This story is
brought to you
Over the course of the season we have talked about the star players, the defense, the rebounding, and the prospects of the Stanford Cardinal. However, one of the most important reasons that Stanford is being regarded as a legitimate Final Four contender is because of the glue that holds the team together: Nick Robinson. Robinson first made his mark on Stanford last season when he was forced into the starting lineup after Justin Davis went down with an injury. Many fans (myself included) who were not fully aware of Nick Robinson's immense talent, heart, and intelligence were deeply worried about the prospect of starting Robinson at power forward. However, Robinson proved his worth, filled in admirably, and helped to stabilize a very up and down team. Still, the doubters were not completely vanquished and when Cardinal fans learned of Josh Childress' injury this season, many feared that Robinson would not be able to fill in for the Stanford superstar. Sixteen games later, Nick Robinson has nothing left to prove. When you look back at all that Robinson has accomplished this year, usually very quietly and well below the radar, a Stanford fan can only wonder where the Card would be without its versatile elder statesman. If Joe Kirchofer and Matt Lottich are usually regarded as the heart and soul of the team, then Robinson is the backbone, who without his presence, the team would lack structure and order. Simply put, Robinson is one of the most unselfish, team-oriented, and hardest working players I have seen play the game of basketball.
Nick Robinson is one of those rare players who makes all of his teammates better for having stepped on the floor with him. Robinson never complains about coming off the bench (despite helping Stanford to a 14-0 record with him in the starting lineup), doesn't force his shot, and thrives on doing the little things that don't show up in the box score. Many players would have caused problems over being moved to the bench, but he accepted that this is Childress' team and didn't rock the boat. Chemistry is one of the most fragile things in sports, and teams either have it or they don't. No one can really tell you how it is formed or how it is lost, but even the smallest of actions can ruin good team chemistry. Robinson had his chance to be selfish, but in his typical fashion he stayed supportive to his team, his coach, and Childress.
The game against USC showed another attribute that Robinson brings to the Cardinal. Essentially, Nick Robinson can do whatever Coach Mike Montgomery needs. Robinson isn't asked to shoot and score often, but when his team needs a lift he isn't afraid to put up shots. On Saturday Robinson scored 13 points (which tied a career high), but he never forced the offense. He shot when he was open, made good decisions, and did not worry about his own numbers. Almost as importantly, Robinson hustled, grabbed rebounds, hit the floor chasing loose balls, and played stellar man to man defense against whichever speedy Trojan he was matched up with.
The Cardinal and Robinson are both better off with him coming off the bench. His move to the bench naturally allows Childress to return to the starting lineup and get his necessary minutes, but it also makes Robinson a better player. As a starter Robinson's role is more clearly defined, but as a reserve, an intelligent player can watch the flow of the game and can make adjustments to his game that will help the team. Essentially, Robinson is so versatile that he can match the style that is being played on the court and take stock of what Stanford needs from him when he comes into the game. He is the valuable reserve player who understands the game and can do any number of things once he is on the court. Bringing him off the bench also gives the coaching staff the option of inserting him at several positions of need, including either of the wing spots behind Childress or Lottich. Plus, it is always great to have a player with his intensity and skill on the bench to rescue the team from any lack of focus or hustle that they may start the game with. This hasn't been a huge problem with this year's team, but it is nice to know that Coach Montgomery has the option to change tempo and hustle by bringing in Robinson. Every championship team needs role players who will do the dirty work and play with no ego. Nick Robinson has emerged as that player, and any trips to San Antonio will be because of his continued team play.
Settle down boys
Stanford was running scared in the first half against USC. The Trojans put out incredible intensity, played very physically, and hit their shots. Stanford found itself trailing at the half for only the second time this year and it looked like the type of game that would go down to the wire. It is often said that the mark of a good team is its ability to play great basketball during the first four minutes of the second half, and the Card answered the bell with incredible energy and intensity. I have often wondered how this Cardinal squad would respond to adversity (let's be honest, even in our toughest games we have never really had to worry about mounting a second half comeback) and they passed this test with flying colors. Rather than coming out tight and worried about losing their perfect season, the Cardinal played as loose as I have seen them this season. Rather than letting themselves get overexcited by the boisterous crowd and playing into USC's hands with sloppy passes and careless offense, the Card came out poised and aggressive. People have been saying that the game was close and hard-fought, and while the first 30 minutes were close, Stanford built a double-digit lead that they held for most of the last ten minutes. The second half was truly a thing of beauty for Cardinalmaniacs™. The effort and poise is a testament to incredible coaching (Bibby's boys had a typical second half lapse and got too caught up in the emotion of the game - taken out of their offensive game-plan), a gritty point guard, and solid senior leadership. Teams that have those three things tend to do special things come Tourney time.
