Sorry To Be A Buzzkill

When the new AP poll came out this week, I just about choked. This Stanford squad garnered two first place votes, which dumbfounded me. How can <i>this</i> team, with all its current shortcomings, be considered the best in the country? I think the answer is that despite adversity, Stanford has defended hard and played well enough in each of their games. Maybe college basketball is this weak, but I think Stanford has real concerns unfitting current perception...

This will be an unpopular stance, but there are a lot of things that trouble me about this team right now, and I feel compelled to share them with you because there is an unrestrained spread of euphoria about this Stanford Basketball team right now.  To be sure, 6-0 is a nice start.  The win over Kansas was nice, and it does go into the books as a rare toppling of a #1 ranked opponent.  But this team is capable of doing so many things right now that they are not, and I prefer to evaluate a team more on their play than the outcome of a game.  There is an "x-factor" that allows some teams to win close games, while others lack it and consistently fall short in the tight tests - I am pleased that Stanford looks loaded with that x-factor once again this year.  But I fear they are susceptible to some disappointment in the future if they cannot play better.  Somewhere out there this year, the Card will run up against better coaches who can exploit Stanford weaknesses... and it still seems noteworthy to me that the best coach Stanford has faced thus far this year (Willis Wilson) gave Monty's men their most surprisingly tough game to date.

In the post, I am satisfied with no one, save perhaps Joe Kirchofer.  As predicted, he is doing more than just delivering the consistent inside play that we saw last year, and he is equipped to do more because he is in better physical shape.  Injury, illness, and an independent study in Mexico set him back the summer of 2002, but this summer Kirchofer put himself in a far better position to succeed.  The two frontcourt starters have each enjoyed one apparently good game in the last week, but I disagree.  Justin Davis had one strong performance against UNLV, but his start to the year was so bad that we have to applaud a stat line that features zero turnovers and one foul.  Remember that both the player and his coach stated publicly (well, at least to The Bootleg on the record) that he should average a double-double this year, but Davis is in single digits in both scoring and rebounding to date.  One good game is fine, but the improvement we needed this year from Davis was consistency.  Flashes have come each of the last two years, but for him to put it all together and have the big year this year, Davis has to deliver game after game.

Rob Little is unquestionably quicker, more agile and lighter on his feet with his revamped physique.  But his field goal percentage is probably 10% below where it could be, given some of the undersized lineups he has faced and the proximity to the basket for most of his shots.  What bothers me more is that he was lauded for his 17-point performance Monday despite just two rebounds in 26 minutes of play.

"I don't know if we really did any one thing really well," Little admitted after the game.  "Their big guys were spread out, but that doesn't mean you can't board.  I've got to be more consistent.  I have to rebound better - a big man's diet needs to be rebounding and defense.  The points are going to be there."

Matt Haryasz has drawn widespread praise from Stanford fans for his improved on-court assertiveness, as well as his blocked shots that account for more than half the team's total.  But the bad news is that even at his current 220-pound frame, he is still being moved around too easily on the court.  I have seen him cleared out with too much ease in rebounding situations, and when I sat on press row right near the Stanford bench at the Kansas game, I could hear Mike Montgomery's very vocal displeasure with that fact.  It should also be noted that Haryasz leads the team in fouls per minute, picking up a whistle more than once each six minutes on the floor.  For a player still getting acclimated to the college level, it would be nice if he could enjoy greater stretches of foul-free play.  And with the foul tendencies of both Davis and Little, it is not hard to see a strapped frontcourt in games this year where three bigs have three fouls early in the second half.

Nick Robinson has been the hottest topic for Stanford fans, and deservedly so with his utility play at the power forward and point guard positions, as well as his starting role at the small forward spot.  His greatest rave reviews came from Monday's Florida International game, when he played some exciting spurts at the point.  The one play that has been cemented in fans' minds (those rare few in attendance, at least) was a full-court drive he took as he brought the ball across halfcourt and took it straight past the defense to the rack.  That was a play that makes you shake your head in a double take.  "Whoah - what was that?!"

But the exuberance displayed on the message boards after that game was even more surprising.  Nick Robinson is the most praise-worthy player on this team in this young season, largely due to his effort and intensity that has pulled in more loose balls and backside rebounds than I can count.  But he is not "the answer" at point guard.  At least, that has not at all been demonstrated.  Fans get giddy over the prospect of a long athlete who can see and shoot over smaller point guard defenders, and who has the athleticism to drive with long and quick strides to the basket.  While it is true that at 6'7" Robinson experiences a unique vantage of the floor, it is clear that he does not have the point guard's vision to exploit that range of sight.  There is justifiable hesitation in setting up the offense, and you cannot expect to smooth that over in a matter of weeks or even months for a career wing/forward.  Moreover, Robinson's advantage to shoot over a smaller defender is completely moot when he has launched just six treys in six games this year - in 171 minutes of play.  I am very fearful of how thin this team's three-point shooting is right now, and the prospect of putting Robinson in the place of Chris Hernandez is excruciating.  Coming into this year, I already was concerned that coaches will scout the no-longer surprising Robinson by sagging off on defense - last year 90% of his memorable scores came driving to the basket.  He has shown a few hints of the midrange jumper this year, but those are hard to come by as a point guard.

