CJ's Corner: Tournament Ready?

As you raise your champagne glass in a couple days, your 2004 thoughts undoubtedly will drift to the year ahead in Cardinal sports. At the forefront of your lofty hopes and expectations is this exciting Stanford Basketball squad, but their ultimate success will be judged by their postseason performances. To that end, CJ takes a look this week at the unique challenges of the NCAAs.

With roughly one-third of the season in the books, Stanford has a gaudy 9-0 record and is ranked #5 and #7 in the AP and coaches' polls, respectively.  Stanford's RPI rank is about 11, depending on whose RPI approximation you use, and the Cardinal is currently #4 in the Sagarin composite rankings.

Stanford has been in this sort of position before, however.  And after nine straight trips to the NCAA tournament (with first round wins in each), three conference titles in the past five seasons, numerous weeks atop the polls and computer rankings, a Final Four appearance in 1998 and an Elite Eight appearance in 2001, Stanford fans are increasingly focused on postseason success rather than regular season accomplishments.  When it comes to just about every possible regular season accomplishment shy of an undefeated Pac-10 record, the Cardinal has been there and done that.  Arizona coach Lute Olson is fond of saying that he's not concerned about November and December, he's concerned about March.  Cardinal fans have long shared this view, and the Stanford coaching staff seems to have adopted a similar attitude.

On the cusp of conference play, it is tempting to consider what it will take for the Stanford to win the Pac-10 title.  However, I, like many others, am more interested in what it will take for the Mighty Card to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament and possibly win the national championship.

Many are of the opinion that the formula for success in the NCAA tournament is somewhat different from the formula for success in the regular season.  My take is that for the most part, the things that make Stanford successful in the regular season will be the same things that maximize its chances of success in the postseason.  Among the most important of these are defense, rebounding, shot selection, minimizing turnovers and hustle/heart.  On the other hand, I do believe there are some noteworthy differences between regular season and postseason play.  These differences go beyond the difficulty of competition; Stanford often plays as many as half a dozen regular season games against opponents that are as good as those it would face in the mid to late rounds of the NCAA tournament.  For example, even in a down year for the Pac-10, Stanford has tough games against Kansas, Gonzaga and Arizona (twice) this season.

In my opinion, here are the key differences between regular season and postseason play:

1. Almost everybody plays harder in the tournament.  It almost goes without saying, but in the one-and-out format of the NCAA tournament, teams play with greater intensity.  Stanford is known for playing at a high level throughout the regular season, and even Mike Montgomery has openly discussed the fact that the Cardinal typically doesn’t have “another gear” as some other teams seem to have in March.  Of course, the reason some teams seem to be able to kick it into another gear in the postseason is that they do not play up to their potential or put forth maximum effort on a consistent basis throughout the regular season.  Stanford has been victimized by several such teams in recent years.

In 2000, Stanford was a #1 seed and matched up against a North Carolina team that was fortunate to make the field of 64.  The details surrounding the Tar Heels' selection as an at large team and their receiving a #8 seed are not worth rehashing, but suffice it to say that the Heels were about as close to missing the field of 64 as a #8 seed could be.  Despite having a talented roster and tremendous size up front with Brendan Haywood, Kris Lang and footballer Julius Peppers, UNC lost 12 regular season games.  But the Heels stepped up and put forth a tremendous effort against Stanford in the second round and were able to upset the Card.  North Carolina had few if any performances during the regular season that were characterized by such effort and intensity, particularly on the defensive end, but the Heels stepped it up for the Tournament.

In 2001, Stanford was eliminated by Maryland, another underachieving ACC team, in the Elite Eight. Maryland had lost 10 regular season games, a remarkable total for a team with a loaded roster featuring Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton, Terrence Morris and Lonnie Baxter, among others. But the Terps elevated their level of play against Stanford and held the most efficient offensive attack in the nation in check with an inspired defensive performance uncharacteristic of Gary Williams' 2000-01 club.

