CJs Corner: Cardinal By Numbers

We know, we know. It's too early to tell too much about anything in this college basketball season, but with five games in the banks, Chris Jaenike sees some specific reasons why Stanford is well ahead of most of the conference, and maybe the country. Check out the latest notes and stats on this rising team, plus UNLV reflections and point guard pontifications...

Five games into the season, Stanford's team strengths (and weaknesses) are reflected in some striking team statistics.

The Cardinal's staples are, of course, defense and rebounding. Stanford is allowing opponents just over 23 rebounds per game and has a +15 average rebounding margin. That the Card is posting these numbers without the best rebounding small forward in the country (Josh Childress) strengthens the case for Stanford being the best rebounding team in the nation, perhaps by a wide margin.

Stanford's defensive statistics are equally remarkable. Stanford is holding its opponents to 27.7% shooting from beyond the arc, the lowest number in the Pac-10. Another statistic that will send fans scurrying for the record book is opponents' assists per game; the Cardinal is allowing a mere 8.0 assists per game. (By contrast, Arizona allows 16.0 assists per game and USC is allowing a conference worst 18.0 per game.) For all the talk about Stanford's lack of lateral quickness on the perimeter, the Card is closing out on shooters effectively (even when Stanford employs a zone) and forcing opponents to try to score one-on-one (hence the low assist totals). Of course, huge credit goes to the Stanford coaches, as well, who have scouted opponents thoroughly and devised such effective game plans that opponents are finding their strengths taken away. With Stanford's ability to play at least three different defenses (man-to-man, 1-1-3 zone and 2-3 zone), it is unlikely that opponents will be able to "solve" our defense, because they must, in fact, solve three defenses.

Something to watch for as the season progresses is the amount of switching Mike Montgomery employs among defenses within games. Thus far, we've seen quite a bit of switching back and forth between the man-to-man and 1-1-3 defenses. Teams that run a lot of set plays may find themselves having to reset their offenses and adjust their play calling when they find that Stanford has switched defenses on them. Teams that do more freelancing may fare better, but as I wrote last week, many younger teams (especially those with underclassmen at the point) will struggle as Stanford switches defenses on them. Some of the better Pac-10 teams, including Arizona, Oregon and Cal have freshmen point guards. Stanford should be able to cause these lead guards problems by switching defenses on them.

On the offensive end, several statistics jump out. Stanford is leading the conference in field goal percentage and is tied with Arizona for the lead in free throw percentage at 75.2%. The bad news is that Stanford is turning the ball over at a conference worst rate of 17.2 per game. I would posit that Stanford has a higher percentage of turnovers occur in the frontcourt than most teams. Justin Davis had a couple of rough outing early in which he rushed his post moves and turned it over, but as the senior settles down, I expect his turnover to assist ratio to move in the right direction. Davis is, after all, one of the best passing big men in the country.

Around the Pac-10

It was another rough week for the Pac-10, as the conference failed to do much to make up for earlier poor performances and improve the conference's image (not to mention RPI). Although Stanford and Arizona are playing like top 10 teams, the teams picked to finish in the middle of the conference continue to struggle. Oregon put up a decent fight against Kansas, but the Ducks play few difficult non-conference games, so their loss against Kansas, while not unexpected, was nevertheless a crucial lost opportunity. USC was humiliated by a good, but not great, BYU team. UCLA and Arizona State were fortunate to eke out wins against extremely weak opponents.

The University of Spoiled Children has to be one of the biggest disappointments of the season to date and presents an interesting case study on how not to coach. Henry Bibby has one of the quickest teams you'll see outside of Tucson, so one would think that his team would get after it on defense and at least defend the perimeter well. Despite the presence of such quick athletes as the Craven and Stewart twins and Desmon Farmer, the Trojenz rank dead last in the conference in opponents' three point shooting percentage (38.9%). Contrast that number with Stanford's 27.7%, and it's easy to see the difference great coaching, technique and hustle can make on the defensive end. On the offensive end, USC is shooting a mere 26% from beyond the arc. There's a lesson in there somewhere on the importance of recruiting players with diverse talents . . .