Let us also not forget that this team needs to smooth out the overall ballhandling and decision making with this offense.  Though a very veteran team, Stanford has more turnovers (99) than assists (91) this season.  Averaging more than 16 turnovers per game is just plain sloppy, and uneven handling and passes from the point guard spot beget other gaffes from the other four players.  Chris Hernandez is no perfect saint, as he has shown an uneven handle in spots in his few games this year, but I believe he is still ironing the kinks after not having played through games for nearly two years.

Finally, I am disheartened by the weak intensity and effort that the team as a whole put forth Monday.  As we searched for answers to why Stanford dropped the Montana and Richmond games last year, we saw the possibility of a repeat in this FIU game.  Maybe a "down" team this year is simply superior to last year's "down" effort, but that will not hold up during Pac-10 play.  Though the conference is incredibly meek in this preseason, I suspect that will setup the Card for more unexpected letdowns.  Imagine Marcus Moore lighting up for 35 in Pullman, or a poorly coached but swarming set of athletic USC guards smothering Stanford's ballhandlers.  I can see good athletes all over this conference who could wake up one day and play big against a sleepwalking Stanford team.

And while it seems like heresy to state that the saintly Stanford squad could ever be so immature as to sleepwalk through games, it's a reality of the college game - even with Mike Montgomery and his "we're-not-that-good" mentality at the helm.

"These kids are just like anybody else," the head coach stated matter-of-factly after Monday's game.  "They're just kids.  We need to develop the mindset that we want to play at our level every night."

"We need to match that intensity," Matt Lottich added.  "It's hard to get up for a game like this in the way you do for a Kansas or Gonzaga."

Oh, and there is a big game today against Gonzaga that might merit some of our attention...

#10 PG Blake Stepp - 6'4" 194 - Sr - 13.3 ppg, 8.0 apg, 5.3 rpg - While Stanford fans are focusing on the depth and talent of the Zags frontcourt, this guy is the engine of the team.  He plays an average of almost 38 minutes per game, while no other player on the roster averages even 27 minutes.  He accounts for a full third of the team's three-point attempts, and he gets them off with careful use of screens from his teammates.  An underrated defensive talent is running through and around screens, and this well-coached Gonzaga squad will put Stanford's perimeter defenders to the test.  Also watch for Stepp to push the ball on the break and then pull up for jumpers.

#20 SG Kyle Bankhead - 6'0" 195 - Sr - 6.9 ppg, 1.5 apg - Bankhead is what I like to call a "chucker" - he lives and breathes perimeter jumpers, as evidenced by two-thirds of his attempts from outside the arc.  He also likes spot-up shots from that range, but he is not known for creating his shots.  This kid is a good reason to play man defense, and so long as you don't sag off too far you should be able to limit him with a hand in his face.

#4 SF Tony Skinner - 6'5" 198 - Sr - 7.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg - Skinner is a players Cardinalmaniacs can relate to.  Like several shooters Stanford has had in recent years, he is a streaky performer who can be red hot or ice cold on any given afternoon.  But he can do more than just spot up outside like Bankhead, and actually finds several ways to score closer to the basket.  Though just 6'5", he leads the team in offensive rebounding.  Skinner is a lefty, which is always an interesting dimension for defenders.

#1 PF Ronny Turiaf - 6'10" 243 - Jr - 16.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg - Ah, the great Turiaf, who Zag fans hail as the reason they could not take the Cardinal last year.  Never mind the fact that Stanford was without their engine, Chris Hernandez...  Turiaf is a physical player who relishes drawing contact, and he will look for ways to score that are probable to draw fouls.  Unsurprisingly, he leads the team in free throw attempts by a large margin, with nearly 10 per game.  What makes him so tough, though, is that he has shooting touch out to 16-18 feet.  That creates huge problems for most forwards who want to defend him.

#33 C Cory Violette - 6'8" 265 - Sr - 10.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg - Though a little undersized for the position, Violette is a Mark Madsen type low post player with his toughness, rebounding and solid all-around play.  One extra dimension is that this Zag center will shoot soft jumpers from the high post, which again makes him difficult to defend.  Violette, however, does not have the quickness or athleticism of a Turiaf and should draw less fouls.

Reserves to Watch:  combo forward Adam Morrison (6'8") is a very well rounded payer who drives and shoots, averaging 11.4 points per game and playing nearly as many minutes as some starters...  power forward Sean Mallon (6'8") will appeal to Stanford fans as a skilled big man who can be crafty inside and hit the perimeter jumper...  center Richard Fox (6'11") can do some solid things in the paint, but he is a liability getting up and down the floor, which Stanford needs to exploit... wing Erroll Knight (6'6") is yet another Washington Husky malcontent who fled to Gonzaga, and he looks like a similar player to what we saw in Seattle - high energy, high intensity player who has athletic abilities but inconsistent in the intelligent application of them...  point guard Derek Ravio (6'1") was recruited by Stanford initially but committed to Gonzaga as soon as his test score handcuffed Mike Montgomery - he has great vision and on-court instincts, but he is so physically small right now (155 pounds) that he is greatly limited on both ends in a halfcourt game.

