One of the most impressive aspects of Stanford's win against Gonzaga was that the Card won despite a solid game plan by Zags head coach Mark Few. The Bulldogs played a good deal of 2-3 zone defense as well as man to man. (It also employed a token press from time to time.) Frankly, I've thought for some time that a zone defense would be more effective than man to man against this year's Cardinal squad. Another aspect of Mark Few's game plan involved throwing different looks at our point guards, depending on whether Chris Hernandez or Jason Haas was leading the Stanford attack. The Cardinal handled both the zone and the different defenses thrown at Hernandez and Haas thanks to a smart game plan by Mike Montgomery and outstanding execution by his squad.
Stanford attacked the zone not only by working the ball around the perimeter, but also by getting the ball into the high post where Justin Davis (primarily), Matt Haryasz and Rob Little were patient and made smart decisions. Getting the ball into the high post is a conventional strategy against a 2-3 zone, but it's not an easy one to execute. An initial entry pass has to be made and the player receiving the ball in the high post has to make smart reads when the defense collapses on him and find the open spot-up shooter(s) or cutters. Once again, Davis showed his extraordinary passing ability by consistently hitting the open man or, as he did a few times, by driving to the hoop. Rob Little and Joe Kirchofer each drove the lane once and finished as well, taking advantage of the space around the goal created when the defender in the heart of the 2-3 zone was forced to come away from the basket to defend the high post.
Although Stanford struggled at times with Jason Haas running the point, the Card managed to score enough to hold onto a solid lead with Hernandez on the bench. At times, the Zags cheated off Haas to provide help on the wing and in the post, and the Cardinal offense stalled on several occasions. Of course, Stanford was protecting a significant lead at that point, so its approach was especially conservative, and Stanford reset its offense numerous times. While Haas' reluctance to shoot when his defender sags off him remains a minor concern, he did display an encouraging willingness to drive the ball inside when a seam presented itself. On one occasion, Haas threw a little wrap-around pass to Little, who finished on a tough reverse layup. As the season progresses, Haas' ability to force opponents to defend him will remain a key to Stanford's offense. I would love to see him shoot the open three in some of our easier games in order to boost his confidence and willingness to pull the trigger in big games. All other aspects of Haas' game are coming along to the point where he can play significant minutes in critical games.
On the defensive end, credit Montgomery and the staff with yet another outstanding game plan. Three things in particular helped shut Gonzaga down until the late barrage of prayers from downtown raised the Zags' point total and shooting percentage.
1. Switching between the man to man and zone defenses helped prevent Gonzaga from finding a rhythm.
2. Stanford threw different defenders at Blake Stepp. Hernandez guarded Stepp most of the first half. In the second half, Lottich spent quite a bit of time defending him, and even did so at times with Hernandez in the game. All of our defenders did an excellent job on Stepp.
3. Stanford doubled Ronny Turiaf effectively and kept him from making much of an impact on the offensive end. Interestingly, the help often came from a second post defender, with Little and Davis sometimes doubling Turiaf. (Foul trouble was a factor, but it should be noted that Turiaf has posted similar minute and foul totals in a number of games, even if his foul trouble against Stanford came much earlier than it usually does.)
The win against Gonzaga was especially sweet given that Stanford helped create the Gonzaga phenomenon back in 1999. I was there in Seattle to witness first hand the "arrival" of the Zags program, as Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, Casey Calvary et al ambushed the Card at Key Arena. Four-plus years later, the Bulldogs are a fashionable pick to make a Final Four run. Numerous publications that gave the Zags no respect in the late 90's are now bending over backward to make it up to the maligned mid-major program and show them as much love as possible. Several publications picked the Zags among the top 5-10 teams in the country. Here's a newsflash for all the pundits who are jumping on the Gonzaga bandwagon: the Bulldogs are good, probably a legitimate top 15-20 team, but this year's squad is not THAT much better than past editions. Those who claim Gonzaga is one of the 5-10 best teams in the country are, in my opinion, overcompensating for having underrated the Zags in previous seasons. The Gonzaga team that featured a three guard lineup with Quentin Hall, Santangelo and Frahm was much stronger at the wings than the current team, at least as long as Erroll Knight and Adam Morrison play limited minutes and Tony "Principal" Skinner and Scott Bankhead start ahead of them. And I'd take the Santangelo-Frahm backcourt over Stepp-Bankhead in a heartbeat. Yes, this year's Gonzaga team is a still a bit better than those of past years, but the difference is not as great as many talking heads would have us believe.
Kibbles and Bits
1. Rob Little has always had the ability to hit the jump hook, but he has not used it consistently in games. Little showed in the Gonzaga game that it can be a tremendous weapon, as it is not only accurate out to about 12 feet, but it is nearly impossible to block. Matt Doherty constantly reminded viewers that he had scouted Little and that when the junior center gets the ball in the post, he should be forced to turn to his right. (Doherty sounded like he was auditioning for a coaching position.) Doherty may be right about overplaying Little, but a hook shot is awfully hard to take away, even if the offensive player is overplayed to one side. With his wide body, Little is able to shield the ball from the defender; I don't think his hook shot will be taken away easily. Interestingly, Little has had some of his most productive games and has used his hook shot most effectively against tough competition. His games against Florida last season and Gonzaga this season are two obvious examples where he has risen to the occasion. These performances suggest that Little will not be easy to stop when we face tough competition in March/April.
2. Dan Grunfeld broke out against Southern Utah with a career high. Grunfeld has shown he can be effective against zones, but in order to be a consistent contributor will need to find ways to score against aggressive man to man defenses. If the savvy sophomore can do that, it will take some of the pressure of Matt Lottich, who has been forced to log big minutes in our most difficult games.
3. I heard several comments after the game against Florida International regarding Fred Washington's failure to finish when he drove into the paint. While it's true that the frosh didn't finish, I'm not concerned about it. Finishing at the college level is largely a learned skill that few freshmen have, particularly early in their first season. Over time, Washington will learn how and when to try to take it all the way to the hoop, when to pull up for short jumpers or floaters and when to dish it. Rather than being concerned, I'm encouraged that Washington showed the ability to take quick defenders off the dribble and get into the paint in the first place. The ability to blow by people, unlike knowing how and when to finish, is not so much a learned skill as it is a matter of physical ability (in particular, having a quick first step). He has that (as does Tim Morris, by the way). As Washington learns what to do at this level after beating his defender off the dribble, I expect his ability to penetrate from the wing to become a weapon that makes the Cardinal more dynamic and difficult to defend, especially when good defensive teams defend our set plays well.
4. On the recruiting front, many high school juniors have final exams coming up in the middle of January. Several of Stanford's top targets either have taken the SAT or are scheduled to take it in January and have such strong academics that they may be candidates for applying in the late Winter or early Spring. With Stanford out of the gate quickly and garnering loads of media attention, this seems like a golden opportunity to get early commitments and avoid the last minute scrambles that have occurred leading up to the past several Fall signing periods. Bobby Frasor has received a great deal of publicity lately, thanks to his stellar play at a position of need (point guard) and his equally impressive academic credentials. As reported on The Bootleg and elsewhere, forward Lawrence Hill, one of the most highly regarded prospects in the West at any position, has a top two of Stanford and Arizona and has a GPA in the 4.0 range. Fendi Onobun, a combo forward who is a potential top 50 national player, has announced a top three of Stanford, UCLA and Arizona. He reports a 3.6 GPA and has signed up for the January SAT.
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