Hoops News & Notes - 1/2

As the Stanford Cardinal tonight tip off the 2004 Pac-10 season, we at <i>The Bootleg</i> are excited to push our coverage of this fantastic team into the New Year. Before you head to Maples tonight, or tune your browser to catch the Internet broadcast, get up to date on what is happening with this program. Included are thoughts on where Mike Montgomery wants to improve, his one-game suspension, the team's rotation and a hidden motivation for the big men.

The buzz around Stanford Basketball all week has been the return from injury of junior forward Josh Childress, and to be sure that is a huge development.  But there is more happening with this team right now than rehabilitation of stress reactions...

  • Pac-10 Play Begins.  Somewhere between the big game against Gonzaga two weeks ago and the upcoming big road trip to the Arizona schools, the start of Pac-10 play at Maples Pavilion against the Washington schools has been forgotten.  While it is true that Washington State and the U-Dub have been less than sizzling with their combined 11-7 record, both against rather underwhelming competition, the both have athletes who demand Stanford's attention.  Marcus Moore has given the Card a scare before and will do so undoubtedly again either home or away this year; the Washington Huskies have talents at all positions in one of the most underrated rosters in the conference.  We have seen Stanford these past two years play down in some games against "lesser" competition, while playing up in their nationally prominent contests.  Watching the Montana and Richmond games last year, and then the Florida International game this year, you are reminded that these hiccups can happen at home - not just out on the road.  If you ask Mike Montgomery, though, he believes his guys should in fact sharpen their focus for conference action starting this weekend:  "I think that they will be more attentive in Pac-10 play as a general rule," he opines.  "We've talked about this, and if you don't finish in the top three in the conference, you can't guarantee anything with the post-season.  We've done a decent job thus far.  We're taking care of business, but we could be a lot better.  We haven't exactly played a bunch of Top 10 teams."
  • As attention and focus goes, the Stanford coaches and players have doubled down this week on offensive execution.  The defense, with its hustle and energy, have been exemplary thus far this season, but the offense has been inconsistent at best.  "Good offense is something that should be difficult to defend," Montgomery declares.  "We don't always have an understanding of what we are doing on offense.  It occurred to me that with this time between games we could take advantage of a chance to get better in an area where I think we can best improve - offensive execution."  We will see if the execution of individual players, including turnovers, will improve as hoped tonight and Sunday...
  • Stanford has had a pretty steady 10-man rotation in games up to this point, and that has been without Josh Childress available for action.  But this is the time of year when Montgomery and Stanford tighten up the rotation, and the starters log longer minutes.  Blowouts (which could come this weekend) will always let the bench get on the floor, but playing time will be harder to come by for several bench players in the many closely contested conference games ahead.  You might think 'this year is different,' but Montgomery has already said this week he expects to tighten things up after "making an effort to play a lot of guys" in the preseason.
  • OK, so maybe I can't completely steer clear of the Childress return story in this story.  After all, the nationally acclaimed chemistry of this team will be challenged when the junior works his way back into the rotation, and eventually the starting job at the small forward spot that Nick Robinson has manned.  It's hard to imagine adding something as special as Childress and holistically subtracting something from your team, but as a coach, Montgomery does have to manage this skillfully.  "You look at Josh on paper and he's a better player but you could put him back and maybe not be a better team," the coach pontificates.  "Nick [Robinson] can be used at any one of the three wing positions; he is one of those guys who doesn't get the credit he deserves because he does all the little things.  We'll work Josh back in and get him into game shape."
  • A side story for tonight's conference opener against WSU that has sat farther out on the media periphery than I had predicted is the one-game suspension of Mike Montgomery, stemming from his contact with an official last year in the Arizona State game at Maples.  The game was not televised, which has left most Stanford fans and outsiders in the dark as to how to judge the penalty, and perhaps this is one reason why the suspension has gotten so little play in the media.  I think the bigger reason is that Montgomery has been elevated in the media's eye to uber-darling status the last few months with what his team has delivered.  Despite Stanford's rigorous admissions restrictions and despite the injury depletion of his best player the first month-plus of this season, Montgomery has produced unquestionably the most consistent and best coached college basketball team in the nation this season.  People are falling all over themselves to write up "big picture" articles of praise for the genius architect of Stanford Basketball - so much so that they seem remarkably uninterested in his suspension.  I still wonder if tonight and tomorrow there will be a little more reporting of this after the WSU game is played, but it is unlikely...
  • Oh, and for the record I fully expect assistant coach Tony Fuller to take the head man's spot on the bench tonight in Montgomery's absence.  When I asked Montgomery this week what we would see for this game, he brushed it off.  "We'll figure that out at the end of the week," he briskly responded.  I have to believe that he knew as far back as last winter that Fuller would take the reins for this game, however cavalier and delayed the public stance might have been this week.  It is an interesting theoretical debate as to which Cardinal coach should assume the head coaching position in such a situation, but Fuller is the most practical.  He alone on this staff has head coaching experience, with two seasons each at Pepperdine and San Diego State.
  • If you will excuse yet another look back at the Gonzaga game, I have to comment on perhaps the most important half of play of the season.  While Matt Lottich lit up in the second half with his outside shooting and relentless attitude, I believe the game was largely won in the first stanza with the dominating play of Rob Little and Justin Davis.  The pair had not executed that flawlessly all season - not even close - and their combined performance was the stuff of San Antonio dreaming.  "Rob was huge," Montgomery beamed afterward in praise of his junior center.  "That was the best I've seen him for a while.  He had practices early where he looked really good, and he looked like that again tonight."  You might think that Little and Davis broke out in such a big game precisely because it was a big game, but they told me there was another motivation that fueled a fire in them earlier that day.  As the road on the team bus to the Arena, they saw a story on the cover of the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle with a huge photo of Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf.  The oversized title proclaimed, "Stanford Gets Healthy Zags This Time."  The message delivered was that the Card skated by against an undermanned Gonzaga squad last year, minus monster big man Turiaf, but would be severely tested against the full roster this go-around.  "We were pissed," Little reveals of the pair's reaction.  "Turiaf was on the front cover in our hometown, where we would expect we would get some press.  We were sick of hearing about them in our home."  Davis concurs:  "Before the game, Rob and I saw this as an opportunity.  They assumed we couldn't handle a healthy Gonzaga frontcourt, and we were fired up to show everybody something."

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