With Stanford down by 6 points heading to the break, the Trojans fired up and playing some of their best ball of the season, and Desmon Farmer absolutely killing the Cardinal from the field, Stanford looked in danger of dropping their first game of the season. However the above mentioned second half started with defense. To be honest, USC is quicker and more athletic than most of the players on the Stanford roster, but after capitalizing in the first half, USC was shut down in the second. Credit Robinson and Childress for leading the defensive charge. The Trojan offense relies on Farmer for a good portion of its offense and the Cardinal duo thoroughly harassed him throughout the second half. Farmer rarely got open looks and scored a mere six points after the break. Robinson and Childress both have the length and athleticism to shut down dynamic swing players and it showed in the second half. Much was made of USC's ability to drive by slower defenders and while there were some lapses early on, the Cardinal recovered nicely and put together a very solid effort on the defensive end. Also, one can't say enough about the work on the glass by the entire squad. A rebounding edge of 38-26 is absolutely huge and that sort of dominance is a good sign come March. One thing that fans can be assured of is that Coach Montgomery will have his troops ready to play defense and rebound each and every night.
Anybody else even a bit worried?
I have said a lot about what a tremendous win this was for Stanford. I agree with most of what has been said about Stanford showing a lot of heart to come back from a halftime deficit, playing through a very physical and poorly officiated game, and controlling their emotions in a tournament style game, but I also see some very dangerous signs. USC is not a very good basketball team right now. Their record tells much of the story, and while they are a very athletic team, they are not well coached and have trouble executing in half court sets. However, the Trojans have athletes, and I am still worried that a team of athletes can beat Stanford. Face it, USC is an average team with phenomenal athleticism, and they gave Stanford all that they could handle and then some. So what happens when Stanford faces a really good team with the same level of athleticism? I am not saying that the Card will fold, but it bears some serious watching. Stanford showed people a lot with their second half performance, but their first half performance also showed people that there are still some question marks with this team. This game also proved that there will be no easy games left for Stanford this season. Everyone is going to get up to play the Card because there is a certain pride in ruining the perfect season. The rest of the season is going to be a huge battle and the Card are going to have to be prepared to play the same style of emotional and physical basketball that they had to play against USC.
At least this team can break the press. Thoughts of past games against USC always worry me, and the second they employ a full court press I get incredibly nervous. This year seems like it might be a little bit different though. USC's pressure defense was not the reason that Stanford had so many turnovers, and after a rusty start Stanford broke full court pressure with relative ease. Fans can only hope that trend continues because Stanford still has the stereotype of being slow, unathletic, and easily flummoxed by pressure and speed...
Maples was rocking Saturday night. The intensity that the Trojans brought into the game was contagious and it really fired up the packed house. Maples often goes through lapses of quietness, but the national game recaps of the last three home games (Cal, UCLA, and USC) have all made some reference to the incredible atmosphere and fan noise inside of Maples. It looks like Maples is reestablishing itself as an intimidating place to play, and that can only help the home team. I love to see the crowd rising to its feet to greet the team as they come off the court for a timeout, I love to see the arena filled up to capacity before the opening tip, and I absolutely love to be a part of the rejuvenated 6th man. Having been a member this year and in past years, I can honestly say that this year's edition is more knowledgeable, more vocal, and more passionate than in the recent past. That doesn't mean that there isn't work to be done, but Maples Pavilion is a fun place to be for a basketball game...
It's nice to know that Stanford can win without huge offensive output from Matt Lottich, Justin Davis, and Josh Childress. After a quick start Childress fizzled on offense, Davis missed far too many easy shots, and Lottich continues with his recent mini-funk. However, despite these offensive slumps the Cardinal got more than enough scoring from its incredible bench...
Chris Hernandez has another gear in the open court and it is truly a pleasure to watch this team get out and run. Everyone is a good passer and is unselfish, so a Stanford fastbreak is incredibly difficult to defend. Plus, with the solid rebounding and pressure defense that Stanford has been playing, this team has used an up-tempo style more than many of Coach Montgomery's previous teams...
The Top 20
It was a wild week of college basketball. With so many of the top teams losing this past week the top 20 saw more upheaval than in any of the past weeks. Lots of new teams have joined the fray and a few traditional powerhouses have fallen by the wayside. The one constant is at the top of the rankings where each of the top four teams played perfect weeks and held their spots.
- Duke (16-1, Previous Rank: 1) - Won a pretty good barometer game against a Maryland team that always gets up to play them. The demolition of Georgetown was also impressive simply because they won so easily. This past week answered any questions about them currently being number one in the country.
- Stanford (16-0, PR: 2) - Yes, Stanford is one of two unbeaten teams in the nation, but Duke is playing better basketball than anyone. Stanford answered some questions about athleticism and intensity by beating very game UCLA and USC teams. The real fun starts now for Stanford though: seven of their last eleven games are on the road and a visit from those Wildcats from Arizona still waits in the wings.
- Louisville (15-1, PR: 3) - Looks like everyone else is finally ready to start believing what I said weeks ago, namely that these guys are for real. They beat Cincinnati by 27 points. 27 POINTS!!! Are you kidding me??? Louisville is one early season loss away from being the top team in the rankings and is one team no one wants to play right now.
