an NBA draftee/player provided he is healthy the next three years.  Not only is his stroke out to 18 feet absolutely deadly, he is scoring in a greater diversity of fashions.  Witness the baseline reverse lay-up where he sliced between a pair of defenders.  Or how about the drive from the top of the key for a smooth yet quick finger-roll lay-in.  Oh, big daddy!

"I'm a lot stronger now and that has helped my confidence so much," the 6'10" sophomore reveals.  "And it's really helped with my rebounding.  I'm coming down with more balls now.  But the thing I'm most pleased with is the team.  All the hard work we put in over the summer and spring is paying off.  Everybody looks bigger and stronger.  It's gonna pay off down the road."

The one player who has put all that hard work into a smaller body is Rob Little.  He looks night-and-day in both his physical appearance and his play versus the end of last season.  He is just so much lighter on his feet - so much more agile.  The hope is that not only will that translate to better defense and better scoring looks, but it will also cut down his fouls.  One offensive example of the new-look Little came with an explosive baseline reverse dunk in a scrimmage.

Another player making a great comeback is Chris Hernandez.  When I watched him this summer or early fall in unofficial team scrimmages and pickup games, there were some inconsistencies in his handle.  That comes with missing an entire season of basketball, but I'm pleased to report that his handle is tightening up in this practices.  Getting more repetitions, and more structured worth with teammates and coaches, is bringing him back to where he was a year ago.  Though the stats below argue that he is stronger in several other areas of his game...

As a final note, freshman Evan Moore was in Maples on the sideline observing most of Monday's practice.  He says that he is antsy to get into action with the basketball team, and he is about to receive a VHS playbook to help him learn the offense despite the practices he is missing.

"It's good to be here to see some things," Moore comments.  "I can pick up a few things, but there is only so much you can get without being in the practices.  The good news is that I think I'll pick things up really quick.  I've played basketball all my life, and things come quicker there.  I've only played football since my sophomore year of high school, and there are still some things in football I don't understand.  There's some terminology that I don't even understand still."

We still have three more practices to go to close out this second week of practices, but here are the statistical leaders from the scrimmages of the first full week of preseason practices:

Points

76 - Josh Childress
64 - Dan Grunfeld
57 - Matt Lottich, Justin Davis
51 - Rob Little
49 - Chris Hernandez

Field Goal %

63% - Rob Little
59% - Justin Davis
58% - Chris Hernandez, Matt Lottich

3-Point Field Goal %

100% - Justin Davis (1/1)
71% - Matt Lottich (12/17)
69% - Chris Hernandez (9/13)
57% - Dan Grunfeld (12/21)

Rebounds

43 - Justin Davis
34 - Rob Little
31 - Matt Haryasz

Assist/Turnover Ratio

7.0 - Chris Hernandez (28-4)
2.9 - Matt Lottich (20-7)
1.0 - Jason Haas (5-5)

Blocks

8 - Matt Haryasz
4 - Justin Davis

Steals

7 - Josh Childress
6 - Chris Hernandez, Matt Haryasz
5 - Matt Lottich


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