Last season, Stanford was eliminated by the sixth seeded Connecticut Huskies. With all the talent Jim Calhoun had, it is easy to forget the Huskies were mediocre throughout much of the regular season and were widely considered a bubble team as deep into the season as late January/early February. The Huskies got their act together the last month of the regular season, so their performance against Stanford did not represent the same kind of dramatic improvement in effort as did North Carolina's performance three tournaments prior.  Nevertheless, UConn asserted itself on the boards better than it did in the vast majority of its regular season contests and its effort matched or exceeded that of Stanford.

That teams step up their intensity levels in the postseason and hustle on defense in ways that many do not in the regular season may be self-evident, but the examples above illustrate that even highly seeded teams (as Stanford is likely to be this March), are vulnerable to talented teams that underachieved during the regular season but step up in the postseason.

2. The unfamiliar opponent.  During the regular season, most teams play about two-thirds of their games against familiar foes from their own conferences.  Even out of conference games frequently feature opponents that are familiar to each other, as many out of conference games are schedules pursuant to long term agreements.  Regardless, schedules are made many months in advance and teams have ample opportunity to scout and prepare for every opponent on the regular season schedule.  However, the NCAA Tournament draw is designed specifically to avoid pitting conferences foes against each other until later rounds.  The result is often unfamiliar opponents that need to be scouted in an extremely short period of time; teams only have about 48 hours to scout opponents in the second and fourth rounds (and the final game).  Under such circumstances, it is difficult to implement an out of the ordinary game plan for a particular opponent.  A lower seed can be particularly dangerous if it has players who can create matchup problems for an opponent who either doesn’t have the personnel or the time to implement a game plan designed to deal with it.  An obvious example of this was the game Stanford played against St. Joseph's in 2001.  Marvin O'Connor presented a huge matchup problem for the Card, which had plenty of size but no wing player quick enough to deal with O'Connor, who went off for 37 points and nearly led the Hawks to a stunning upset.

With these key differences in mind, let’s turn to the question of whether and how Stanford is prepared to deal with the unique challenges presented by the NCAA Tournament format.

The first challenge - that of talented opponents stepping up their effort in the postseason - is probably the more difficult to overcome.  Motivated and talented opponents have put forth some extraordinary defensive efforts against Stanford in Tournaments past and this year is likely to be no different.  The Stanford coaching staff has apparently wrestled with this issue for some time as it relates to Stanford’s set offense, recognizing that when talented teams play with a sense of urgency sometimes absent during the regular season they can sometimes take Stanford “out of its offense” or “out of its stuff” as certain coaches might say.  After the loss to Gonzaga in 1999, Mike Montgomery questioned whether the offense had “run its course,” an extraordinary admission of sorts.  More recently, there have been expressions of a belief in a need to have players who can create opportunities outside the precise parameters of Stanford’s set plays.

Stanford has had a number of players in seasons past who could create their own scoring opportunities or create opportunities for others.  Brevin Knight is Exhibit A, and Monty didn’t hesitate to run clearouts for the point guard to let him create, especially when the set offense was struggling.  Against Utah in 1996, Monty ran clearout after clearout down the stretch, and were it not for a critical no-call or two, Knight might have led the Cardinal to the upset win.  More recently, Julius Barnes had the ability to create shots for himself either on the perimeter or by penetration (sometimes with the aid of a high screen).  Josh Childress has certainly displayed the ability to create, and with his height and all-around game can create opportunities through the frequent mismatches he creates.

This year's Stanford team has some potential to score outside of the set offense, but it remains to be seen how well the Cardinal can create opportunities against talented, athletic defenses.

Several Stanford players possess the ability to create their own scoring opportunities or to break down a defense and create for others.  The aforementioned Childress is obviously a key player in that regard, but Justin Davis has also shown the ability to create problems by driving to the basket out of the high post.  Davis is capable of finishing, although he has not been as consistent, and equally importantly, he is capable of making defenses pay for playing help defense with his excellent passing.  One player who could be the X-factor for Stanford in the postseason is Matt Haryasz.  His ability to shoot from outside, to take defenders off the dribble from the high post, and to execute a variety of post moves could make him a critical source of scoring if and when the half court offense bogs down against good and motivated defensive teams.  Haryasz is as capable as anyone on the roster of creating a shot even when he is defended well.

