Season Opener Lacks Sizzle

After ripping off a cool 119 points in the exhibition opener a week ago, Stanford fans looked to the regular season opener Saturday night against Sacramento State for another woodshed whipping. But the visiting Hornets played a pressuring defense that took the Cardinal out of their game, closing the game at several junctures. Stanford finished solid with a 77-59 win, but 20 turnovers versus 21 assists is a concern.

It is often true that the final score of a college basketball game is not at all indicative of what occurred in the actual game. It is also regrettably typical of a more talented college basketball team to play down to the level of their opponent for much of a game and still produce what looks to be an easy and solid victory. Tonight's Stanford (1-0) 77-59 victory over the Hornets of Sacramento State (0-1) perfectly met both of the above standards. After looking very sluggish in the early moments Stanford raced to a 39-19 lead late in the first half and it looked like the rout was on at Maples. Led by an opportunistic offense, featuring Justin Davis' 17 points and 10 rebounds, Stanford took advantage of a cheating Hornets defense. The Cardinal moved the ball crisply, passed well in the interior, and dominated action on the glass in the first half.

However, despite the building evidence of a runaway victory, Stanford began to feel the effects of costly turnovers, missed shots, and the absence of Josh Childress who sat out the game with an injured left foot. After closing the half on an 8-2 run, the Hornets continued to force turnovers and make shots in the second half, and after a 3-pointer from Joel Jones, they pulled to within 49-43 with just under 11 minutes left. Rather than panicking, the Card spurted to an 8-0 run, regained control, and never led by less than 12 points over the final nine minutes of what turned out to be an easy victory. Stanford also got solid contributions from Matt Lottich (13 points, eight rebounds), Rob Little (12 points, seven rebounds), Matt Haryasz (10 points, seven rebounds) and Nick Robinson (nine points, six rebounds) who started in place of the injured Childress. The Hornets were paced by UMass transfer Jameel Pugh's 18 points.

"I thought that was a very good opening game for us," noted head coach Mike Montgomery afterward. "Sacramento State is very quick. They did what they were trying to do - disrupt the game."

"I thought we were OK," the coach continued. "We turned the ball over too much, and too many of the turnovers were unforced. Part of that was my fault - I did not prepare us for the half-court trap or the 2-1-2 zone. But others were just unforced. We need to read each other well."

Observations

The Cardinal have some work to do before the season gets into its meaty portion. Stanford looked very flat at times tonight, and this has to be troubling for Montgomery in light of his team's lackluster performances against poor teams last season. The victory over Sacramento State was a direct result of superior talent and athleticism and had little to do with overall play. There were significant portions of the game where the Hornets simply outplayed Stanford and dictated the pace of the game. This is not to say that the Hornets played a great game, but rather prevented Stanford from playing their best game. If the Hornets had shot better than 37% from the field this might have been a very different game. Simply put, things would have to go perfectly for the under-sized Hornets to pull off an upset of this magnitude because they don't have the size and talent level.

Nowhere was this advantage more apparent than on the glass. Stanford dominated both the offensive and defensive boards throughout the game, finishing with a 46-22 advantage in rebounds, including 13 on the offensive glass. This advantage highlighted the ease with which Stanford was able to dominate inside and helped offset the disorganization that led to 20 Stanford turnovers. Overall, the Card played poorly and turned the ball over far too much, but Sacramento State lacked the interior presence and shooting touch to turn a somewhat close game into a nail-bighter.

Stanford must improve their defense if they want to entertain any of the lofty predictions that many media types have given them. It is true that the Hornets shot only 37% from the field, but this number dropped drastically as the game went on, and does not accurately show the number of easy shots that they missed. When Stanford played man defense, defenders were consistenly beaten off the dribble and taken to the rack for a lay-up or kick out. This kind of poor defense can be overcome against a team like Sac State, but these lazy defensive efforts can cause real trouble as the season goes on. Many people have praised Chris Hernandez for his defensive intensity, and it is true on most nights, but he was the worst culprit tonight. That is not to say that he was alone though, as many Cardinal defenders were ineffective in stopping penetration. Stanford looked much more effective in zone defense packages, but the Card surrendered offensive rebounds in these situations. Frankly, Stanford will be at its best if it can play straight up man defense, but to do this, some work needs to be put in on the practice floor, and some additional intensity needs to be found in game situations.

Offensively, the Cardinal struggled at times dealing with the Hornet pressure. Sac State mixed up pressure packages by trapping, providing full court man to man pressure, and in some situations, playing a full-court zone defense. Both Stanford point guards had trouble dealing with these situations. Chris Hernandez turned the ball over four times, including back to back steals at mid-court that led to two easy Hornet baskets early in the second half.

"Chris was a little nervous at times," Montgomery noted.

Jason Haas turned the ball over three times in 15 minutes, and often looked very tentative (shades of Tony Giovacchini) when facing full-court pressure. It seemed that the entire Cardinal offense was rattled by the pressure and at times moved too quickly and carelessly. Rather than slowing down and collecting themselves after breaking the half-court trapping pressure, Stanford often tried to force the action and paid with costly turnovers.

If tonight is any indications, Stanford's interior players are going to have a special season. Rob Little is absolutely chiseled and is far more efficient than he has been in the past. His 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting were excellent, but he moves so much better on defense and makes good interior passes. Matt Haryasz looks as if he has really come into his own so far in the early season. Not only was Haryasz a stunningly efficient 5-for-5 from the floor, he also collected seven rebounds and was a real presence on the court. Long a popular whipping boy of the 6th Man, Haryasz has received rousing ovations in both games this season as he left the court. He is still rail thin, but he is definitely going to be an important piece of the puzzle for Stanford this season.

"Matt has a pretty good chance to be a pretty good player," praised Montgomery. "For a lack of a better of a better term, he's a poor man's Curtis Borchardt. Matt just isn't as big, but he's active."

All of this is in addition to Justin Davis. Davis was authoritative against Sacramento State. Davis controlled the glass, blocked two shots, altered several others, and hit the deck on a few occasions chasing down loose balls. Justin Davis has all of the tools to become one of the great Stanford post players, but he has teased fans like this before. As always, the biggest question with Davis will be his consistency each and every night.

Random Thoughts

Kudos to Carlton Weatherby. He doesn't get much playing time, but late in the game he found himself in the open floor with an easy lay-up ahead of him and took the unselfish play and dished off to teammate Fred Washington. Weatherby is the consummate team player… Fred Washington is an incredible athlete, but he looks somewhat lost on offense and needs to improve his shooting stroke - understandable for a freshman. Still, he could be a very good one… Dan Grunfeld will not shoot like this again for a long time (1-for-7 from the field including an absolutely atrocious airball). Every shooter has a bad day, but he is the ultimate competitor and will not be in a funk for long… Free throw shooting will be an issue all year. Davis shot well (7-10), but Little was a paltry (2-5). Both players get a lot of attempts and will have to convert at a high rate.

Plays of the game

- Justin Davis' follow slam off of a Rob Little missed jumper to open the scoring for the Card and tie the game at 2-2.

- A three-play sequence late in the first half where Davis blocked a shot on one Hornet possession, Little drew a charge on the next, and Davis drew a charge on the third, providing the best sequence of defense all night.

- Rob Little's pass out of a double team at the high post to a streaking Nick Robinson along the baseline for a power flush.

- Chris Hernandez lobbing the ball ahead of the pack for a Justin Davis breakaway dunk late in the game to put the Card up 15.


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