Exhibition Opener Ignites Hoops Hoopla

Take a look up and down the box score of Sunday's 117-78 trouncing of Team Nike and you can have your pick of grin-inducing statistics. Perhaps the most remarkable is the fact that the Cardinal put nine players in the scoring column with nine or more points, and five bench players recorded double-digit minutes. We have all the scoop on the many highs of this exhibition affair, and what they tell us about this team and season.

The score makes you giddy.  The statistics make your eyes pop out.  But this was just an exhibition game, right?  Yes and no.  And let's set the table for this recap by taking a look at the opponent your Stanford Cardinal just flattened.

Team Nike came into this game 2-4, but their four losses came at the hands of Top 25 teams.  They lost to #23 Marquette by nine points, #7 Syracuse by eight points, #4 Michigan State by four points and #1 Connecticut by 18 points.  Your hugely underrated #17 Stanford squad steamrolled to a 59-29 lead and 117-78 final tally Sunday night.  While UConn had to play four of its starters 25 or more minutes, including Player of the Year favorite Emeka Okafor logging 31 minutes, the Cardinal only played one starter 25 minutes (Rob Little) and had two bench players log 20 minutes (Matt Haryasz and Nick Robinson).  Transitive properties are notoriously poor in athletics, but there is some message in this game.

"We played well.  There's no question about that," says head coach Mike Montgomery.  "Pretty much everything we tried worked - that was encouraging to see.  We're not going to do that very often.  We got a lot of guys time and played people at a lot of positions, which was good."

Stanford shot 66% for the game, 60% from three-point range and 81% from the free throw line.  They recorded 27 assists and nearly as many steals (10) as turnovers (11).

"I honestly didn't expect that," an honest Justin Davis comments on the performance.  "I really didn't.  The last two days of our practices, we really didn't look that good."

The tone was set early in the game when Stanford came out hitting on all cylinders.  Junior preseason All-American Josh Childress stroked a three-pointer from the corner on Stanford's first possession, and then the Rob Little Show took the stage.  The newly slimmed junior center scored the next three baskets and then dished an assist to Childress for a dunk that pushed the score to 11-1.

Little would add another assist and a sweet reverse baseline dunk to help his Cardinal to a dominating 17-4 lead just inside the 16:00 mark.  Probably the most remarkable play the regrettably unloved 6'10" center made was an offensive rebound on his second basket off a missed Matt Lottich jumper.  Little went up high for the ball about eight feet from the basket in a smooth and fluid reach, but then surprised the Maples Pavilion crowd by how quickly he sprung back up off the floor to shoot a put-back jumper that tickled the twine.

The "pogo stick" label has been fairly attached to Childress and Davis on this team, but never before this night to Little.  Times are changing, however.  A second signal of the coming out of Little came when Little caught and threw down an alley-oop dunk, a play that he has rarely if ever made at Stanford with his weight-challenged vertical leaping ability.

"Rob is much better," Montgomery opines.  "It's really great to see what he can do out there.  He has a chance to have a really good year.  He should stay in games longer with greater efficiency.  We're seeing him do things we've never seen him do before."

For the uninitiated, that is about as high of praise you can receive as an individual Stanford player from Mike Montgomery.  That code roughly translated tells the rest of the college basketball world, "Watch out for Rob Little.  Here he comes."

Little started the game with a very strong first half effort, shooting 5-for-5 from the field and recording three assists versus no turnovers.  He would finish with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

"It's a reflection of the weight loss," the 265-pound rock explains. "Guys are actually going to make that [alley-oop] pass to me now.  They would say, 'Nah - I'm not going to make that pass to Rob.'  It makes you feel good, like you have an extra weapon.  Now I feel like when I go up against a Channing Frye or a Rory O'Neil, both athletic big guys, I can stay with them."

The other breakout athlete to "emerge" to those in attendance who have not been privy to his off-season developments as documented on this website and The Bootleg Magazine was 6'10" forward Matt Haryasz.  Now sporting a 225-pound frame that has carried both his strength and confidence to newfound levels, the Page (AZ) product delivered high-flying spectacles that bespeak his burgeoning greatness.  Haryasz was the highest leaping player on the floor in this game, which helped him to a game-high four offensive rebounds and a tie for the Stanford team lead in total rebounds at seven.  The super sophomore could have hauled in a couple more boards if he had not lost the handle on the ball, which reminds us that he has an even greater upside once he adds more strength and bulk to his frame.  But this springy superstar-in-the-making showed on offense that he can score from many spots on the floor.  Haryasz recorded a pair of rebound putback dunks and also stroked the perimeter jumper.  He finished the game with 13 points and played an even 10 minutes in each half.

