Many fans had a sinking feeling in their stomachs about this game. This was a 5-1 UNLV team that was more disciplined and better coached than last year's version, not to mention the addition of suspended J.K. Edwards to a roster riding a four-game winning streak. This game came at a similar junction to the Montana/Richmond let down of last year. And Stanford was still waiting for the absence of Josh Childress to cost them a loss in one of those "Q & A" games.
Then you subtract the irreplacable Chris Hernandez, who has not only been the engine of this team but also led it in scoring. There was a huge sucking sound throughout Maples today as the home crowd collectively held their breath.
A collective exhale came midway through the first half when Jason Haas and the Cardinal pulled away from a tenacious UNLV squad with an 8-0 scoring run. Stanford led most of the final 35 minutes by double digits... without Chris Hernandez.
There is some irony in how Haas established himself as a steady point guard for Stanford in this game. It was last December against these same Runnin' Rebels that the then-freshman point guard was scorched by UNLV senior standout Marcus Banks. Haas saw his first true test of his college career in the Las Vegas game where Julius Barnes was saddled with foul trouble. Stanford might have lost the game if not for the second half recovery, when Haas steadied himself in a tight 77-66 road win.
"Last year I was thrown into the fire," the sophomore point guard remembers. "This year I was ready when I took the ball."
What Haas is saying is that he was not only a frightful freshman last year, but the role of Stanford point guard in such a crucial situation was an unexpected one last year in Vegas. He not only is a year wiser and more experienced, but he also had a full 24 hours notice this go-around.
"Chris actually told me Friday that he wouldn't be able to play and that I would be starting," Haas explains. "Chris and I are pretty close off the court, and he helped me with a lot of things to do before and during the game."
Another key difference with this game was the level of preparedness which Haas enjoys during practices. Last year he was the point guard for the "White Team," which is a collection of reserves who face off against the Stanford starters (Red Team) in daily battles. This year he is a member of the Red Team with about half the repetitions, while Hernandez takes breaks to limit the strains on his back. The two point guards thus share roughly equal preparation for games in practices.
That didn't stop from feeling the weight of expectation and anticipation during the 24 hours he had to stew before the Saturday start.
"I was actually really nervous - I'm not going to lie to you," Haas confides with an honest smile. "But once the ball tipped off, I was fine. No nerves. Last year when I got the ball, I freaked out!"
As Haas states, there were no apparent jitters during this game. Despite reaching, prodding and pushing from Jerel Blassingame all game, the first time starter turned the ball over two times in 33 minutes. He did not turn the ball over at all in the second half.
"We didn't exactly broadcast the problems for Chris, so [UNLV] didn't have time to plan for it," Mike Montgomery notes. "They kicked up the pressure. But Haas can dribble. He's not a guy who will turn it over."
With five assists, we saw a point guard who did a good job distributing the ball while protecting it. But to fill the shoes of Hernandez, who is averaging a team-best 14.0 points per game, Haas needs to provide a verifiable scoring threat from the point guard position. Indeed it was his offensive assertiveness and confidence that was Haas' biggest off-season improvement, but that only shows in spurts right now.
The sophomore shot just 1-for-5 in his career-high 33 minutes, and that one make came on a transition lay-up. There is no evidence yet this year that Haas can serve as any kind of threat with his outside jump shot, which means that defenders can sag off him, ready to double-team other Stanford players when the ball moves. UNLV did not catch onto that tonight, despite Haas' 0-for-2 shooting beyond the arc. Blassingame played him tight the whole way, and Haas did take him off the dribble for four free throws.
But it will take only a game or two of this to show future opponent how they should defend Haas. I've seen him shoot the ball in practices and scrimmages, and he has a nice stroke. He should be a shooter who at least threatens to do damage outside. But theory and reality have yet to connect for his offensive game.
"Jason is a very good shooter when he shoots in a rhythm," Hernandez opines. "But today I saw him catch and think about it for a second."
That hesitation is all about confidence, and with this start under his belt (plus many more minutes on the horizon) confidence should be a fading concern in the near future.
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