Saturday night could be a very long night for Stanford sports fans. Barring Stanford Football's best performance of the year, Saturday could be a long afternoon for fans decked out in cardinal and white. However, what better way to shake off the Big Game doldrums, or (if everything plays out perfectly) top off an impressive Stanford victory, than to celebrate with what is sure to be an ego-boosting basketball game versus the Sacramento State Hornets. If the prospect of seeing another swing pass in the flat on 2nd down sandwiched between shotgun draws on 1st and 3rd down makes you physically ill, maybe the cure is to take in the well-oiled machine that is Stanford Basketball.
Many Stanford fans are used to seeing "good" basketball teams grace the floor at Maples, but what needs to happen for this seemingly good team to become a "great" team? Let's be honest. This is a very good collection of talent and experience. Anything less than a top two Pac-10 finish and a trip to the Sweet 16 should be considered a disappointment. If everything breaks right, maybe, just maybe, Stanford can find itself back in another San Antonio Final Four, but that is more than five months away. The early season games versus Sacramento State, UC Irvine, and Rice will provide a good chance for Stanford to work the kinks out of the system before daunting non-conference contests against Kansas, Gonzaga and UNLV, and will provide a more accurate barometer for just how good this team is. With that said, the best question that Stanford fans can ask after watching their team pound Team Nike in an exhibition game is…
What early season signs will indicate whether this year's Stanford team is just another "good" Mike Montgomery team, or whether this team is showing the signs of greatness?
Put inferior teams away early:
Nothing was more upsetting (nor more telling of Stanford's lack of greatness last year) than their inability to decisively beat bad teams. Losses to Montana, Richmond and Washington, as well as narrow victories over bottom feeders like Oregon St, Washington State and UCLA, proved that while Stanford could win the big games, they lacked the crucial killer instinct. Essentially, Stanford earned that much-dreaded moniker of a team that "plays to the level of its opponents." Aside from the early showdowns with Kansas, UNLV, and Gonzaga, the non-conference schedule is filled with mid-majors and relative lightweights, and it is not unreasonable to demand that Stanford win those games, and win them handily. There is absolutely no excuse for allowing teams like Harvard, Southern Utah, and Sacramento State to hang around in the second half if you are a team with the quality and quantity of talent of Stanford. One of the surest signs that this Stanford team is for real is if they blow out their early season patsies early and play good competitive games all throughout their three toughest non-conference games against Kansas, UNLV, and Gonzaga.
Consistency from all positions:
This is the easy one. How many people watched Stanford play against Team Nike and figured this was the year that Mike Montgomery gets his championship ring? Admit it, there were a few of you out there. You might also have thought the same thing after Stanford beat Arizona down in Tucson last year. This doesn't mean that you are delusional or unintelligent fans, but rather meant that you have not noticed that Stanford's greatest problem on the basketball court is an overall lack of consistency. Josh Childress had the best all-around game of his young career in the first round of the NCAA tournament against San Diego when he posted 22 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 blocks in a Stanford victory. Fast-forward two days later to the second round defeat to UConn when Childress had a Chris Dudley-like 5 points, 2 boards, 1 assist and 3 blocks. This is the problem with Stanford Cardinal basketball; so good one night, so much like the Arizona Cardinals the next. To be clear, this is not just a problem with Josh Childress, as I can go up and down the entire roster and dig up similar examples for everyone of our beloved Card. Justin Davis is one of the most gifted athletes to play on a Stanford frontline but can't manage to stay on the floor for more than three minutes at a time. Rob Little either scores 14 points or four; there is never a consistent middle ground. Matt Lottich will either scorch the nets from the outside or bend the rim with bricks. Bench players like Dan Grunfeld, Nick Robinson, and Matt Haryasz either contribute solid numbers off the bench or leave coach Montgomery with no viable option to turn to. Thus, the only way to elevate Stanford to an elite level is to get solid contributions each and every night from all players and maintain a level of consistency. The most encouraging sign for Stanford fans in the early season should be if each player brings a consistent level of performance to the court no matter whether the opponent is Kansas or Northeastern Murray St A&M- Methodist.
Emergence of a leader:
Stanford returns all but one player from their regular rotation of 2002-2003, but boy is that a big player. Julius Barnes was the heart and soul of last year's Stanford team, and while Stanford returns all of the rest of its core players, the leadership void left behind by Barnes might be the one thing that this seemingly gifted team is missing. There are several natural candidates to fill the void. The best player on this team, Josh Childress, seems to be an interesting choice, but has yet to show the vocal on-court presence that is needed from a floor leader. Chris Hernandez is the leader of the offensive attack, and as he mans the point guard position he also seems like a viable candidate. However, the fact that he is young and relatively inexperienced makes him a dubious leader at this point in his career. I think the most likely leader might be Matt Lottich. Lottich has the necessary credentials of your on-court leader. He is one of the best players on the team, he is a gritty player who is not afraid to hit the deck and chase loose balls, he is fiery and will get into the face of a ref or teammate if something is not right. And he is a senior. Matt Lottich has all the potential to fill the tremendous void left by Barnes, to be the man who puts the team in his hands with the game on the line and keeps the intensity level up throughout the game. Whether he or someone else steps up to fill the void will be one of Coach Montgomery's biggest early season questions. Stanford fans, if you can spot a player taking over as the on-court leader during the early season games, or better yet if you see multiple players taking control of this team, this might very well be the season that everyone is hoping it can be.
Commitment to defense:
Let's be honest. For as good as the Stanford offense looked against Team Nike, the defense looked just as bad. Stanford has the fairly unique ability to play both straight man to man and zone defense incredibly well, and they must utilize this asset. The surest way for fans to track the performance of the defense in the early season is three-fold. First, how susceptible is Stanford to the drive and kick? The drive and kick (where a point guard shreds and collapses the entire defense and than kicks out to open shooters beyond the arc) is a staple of college basketball. The ability of Stanford to stop penetration will be an easy indicator of Stanford's defensive presence. Second, the Card's ability to get key stops will be a huge sign as to how motivated their defense is. Defenses can tolerate some lapses so long as the defense delivers when all of the chips are on the line. Last, rebounding and second chance points always tell the story. Rebounding and defense are all about hustle and desire. If the Card are getting badly outworked on the boards it is a good sign that they are also not playing with defensive intensity. We don't expect that to happen.
Absence of Injuries
This is a no-brainer. Even for a Stanford team that runs two deep at every position, early season injuries can have a profound effect on the season. Chris Hernandez is far from 100% with bulging disks in his back and a surgically repaired foot. His backup, Jason Haas, had solid moments a year ago but truthfully will not carry this team as far as Hernandez. The front court is deep, but Justin Davis also missed significant parts of the last season. If the foot of phenom Josh Childress should fail, then heaven help us at the small forward position. The Cardinal need to get through the early part of the season injury free.
Essentially, the sky is the limit for this version of the Stanford Cardinal. If Stanford can accomplish these above tasks in the early season they should find themselves poised for a run at the Pac-10 title and a long jaunt into the tournament. So, after Big Game ends and Stanford basketball officially gets underway Saturday night, keep your eyes open for these indicators. Who knows, if Stanford can create enough of these breaks they just might be playing in another San Antonio Final Four.
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