A developing story line with regard to the Cardinal offense is the increasing tendency to push the ball and look for opportunities in transition.  While Chris Hernandez does not have Barnes' ability in the half court to break down defenses with penetration or to get off his shot consistently when closely defended, he has the ability and inclination to play in transition and push tempo.  Stanford showed an encouraging willingness to run against Gonzaga in the Newell Challenge, and players such as Nick Robinson, Matt Lottich and Justin Davis were effective in the open court.  It remains to be seen, however, whether Stanford is capable of scoring in transition against opponents that are quicker than the relatively plodding Bulldogs.  If the Cardinal can demonstrate the ability to score some easy buckets in transition to supplement its scoring from the half-court offense, it will be a very encouraging sign for March.

The second problem I identified is one that Stanford may be able to handle thanks to both the variety of defenses it can play effectively and its deep roster.

By playing both man-to-man and zone defenses throughout the regular season, the Cardinal will be thoroughly prepared to throw different looks at opponents in the tournament.  Short preparation times will not be as significant a factor for Stanford as it will for most teams that tend to stick to a single defensive approach throughout the regular season.

Dealing with a "hot" player might prove the more difficult challenge for the Cardinal in the postseason.  Stanford has excellent defenders at both forward positions and center, as well as depth across the frontcourt.  There is both ample size and quickness to deal with a variety of frontcourt players.  The bigger concern is in the backcourt, where Stanford has less depth.  Hernandez and Matt Lottich are somewhat vulnerable to quick perimeter players.  That can be masked to some extent by the 1-1-3 defense, which has achieved considerable success thanks to the outstanding hustle and tenacity of the starting guard tandem.  Nevertheless, a quick guard who can shoot from deep could be a difficult challenge for Stanford.  Another concern is that Stanford's backcourt reserves have struggled on the defensive end.  Jason Haas and Dan Grunfeld have not been nearly as effective on defense as the starters have been, and even Harvard managed open looks when Haas and Grunfeld played at the top of the 1-1-3 zone on Sunday night.  Fred Washington has been more impressive on the defensive end, and despite his lack of experience, could find himself being relied on to defend a hot wing player in the postseason.

Tournament Projections

Starting with this edition of CJ's corner, I'll provide a weekly projection of the Pac-10 teams' chances at making the NCAA and NIT tournaments.  Initially, these projections will be based not only on teams' current resumes but also their prospects for the remainder of the regular season.  As we get deeper into the season, the projections will be done on the basis of "if the season were to end today" and will include projected seedings.  The goal will be to beat the Tournament projections of Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi (again).

NCAA Tournament:

1. Stanford
2. Arizona

NCAA Tournament bubble:

1. Oregon
2. UCLA
3. Arizona State

NIT possibilities:

1. California
2. USC

Out:

1. Washington State
2. Oregon State
3. Washington

Kibbles and Bits

With kal's loss to Air Force Sunday night, the 4-5 Bears will likely need to finish 14-4 in conference to make the NCAA tournament.  A 10-8 finish and NIT bid is a more realistic goal, but even that looks to be no better than a 50-50 proposition...

Reason #5,693 why Henry Bibby is a terrible coach: Rory O'Neil ranks fifth among all Trojan players in field goal attempts.  O'Neil is shooting 57% from the field and easily leads the Trojan starters in three point shooting percentage at 42% (12% better than their second-best starting shooter, Desmon Farmer).  Clearly the Trojans need to do a better job of getting the ball into O'Neil in the post or, if defenses pack it in, moving O'Neil away from the basket to let him shoot outside and create space on the interior for USC's slashers to drive it inside.  To make matters worse, power forward Jeff McMillan, who is shooting a gaudy 66% from the field, ranks fourth on the team in field goal attempts...

Cedric Bozeman, UCLA's only reliable ballhandler (to put it generously), is shooting 42% from the line.  Look for UCLA to cough up some leads late in close games...

The Pac-10 has long been known for outstanding point guard play, but forward Andre Iguodala is leading the conference in assists by nearly a full assist per game.


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