Looking Back

The game against UNLV was interesting from a strategic standpoint. Stanford chose to keep a tight lid on Chris Hernandez' injury even though it was apparent on Friday that he would not play. Coach Charlie Spoonhour's game plan included extending the Rebels' defense through a one-man press and a zone press to pressure the ball. Even after Stanford got the ball across the timeline, the Rebels defended starter Jason Haas and backup Nick Robinson out to 30 feet. The strategy allowed Stanford's big men to post up and receive entry passes with ease and room to operate. Justin Davis, who scored 21, might have had a career high had he been needed down the stretch. Matt Haryasz matched his career high with 10 points. Spoonhour's strategy may have been appropriate for a Stanford team led by Hernandez, but a different strategy is appropriate when Haas is the point guard. Instead of pressuring Haas well beyond the arc, the Rebels would have been better off doing the exact opposite -- cheating off Haas and playing help defense, or packing in a tight zone and daring the Cardinal to shoot it from deep. (Note: among the starters against UNLV, only Lottich has proven he can beat you from deep, and the defense always needs to get out on him.) If Hernandez misses additional games this season, opposing coaches might decide to utilize Haas' defender to play help defense or at least sag off of Haas. He was able to penetrate a couple of times against UNLV, but backing off him will help prevent such penetration. If the sophomore point guard can demonstrate an ability to hit the three, or even present a credible threat to make it, Stanford will be a far tougher team to defend down the road.

The Point Guard Position

There's been a lot of discussion about what to do about the so-called "third" point guard (i.e. who is third in line after Hernandez and Haas). The issue came to the forefront when Hernandez couldn't play against UNLV after tweaking his back in practice. The solution Montgomery employed was to have Nick "Pops" Robinson back up Haas and provide crucial rest for the sophomore. I thought Robinson did a solid job of bringing the ball up the floor against pressure and initiating the offense. He did make a couple of mistakes that led to turnovers, but overall, I thought his performance was about as solid as you could hope for from a third point guard.

On the other hand, a number of Bootleg posters have weighed in with concerns about Pops at the point and have suggested alternatives, including "un-redshirting" Tim Morris, playing Matt Lottich at the point, or even utilizing Mark Bradford. If it were up to me (and thank goodness it's not), I would not pursue any of these options.

First, let me state up front that I am a huge fan of the staff's decision to have Morris practice at the one. His physical skills are well suited to the position, as he has excellent quickness, good size (but is not too big to defend smaller point guards) and his handle is coming along. There are a couple of serious hurdles, however, to his playing the point this season. He did not play the position in high school, and he needs time to develop his nose for the position. Perhaps more importantly, as a freshman (and one who started practicing this year at a different position -- shooting guard), Morris faces a steep learning curve. Given his intelligence and high basketball IQ, he should be able to get up that curve faster than most kids, but the complexity of the Stanford offense coupled with his newness to the position make it unlikely that he'll be capable of running anything other than an extremely simplified version of our offense for a while.

The problem with Lottich playing the point isn't that he can't play limited minutes at the one but that he is so desperately needed at the two for his shooting. Against UNLV, it was apparent that the drop-off from Lottich to Dan Grunfeld at the off-guard is considerable, as Grunfeld not only struggled to find space on offense but was torched on the defensive end. Grunfeld does have real upside, but he's not yet ready to log big minutes at the 'two' and may be better suited to the 'three' in any case. Fred Washington has played quite well, and I like him in a lineup where he and Lottich are the wings; I am less enamored of the idea of Washington playing alongside Pops at the wing.

Lastly, I don't see Mark Bradford having any chance to run our half court offensive effectively this season. No matter how skilled, athletic and intelligent he may be, I can't see any freshman joining the team in December and getting up the learning curve quickly enough to run even a simplified version of the offense.

So for now, Pops looks like Stanford's best bet as its third point guard. Although Robinson is relatively new to the position, he has learned the offense from both the three and four spots over the course of the past two and a half years; he has a great head start as compared to the freshmen. Robinson is a capable ballhandler, and he uses his length to shield the ball effectively from smaller defenders whom you might otherwise expect to give him trouble. On the defensive end, Robinson's exceptional athleticism should allow him to stay with all but the quickest point guards, and his size will bother many. If the man-to-man matchups are not favorable in the backcourt, Montgomery can always go to the zone, with Lottich (or another shooting guard) up top alongside Robinson, who is certainly quick enough to play on top of the 1-1-3 and 2-3 zones.

Looking Ahead to Gonzaga

Yes, I am looking past Florida International.

Stanford matches up well with Gonzaga at every position if Hernandez is not limited by his back. Of course, in Childress' absence, the reverse is true as well. The key to the game could well be foul trouble. Justin Davis and Ronny Turiaf are extremely difficult to defend in the post, and if only one of the two gets into foul trouble, the other could do considerable damage. I'll take Stanford in a close one: 74-70.

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