Etch's Sketch - 1/13

As we bask in the glory of this magnificent Stanford Basketball season, there still remain areas of scrutiny we can explore. How and why has the return of Josh Childress been successful with an already undefeated team? What makes Stanford's defense so effective? What did the desert domination against Arizona reveal about the value of depth? Read on for these plus Mike's new Top 20 national rankings.

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You kept hearing it over and over in the news reports, the polls, and projections.  All the analysts, talking heads, and so called experts of the sports world were saying that Stanford was good without Josh Childress, but would be even better when he returned.  My natural sentiment was much more reserved.  How would Childress integrate himself back into the offense?  Would the team continue to play tough defense and unselfish offense when its leader returned?  How can Stanford be better with Childress if they went undefeated and beat two quality teams on neutral courts without him?  Deep down I knew that Stanford would be better with its best player on the court, but how much better and how would it reflect in the box score, on the court, and in the standings?  Well, it turns out that Childress has reemerged the truly special player that we all hoped he could become and he has made a seamless transition back to the roster.

First, Childress has made a very easy transition back into the offensive flow.  He has received more minutes each game out, but when he has entered the game he has not forced the issue.  One of the greatest fears about bringing a star player back from injury is that he will try to do too much too soon and will end up hurting the team.  For the most part, and especially against Arizona, Childress waited for the offense to flow to him.  He took shots in rhythm, he crashed the boards and he did not dominate the ball and hock up wild shots like most players of his caliber would be inclined to do.  The next step will be to see how Childress reacts as a starter.  In some ways it is easier to come off the bench because you can see how the team is playing and figure out what your role will be before entering the game.  When Childress is ready to start he will have to continue to be unselfish and realize that in most games the match-ups will dictate that Stanford feed the ball inside to Rob Little and Justin Davis.

Defensively, Childress has made a huge impact for the Stanford squad.  Stanford was already playing very disciplined defense and dominating the defensive glass, but Childress makes them even tougher.  His huge wingspan and incredible athletic ability make him a very versatile defender capable of shutting down athletic wing players while also allowing him to easily clean the glass.  Returning Childress' eight plus rebounds a game to the lineup will certainly make the Stanford frontline even more imposing.  Already one of the biggest and best rebounding frontlines in the nation, Stanford welcomes back Childress and makes the battle down low even more lopsided for opposing teams.  Stanford should control the paint in almost every remaining game.  The Cardinal's incredible interior play and smothering defense will be essential for any sustained tournament run.

Trust me, even though this Stanford team went undefeated without Childress, it only takes a couple of games to realize how scary good this team will be from this point forward.  I firmly believe that Childress is the difference between a 2-0 Arizona road trip and something far worse.  Without Childress' incredible athletic ability and knack for making the big play, Stanford would have lost the game at Arizona State.  This is why teams need to have a star play.  Big time players make big plays with the game on the line.  Yes, Stanford is a very good team without Childress, and yes, I think there are other clutch performers like Matt Lottich and Chris Hernandez on the roster, but Childress is the only player on the current roster that I can see making that play.  Giving the ball to Childress at the end of the game is like giving the ball to a Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett down the stretch:  there are other guys on the team who might deliver in the key situations, but there is only one guy who a coach can completely trust to make the play with the clock winding down.  Josh Childress is that guy, and he is the reason Stanford beat ASU.  Simply put, Stanford could post all sorts of gaudy numbers in the early season sans Childress, but to win the big games in March (and hopefully April) Josh Childress must be healthy and productive.