The Measure of the Matchups:  I think this is a better team than the Kansas squad that faced Stanford, and though I think Mark Few gets a little too much love, this team will be much better prepared and better coached in the game than what Bill Self mustered.  Gonzaga has more shooters than Stanford, and they thrive at setting and using screens to get good looks.  The Zags are an incredibly veteran team, starting four seniors and a junior, which means they are less likely to waver in their execution.  The big men are physical guys who thrive at drawing fouls in the low post and driving to the basket.  That is a scary thought with how rapidly Stanford's big men are collecting fouls of late.  On the perimeter, the Zags have an usual backcourt pair where the point guard clears the shooting guard by four inches.  Stepp uses his size to help get off his shots against typically smaller defenders.  It is tempting to put Chris Hernandez (6'2") on Kyle Bankhead (6'0") and Matt Lottich (6'4") on Blake Stepp, but Hernandez is the better on-ball defender.  What you could see is the use of 6'7" Nick Robinson to smother Stepp, but remember that the Gonzaga point loves to run around screens to set up his shots, and that is not a position where you probably want to put Robinson.  If Stanford's wings can switch effectively, though, you be happy with Hernandez on Bankhead and then Matt Lottich on Tony Skinner.  What I know less about is what Gonzaga will do to defend the Cardinal.  If Chris Hernandez is playing limited minutes, as he looks to get back in a groove after a two-week absence from games, then Stanford looks like a pathetic three-point shooting team.  Matt Lottich can put it in the hole, but beyond him the team is really weak outside.  No Josh Childress, a limited Nick Robinson, a hesitant Jason Haas, and an early sophomore slump for Dan Grunfeld.  I would pack it in and play a zone against Stanford and just make sure you run at Lottich as a first priority.  Of course, if Hernandez is in the game and still has his hot stroke, the range of this offense is greatly extended, and that will keep the Zags from cheating down on Stanford's post players.

Three players you have yet to see on the court this year are making strides in practice.  Tim Morris is still sticking with his redshirt plans, which look rock solid unless some major injury transpires this month.  He has been going through the great growing pains of learning the Stanford point guard position, which have been accentuated by his high school background playing in the frontcourt.

"Playing the two guard positions are totally different," Morris professes.  "When nothing is there for the offense, your instincts all tell you to put up a shot, but when you are the point guard you have to back things out and reset.  That's not an easy thing to get used to."

The good news is that the last couple months of practices have built a solid enough base for Morris as a point guard, including a grasp he says of all the plays in Montgomery's offense, that he can function there in practices this year.  And even though his best chance to get on the court next year will be at the shooting guard position in the post-Lottich era, he has enough comfort that he can be a legitimate reserve point for situations and emergencies.

But now with the footballers getting more into the swing of things in these basketball workouts, Mark Bradford is taking more of the point guard duties for the White (second) team in practices.  That has Morris working more at the off-guard, but he feels confident that he learned enough about the point that he can more comfortably switch between the two positions going forward.

Bradford and Evan Moore, however, are a good deal farther behind on the learning curve.  They missed roughly 35 practices during football season, which is the equivalent to skipping all of spring football and most of fall camp on the gridiron.  Expectations were unfairly high that these two-sport athletes could hit the hardwood running like Teyo Johnson did three years ago, but remember that Johnson redshirted in football and joined the basketball team as soon as they started their practices in mid-October.

"They're both bright kids," says Mike Montgomery.  "We need to get them to the point where they play rather than think."

"I'm struggling with learning the plays," Bradford admits.  "I need more time with the playbook and more time in practices.  I'm OK on defense - that's a lot easier and comes naturally.  My jump shot also needs a lot of work.  I was just focused on football all summer and fall, and it has been a long time since I had even picked up a basketball."

For superstars on the hardwood like Moore and Bradford, it might be a humbling transition to find themselves deep down the bench with almost no prospects for meaningful playing time this winter.

"Whatever happens, happens," Bradford shrugs.  "I'm just enjoying playing some basketball again and being with this team.  They're great guys and they welcomed us in.  We spend a lot of time together - there's a lot of camaraderie."

Evan Moore has had the additional complication of recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries he suffered early in November, though he was cleared a couple weeks ago and has made slow progress back to basketball shape.  The swelling of the ankle is less of a problem after practices, and his range of motion in his left shoulder is pretty good.  But like Bradford, the instruction missed during October and November is a huge hurdle to overcome.

"The coaches had a walk-through practice with me and Mark the other day for like 20 minutes," Moore reveals.  "We went through six or seven plays, and that cleared a lot of things up.  I learned more in that practice than probably all the practices I watched."

One big step forward for this pair of two-sport athletes should come today, as I expect they will dress out in their Stanford uniforms for the first time at the Newell Challenge.

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