Don't for a minute think that Haryasz is ready to push ahead of starting fifth-year senior power forward Justin Davis, however.  Davis may not have dominated the scoring column, but he was excellent.  His position and strength down low drew fouls and put him on the free throw line six times, with the career 51.5% shooter hitting five from the charity stripe.  Davis' low post moves were fluid and executed beautifully, helping him to nine points in just 18 minutes of play.  The senior also logged seven boards.

"I feel like I played at a slower pace," the Berkeley native reveals.  "I was able to take my time and make my decisions.  I feel like every one I made was the right decision.  I may have said that a few times previously in my career, but I would have been lying to you.  I really believe it in this game."

What may have gone unnoticed to the crowd at Maples Sunday evening, though, was the job that Davis and Little did passing the ball.  They combined for six assists and just one turnover.  Such smooth-passing big men are an underrated asset in Stanford's offense is it was that ability of the Jarron Collins and Jason Collins that helped make the 2000-01 team so dominant and balanced.  And it was the smart ball rotation in the first half of this game, producing 12 assists versus two turnovers, that had Mike Montgomery grinning afterward.

"The first half was good," the head coach allows.  "We passed and moved the ball well, though we're not always going to shoot that well.  To have only two turnovers in the first half - that was pretty good."

One reason players and coaches were so particularly pleased with the first half turnover numbers was the other exhibition game they have played this year.  Most fans believe that what they saw tonight was the debut for this team against another opponent, but Stanford actually played Santa Clara the prior weekend.  In that scrimmage the Card turned the ball over some 35 times.

"This was night and day from that scrimmage," Little exclaims.  "This was a lot better ball movement and management.  It's a reflection of the coaching staff really taking it to us.  The day after the Santa Clara scrimmage, we hit the film really hard looking at what we did wrong."

One player who delivered a sweet game distributing and scoring was senior shooting guard Matt Lottich.  His most underrated statistic last year was his league-leading 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  The fiery 6'4" off-guard led the team in assists 10 times last year and in this game recorded a game-high six assists, double that of any other Stanford player.  Lottich never turned the ball over and was a key to the smart ball movement that Montgomery and Little lauded.  The unshy gunner did more than his share in the scoring column, leading all Cards with 16 points with red-hot shooting (7-9 FG, 2-3 3FG).

Ironically the only starter for Stanford who recorded multiple turnovers was point guard Chris Hernandez.  He had two miscues, including one in transition, but the Cardinal Nation was simply pleased to get a healthy 17 minutes, which is one less than he could muster all of last year.  The redshirt sophomore is a key to the offensive engine of this team, and the hottest topic in Stanford Basketball today is his ailing back.

"It felt really nice," Hernandez says of the game.  "I was excited to be out there without the pain.  When my back has bothered me there have been sharp pains, and I didn't have any of that tonight.  I'll really know tomorrow when I wake up how this affected me, though."

"I played OK," he continues.  "The two turnovers were not forced - I really shouldn't have had them.  They were stupid plays.  I want a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio this year and can't make those types of plays.  Once I get my wind back, I'll be more confident on offense and aggressive on defense."

What Hernandez is telling us is that not only do we need his back to hold up through the season, but we need him to get back into game condition.  Without having played a real game in the last year, his conditioning is something that will have to watch in the next several weeks of preseason action.  It was also noteworthy that Hernandez never sat down when he was out of the game.  He either stood or laid down on the floor, to help his back.

One of the great positives from Hernandez was his 2-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc.  We have articulated several times here and in our magazine that this point guard's scoring role needs to be a high percentage hitting the open looks he will get from that range, as well as a knack for driving and drawing defenses.  Both Hernandez and Jason Haas (2-for-2 from three) did that fantastically.  Their combined 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field (plus Hernandez' 3-of-4 at the free throw line) is all Cardinalmaniacs™ could ask for, and more.  Both particularly showed confidence in shooting the open three-pointer, which is one of the questions heading into this year.