The Defense Never Rests

This Stanford defensive unit is in my opinion easily the best in the Pac-10.  I also don't think it is a stretch to say that the Card are among the best defensive teams in the nation and one of the best Stanford Cardinal defensive teams in recent years.  The numbers are impressive:  just over 60 points allowed per game and 39% shooting allowed from the field.  However, when analyzing a defense it is important to look not only at numbers and individual defensive players, but also how they work as a unit and play team defense.  Just as five great scorers does not ensure a cohesive offense, five dynamite defensive players don't necessarily equate to a good defensive unit.  Defenses need the same role players, hustle guys, and hard-nose players that offenses need to complement skill players.  The Stanford defense is not a collection of all first team defenders, and frankly, none of the players would be favorites for any sort of individual defensive awards.  However, they work well together and hustle.  Neither Chris Hernandez nor Matt Lottich were seen as good defenders when they came to Stanford.  Hernandez seemed too slow to make a real contribution on defense, and Lottich seemed more concerned with shooting than defending.  However, these players have made up for their defensive limitations with hustle, intelligence, and a whole lot of floor burns.  It is no accident that Arizona shot 19% from three-point range against the Cardinal when you consider the great job Lottich, Hernandez, Dan Grunfeld, Nick Robinson, and Josh Childress do at rotating out and pressuring seemingly open three-point shooters.  These players also do a tremendous job pressuring the ball almost 30 feet away from the basket forcing the offense to waste precious time just avoiding defensive harassment.  A large part of Arizona's 36% shooting can be attributed to Stanford pressuring the Wildcats away from the basket and making them force shots in frustration or desperation.

It is also helpful for the perimeter defenders to know that they have help behind them.  Players like Hernandez and Lottich are able to gamble a lot on the perimeter and continually apply pressure because they know that they have Justin Davis, Matt Haryasz, and now Josh Childress behind them as legitimate shot blocking threats.  This allows perimeter defenders to take away the outside shot of players like Hassan Adams and Salim Stoudamire without worrying too much about getting burned on a drive to the basket.  Additionally, when the offense does put up a harried and contested shot, Stanford has the luxury of having one of the best rebounding frontlines in the nation with Rob Little, Justin Davis, and Josh Childress.  Better still, Stanford loses very little rebounding when they go to Joe Kirchofer, Haryasz, and Robinson off the bench.  It can be argued that the only truly complete defensive players on the Cardinal roster are Robinson and Childress, but by utilizing individual skills like shot blocking and rebounding, playing with hustle and determination, and working together as a team to complement strengths and hide weaknesses, Stanford has quietly emerged as one of the top defensive units in the country.

Depth or Talent

The Arizona game was an excellent test case to observe how a  roster comprised of five awesome All-American potential players (but with little depth behind them) fared against a collection of more lightly recruited kids who are all well coached, intelligent, and proficient in basketball fundamentals. In Arizona-Stanford Round 1, depth and coaching certainly got the better of athleticism.  Stanford showed that competent players who rely on fundamentals and refuse to be rattled can take even the most athletic players out of their game plan.  Lute Olson possesses one of the most dazzling starting five's in the nation, but his lack of depth will be the undoing of this team.  Arizona played only seven men on Saturday, and with his key players unable to establish a rhythm, Olson had no one to turn to for energy and production off of the bench.  Stanford's bench, outside of Childress, also struggled in Arizona, but the very fact that Mike Montgomery was able to go to his bench, give players a rest, and change the game tempo, was crucial to Stanford's success.  Yes, the addition of Ivan Radenovic will at some point help the Wildcats' cause, but it is tough to imagine any team that only plays seven men winning six games in a row in the tournament to become the national champion.  The very nature of those numbers is that a team's best players will probably have at least one off game during the three weeks, and role players will have to carry the team to victory.  After watching Saturday's game, I am more convinced than ever that Stanford's depth of quality players is more likely to advance deep into the tournament than Arizona's unbelievable talent but hideously short bench.

The Top 20

Well, I have finally done it. Stanford has risen to the top of my weekly power rankings.  This decision did not come easily, however.  As a Stanford fan it is hard for me to believe that the Card have produced the best season of any team to date, but after crunching the numbers, watching a bunch of games, and weighing it all together, I am convinced that Stanford is currently the most deserving.  Again, this doesn't necessarily mean that I think they will win it all, but at this point of the season they are playing great basketball, are undefeated, and have the best resume of quality wins.  So, here are the top 20 teams in the nation based on who they have beaten, how they are playing, and overall record.

