Late yesterday afternoon the Stanford Basketball team boarded a bus behind Maples Pavilion and headed to the airport for their first Pac-10 road trip of the year. There is no question the Arizona schools present the toughest roadie of the year for the red-hot Cardinal, and that starts tonight. While most Cardinalmaniacs™ have their bifocals tilted for a clear view of Saturday's Tussle in Tucson, tonight's game in Tempe is a serious test. And let's remember that when Monty's Men made their trek to the Cactus State a year ago, it was the affair in Wells Fargo Arena that came down to the final seconds with much more drama and fear than the matchup in McKale.
"Historically it makes no sense for us to put all of our attention into Arizona [on Saturday]," Mike Montgomery explains. "We gain nothing by playing poorly versus Arizona State and then playing up for Arizona."
Of course at the center of the Sun Devils' lineup is sophomore big man Ike Diogu. He leads the conference with 23.7 points per game scoring, is #4 in rebounding (9.0 per game), #2 in blocks and rising fast (2.5 per game) and #10 in free throw shooting (82%). He remains much like what we saw a year ago - a player who is a beast in the paint and gets to the free throw line with truly incredible frequency (111 attempts - more than double the highest for a Stanford player) whenever he doesn't score. We saw hints last year of his shooting range, though, which makes him even more lethal.
"They're moving people around a little more," Montgomery says of the Sun Devil coaches. "They're tired of being defended a certain way. They're starting to put two bigs out there on the floor and move Ike [Diogu] away from the basket. 24 [points per game] means he can get 35. We really need to limit his touches."
To be fair to Stanford's chances, though, the Cardinal have neutralized some very good big men this year. I personally predicted that Kansas' Wayne Simien would be too much to handle, and the world thought Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf would go crazy. How does the defensive challenge tonight against Diogu stack up against those two battles?
"Ike probably has a better knack for scoring," Stanford's head man postulates. "That's not to say he is more skilled. He just has a knack to score or get fouled a lot."
As reported by our sister site on TheInsiders network, DevilsDigest.com, ASU will add one very talented player tonight as they get the first regular season game of Serge Angounou, a long and athletic 6'8" forward from Cameroon by way of New Mexico. Angounou was one of the "Big Three" that Rob Evans recruited for his master plan of ASU interior dominance two years ago. The other two were Ike Diogu and Matt Haryasz. Even if you have not seen Angounou play (he had season-ending knee surgery early last year), you can understand the level of player who could be unveiled tonight. While a mid-season first game for a previously injured player is a wild card, remember what Stanford got out of Josh Childress a week ago in his first 2003-04 game.
Speaking of which, Childress has kept Stanford fans rubbing their lucky rabbit's feet for good health and safety as he comes back from the stress reaction in his left foot. He was dazzling in his seven-minute debut against Washington State, with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, two boards, a blocked shot and some lockdown defense. Though afterward he reported soreness in the arch of his foot. The uneducated fan might take that as cause for great concern, but Childress was quick to differentiate that soreness from what he endured with the stress reaction. This was simply a foot getting used to running and jumping for the first time in seven weeks.
An important second data point came after Sunday's Washington game, when Childress played 13 minutes and pulled down five big boards. He did struggle a little on offense, shooting just 2-for-6 and looking awkward at times.
"I was totally rushing things in the Washington game," he explains to The Bootleg. "I was so anxious to get back to where I once was - as fast as I could. But this week should be good. I've calmed down and think I'm ready to just play my game."
On the medical front, there was good news that far outshadowed any offensive hiccup in his second game. He reports that he experienced no pain at all after that game, or at any time this week. And while you may see his 13 minutes on Sunday as his biggest "test" to date, Mike Montgomery practices this week have put him through far more.
"We hardly did anything last week in practices," Childress admits. "Tuesday and Wednesday we went pretty hard and I did everything. I've felt fine and my foot hasn't been sore at all. I do think I'm still a bit cautious on the court, though."
So cut to the chase - how many minutes can the jumpin' junior play tonight in Tempe, and then Saturday in Tucson?
"It's up to Coach [Montgomery]," the combo forward answers. "The doctors told me they needed to see what I could do this week, and if nothing is hurting with my foot, then I'm completely cleared for anything."
Do not expect Childress to start tonight, as Montgomery still has much he needs to see from his recently injured player.
"You know me - I don't worry about starting too much," the head coach begins. "Josh needs to earn his starting job. He won't be in the shape he needs to be until February, probably. He was out seven weeks without running."
But as Childress sees his minutes climb, there is the question of where you reposition Nick Robinson. He has demonstrated repeatedly his unmatched contributions to this team with hustle, rebounding, defense and at times scoring. You can't pull this guy off the floor. So with the observation the other game of Robinson playing a couple minutes as the shooting guard, is that a direction we could see ahead for the 6'7" athlete?
"I'm not sure how much help we need there," Montgomery answers. "I don't know that shooting-wise we wouldn't be better with Dan Grunfeld and Matt Lottich at that position. If we need to go small and handle the ball athletically, we could put Nick at the 'four' though."
- Can you believe Stanford has won 11 straight already against the Solar Satans?
- Tim Morris is now practice almost exclusively at the off-guard position and is loving it. Watch out next year...
- Freshman two-sporter Evan Moore did not travel with the team, while he sticks around for a doctor's appointment to check on his shoulder.
- Some fans have wondered about the evaporating offensive threat from point guard Jason Haas, who has no field goal attempts through two Pac-10 games. Montgomery is unconcerned, however. "Jason is doing fine," the coach comforts. "He takes care of the ball - he can run the show. He will get better as soon as he relaxes. We're better with Chris Hernandez and I think everybody knows that. The problem is not Jason - it's what we do after Jason if somebody gets hurt."
- As experienced as this team is with so many returning players from a year ago, there will be one key player tonight facing an unfamiliar test. Freshman wing Fred Washington has seen two big neutral site games this year, but says the true road experiences out of conference will pale in comparison to tonight. "We've been to Irvine and Rice - but they weren't too bad," the athletic small forward says. "This is the first time an away crowd will be really bad. I expect the worst - heckling toward us and huge cheers for all their baskets. Playing at Arizona State and Arizona and beating them at their home - Coach says that's the hard thing to do. We'll take care of business here."
- Fred Washington also talks about his offense and defense as we near the mid-point of his first season. "I have a little better feel for the offense right now," he describes. "I was a little confused in the beginning. I'm also more comfortable with the guys now. On defense, sometimes I'm stupid and get a little anxious. I cheated too much against Washington. But what I like to do is lull my guy to sleep and then let him make the mistake. I can do that without cheating too much."
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