"I thought his pace was really good," Montgomery says of Hernandez.  "In the Santa Clara scrimmage we was way too hyped up - too excited.  He's settled down and will get better with game experience."

But these two point guards (plus Carlton Weatherby's three minutes) played only part of the game at the head of the Cardinal offense.  6'7" Stanford forward Nick Robinson logged seven minutes at the point guard position in the game, which surprised non-Bootleg subscribers in attendance.  With the failure last year (and notably thus far in the 2004 class) to sign a true point guard, the Cardinal have no third ballhandler behind Hernandez and Haas.  With the former fighting back troubles ("I'm getting better little by little.") and missing extended chunks of practices this preseason, Montgomery is very mindful of bolstering his reserve options at the point.

"Nick is OK," the head man begins.  "We'll have to change the offense to accommodate him.  We have to simplify it a little bit.  It's not fair to ask him to do it all when he's spending time at the 'four' and the 'three'.  It may be asking a little too much.  We just have to prepare for all the eventualities.  I mean, what happens if Jason [Haas] gets hurt?"

Sophomore off-guard Dan Grunfeld had an uncharacteristic four fouls, including a pair in the first half only seconds apart.  But he showed his increased confidence, shooting range and explosiveness in the 11-point performance.  Grunfeld canned three treys, best on the team, in six attempts.  But his most exciting and surprising play came in transition when he took a Justin Davis pass in transition and threw down a thundering dunk.  The play reflects the increased lift I have seen him develop since last year, which is just one of the reasons I believe he will continue to surprise the fans who cannot see past his "old school" game and pasty complexion.

The newest player unveiled in a Stanford Basketball uniform was Fred Washington.  Though he comes off the bench in the third wave of substitutions, he showed uncharacteristic and aggression for a Cardinal freshman in his first Stanford performance.  Washington overplayed passing lanes on defense smartly, leading to his two steals.  On offense he was aggressive with the ball, including one memorable play where he made a quick slash to the basket from the top of the key and drew a trip to the free throw line.  Understandably, the freshman was uncertain on several plays where to move on the floor and did not confidently have his feet under him when handling the ball at times.  But his confidence in his abilities is very clear.  Based on what we saw with his quickness and overall athleticism, that confidence seems well founded.

Many fans who regrettably do not subscribe to this website (and some reporters, too) were surprised and confused by fellow frosh Tim Morris sitting on the bench for the duration of the game.  But as I reported on Saturday, he is moving down the path toward a redshirt season and in doing so has now sat out the team's first two exhibition contests.

"It's rough," Morris admits on watching the team play.  "I wanted to play the whole time.  When I'm off the court, not competing, I can be OK with a redshirt on the intellectual side.  But when we're on the court it's really tough."

"Chris has been hurt," Montgomery chimes in.  "So we're going to try Tim at the point a little bit the next few weeks and see how he responds.  We really have to wait and see what happens with Chris.  I think we're fine if Chris stays healthy, but he hasn't been up to this point."

Morris says he and the coaches would probably have a decision in the next couple weeks.  He and his family are reasonably sold on the benefits of taking the redshirt now, but his progress at the point guard position he just began in practices last week could boost his importance at the point guard position.  It is a difficult matrix to project with many factors in play, but Morris is handling it well.

"Am I disappointed?  No," he offers.  "It's a possibility to get five years, and I'm at a great school where you'd like to take advantage of that."

Speaking of Morris, Montgomery voiced his irritation over the NCAA rule that counts exhibition games toward a player's eligibility.  "That's something we have to get changed," he declares.  "It's ridiculous that we can't play these kids in exhibitions, and it's a disservice ultimately to them."

The Cardinal will open their regular season next Saturday when they host Sacramento State.  The game's attendance will be interesting, given that action will tip off just hours after the conclusion of the 106th Big Game.  Fans should make sure they do not miss any games of this exciting 2003-04 team, though, and on the issue of this game against the Hornets should remember that Monty's men do not return home again until December 13.

If you are wondering where Josh Childress stood in this two-hour highlight festival, read this breaking update on his medical condition...

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