- St Joseph's (17-0, PR: 4) - Talk about impressive: St Joe's beat St. Bonaventure by 51 on the road after crushing Massachusetts by 25. Despite the wins, and despite the growing probability of a perfect season, I still don't see how they are currently better than 4th best in the nation. I think all three of the above teams are better.
- Gonzaga (15-2, PR: 6) - While the nation's other top teams continue to beat up on each other and get knocked off by inferior conference opponents, the Zags keep on winning. The weak WCC scheduling will hurt them in the NCAA bracket seedings, but this team proved its worth in the non-conference season. Note that their two losses were road or neutral court games to the two lone undefeated teams. They will probably fall in these rankings once other teams get their act together, but for now they are top 5.
- Kentucky (13-2, PR: 10) - I don't know if they deserve this lofty of a ranking right now, especially after two close calls this week, but everyone else is losing. Plus, I think this team could do real damage come tourney time because they have all the pieces, including the scary good Chuck Hayes down on the low block.
- Arizona (13-3, PR: 18) - They rebounded nicely after their humbling loss at USC. By nicely I mean wins of 25, 34, and 24 points over UCLA, Oregon St., and Oregon. Their chance to earn real respect though is in two weeks at Maples Pavilion. Expect a good game because this team is finally starting to come together.
- Connecticut (15-3, PR: 5) - I understand that Providence is underrated and that losing to them is not a huge deal, but good teams need to protect their home floor and the Huskies failed to do that. The win over Pitt was one of their best wins of the year though.
- Pittsburgh (19-1, PR: 12) - No one is really complaining about a three-point loss at Connecticut. As a matter of fact, I think I learned more good things about this team watching that one loss than the eighteen previous wins. However, the real indicator of greatness was the bounce back 21-point demolition of Syracuse on the road.
- Mississippi State (16-1, PR: 19) - It took me some time to warm up to this team, but they are one point (to Kentucky) away from being perfect. They followed up that loss with wins over three good SEC squads (LSU, Florida, and Georgia), and have the talent and heart to make a big run in the tourney.
- Oklahoma State (14-2, PR: NR) - Another team I took some time to pay attention to, and I really have to admit this is a good team. They have beaten Texas and Oklahoma on back to back weeks, and because of their physical style and tough defense have a chance to make some noise.
- Texas Tech (16-2, PR: 17) - Bobby Knight has these boys playing very well. They beat Oklahoma by 20 points this past week (doesn't it seem like everyone is beating Oklahoma nowadays) and have the look of a competitor in Big 12 play. The conference doesn't have a truly dominant team this year but has several teams that could battle all the way down to the wire. Right now Tech has to be considered one of the favorites.
- Texas (12-3, PR: 8) - Another competitive Big 12 team. They lost to Tech, but it looks like the entire conference is going to beat up on one another so don't expect any Big 12 team to rise from the ashes just yet.
- Purdue (14-4, PR: 15) - These guys keep on climbing because of the misfortunes of other teams. Purdue might be a hard-nosed team that competes hard every night, but I have a feeling that this team will not be this highly thought of when the dust clears from the season. Frankly, it might not be a stretch to say that the Big 10 will have no teams in the Sweet 16.
- North Carolina (PR: 7) - The Heels took one of the biggest plunges of the week but it is not solely because of their loss at Florida St. The Seminoles are playing good basketball and will beat people on their home court. The problem I have with the loss is that UNC blew a 24-point lead and seemed to lose their fire and confidence as the game went on. Not a good sign for a team that still has many tough ACC games to go.
- Wisconsin (13-3, PR: NR) - Okay, I know I slighted all of you Badger fans by saying that I could see a scenario where no Big 10 team makes the Sweet 16, but I am not exaggerating. The conference is in worse shape than I can ever remember, and while Badger wins over Michigan and Illinois mean a lot in the Big 10 race, is anyone around the nation truly impressed?
- Cincinnati (14-1, PR: 11) - Yes they beat Southern Miss by 36 points, but who cares? In their biggest game of the season they were absolutely EMBARASSED by Louisville. Will these guys rebound? I think they still have the talent to compete for a C-USA crown, but they will have to get over the loss quickly.
- South Carolina (17-2, PR: NR) - The Gamecocks are another team that is finally starting to earn a little bit of publicity. Amazing what 17-2 overall, 4-1 in the SEC, and a win over LSU will do for you. Still, the schedule is about to get really tough, and it will be interesting to see how the "other USC" responds.
- Georgia Tech (15-3, PR: 13) - They had a nice win over Wake Forest (who has fallen off the map after a great start) but suffered a tough loss to what appears to be a very talented NC State team. Georgia Tech will be good but I can't see them winning an ACC title or making a huge run in the tourney.
- Providence (13-3, PR: NR) - They have a couple of bad losses (Rutgers and Rhode Island), but they got hosed by the refs against Texas and had a huge victory against Connecticut. I am not sure if these guys are ready to play with the big boys in the Big East, but they are a vastly improved team and should be a lot of fun to watch.
Also Receiving Consideration (Alphabetical Order)
Dropped From Consideration
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!