  1. Stanford 13-0.  The undefeated trip down to Arizona sold me on the fact that Stanford should be ranked in the top spot.  They are winning close games, defensive struggles, games against great teams, road games, and neutral court games.  They play stifling defense, good offense, and are finally healthy.  This is a very good team.
  2. Louisville 11-1.  The Cardinals are the real deal.  They have beaten Florida, Kentucky, and Seton Hall.  Their only blemish is a loss to Iowa by one point early in the season.  They won their two conference games this past week (Southern Miss and South Florida) by a combined 79 points.  The only reason they are not in the top spot is that lone loss.
  3. Connecticut 13-1.  They were ranked pretty low in the first editions of these rankings, but they are playing as well as anyone right now.  Their 27-point demolition of Oklahoma was a mighty impressive win.  This team has to be on everyone's short list of favorites as they have really turned it on lately.
  4. Duke 12-1.  Again, I am not one to approve of over-ranking teams, but Duke is finally playing up to their potential and deserves a loftier ranking than they have received from me in the past.  The game against Wake Forest will name an early favorite in the ACC.
  5. Wake Forest 11-0.  They have done everything asked of them, but won't truly jump into the spotlight unless they can sweep their games this week.  Games at Texas and at Duke will test the mettle of this squad and will tell us a lot about the Deacons.
  6. St. Joseph's 13-0.  Jameer Nelson is one of the best players in the country.  This team is a very good collection of players and they are not afraid to play anyone, anywhere, at any time.  They will be a team that no one wants to play in the tourney and have already collected several good wins over Gonzaga, Boston College, and Cal.
  7. Kentucky 10-1.  I would love to believe in this team, and they have the talent to be the best team in the nation.  Still, in their loss to Louisville and their close win over Vandy something seemed to be lacking in their intensity.  Tough game against upstart Mississippi State this coming week.
  8. North Carolina 10-2.  Blew out a solid Georgia Tech squad this week.  This team is scary because they can score so many points.  They have scored 80 or more points in nine of 12 games, gone for 90 or more six times, and crossed the century mark four times.  Both losses were close and to very good teams (Wake Forest and Kentucky).
  9. Gonzaga 12-2.  The Zags still only have two close losses to two of the undefeated teams (St. Joe's and Stanford).  They are getting ready to enter the easy part of their schedule, and another WCC title looks very probable.  Authoritative road wins at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount showed that the only team that the only WCC team that can beat Gonzaga is themselves.
  10. Florida 11-2.  Why more people don't believe in this team mystifies me.  They have beaten Arizona, walloped Tennessee this past week, and are poised for another run through the SEC.  Big game this week with a Vanderbilt team desperately fighting for someone's respect.
  11. Arizona 10-2.  This is a tough team to figure.  Its only quality wins are home games over Texas and Marquette; they have had several close calls against bad teams; and they were dominated by Stanford.  Still, they are good enough for second in the Pac-10 and better than all but a handful of teams in the nation.  May have the best starting five of any team.
  12. Wisconsin 11-2.  Currently running all over the Big 10, which doesn't really tell you much.  Still, they have been winning with tough defense and good rebounding which is a successful formula for March.
  13. Georgia Tech 12-2.  Tech has hit a minor bump with losses to Georgia and UNC.  This team is not as good as everyone believed.  Still, the win over UConn is as good as any win this season and holds them at this position for now.
  14. Kansas 9-2.  Kansas has been quiet recently and is prepared to enter the tough Big 12 season.  Once they beat some quality conference teams they should expect to move up these rankings.
  15. Texas Tech 13-2.  The Red Raiders have been very good as of late and will be a real threat in the Big 12.  They have soundly beaten both teams from Oklahoma and can score points in bunches.
  16. Oklahoma 10-1.  It turns out Oklahoma isn't that good; they just hadn't played anyone.  They will have to rebound quickly from the 27-point loss to Connecticut.
  17. Texas 9-2.  Texas finally got the win they needed to legitimize themselves.  Granted their win over Providence was controversial, but it was a big road win nonetheless.
  18. Creighton 12-0.  The undefeated version of Gonzaga.  They haven't played as many good teams, but they defeated a pretty good Nebraska team and play smart mistake-free basketball.
  19. Pittsburgh 16-0.  I wish I could get more excited about a team that is 16-0, but who have these guys beaten?  Their best win is Alabama and they almost lost on consecutive games to Miami and Notre Dame.  Still, any coach would love to be undefeated and they have done a superb job of winning all sorts of games (high scoring, defensive struggles, etc…)
  20. Vanderbilt 12-1.  I had written Vandy off earlier this season because they played a feeble non-conference schedule.  However, they really gave Kentucky a good game and are playing with that "no one respects us" chip on their shoulder.  That makes for a very dangerous team.

Others receiving consideration (alphabetical order):
Cincinnati, LSU, Marquette, Mississippi St, Purdue, Syracuse

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