Oregon State Preview (Plus)

Stanford has enjoyed a schedule thus far that has put the Cardinal in Maples Pavilion for five of their first seven conference games. But alas, it is time to take the show on the road. Seven of the final 11 Pac-10 games will be played away from home, and that stretch starts tonight in Corvallis. Oregon State is a team lacking big wins, but they are shuffling their lineup and might not show what you expect. Also read on for some team notes...

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Stanford fans are mostly looking ahead to Saturday's game in Eugene, with a "W" already chalked up in their mental registry for the Corvallis collision tonight. Though Beaver believers are running low on self-esteem as their favorite furred ones are racking up losses, Stanford has historically had some serious battles at Gill Coliseum. Mac Court in Eugene may have all the reputation of noise and intimidation, but there is something about Corvallis that just sucks the life right out of you. Many a team has come out flat and been blitzed by the Beavs through the years. Don't think that couldn't happen to a very confident Card squad tonight...

Oregon State has their own concerns, though, and they have been shuffling their lineup in search of answers lately. We can't be sure exactly who we will see tonight on the floor from the Beavers.. The official realease lists Chris Stephens and Kyle Jeffers at the wing and center positions, respectively, but neither started last weekend against Arizona State. Though they had combined for 29 of 32 starts on the season, they came off the bench while Jay John attempts to shake things up. Assuming the starters tonight will be what we saw in their last game...

PG Lamar Hurd - 6'4" sophomore - Plays huge minutes (35.3 mpg) but his forte is not scoring. He likes to push the ball up the floor and speed up the tempo whenever he can, and then get the ball to his teammates. Hurd's assist numbers are rapidly rising, and better decisions have his turnover numbers dropping. He can also play the off-guard with J.S. Nash moving over to the point, or Chris Stephens coming in the game.

SG J.S. Nash - 6'2" juniors - You might remember Nash from a pretty solid performance or two he has put up against Stanford. He isn't the most athletic wing in the conference (or even one of the best athletes at his position in the Northwest), but he plays hard and loves to force things. Nash will lower his head and drive to the basket at almost any chance. Unsurprisingly, he gets to the free throw a lot, though you might not expect that he leads in FT attempts. Nash converts at the charity stripe, at 83.1% this year. He can play any of the three guard spots for OSU and stays on the floor. Trails only Hurd in minutes per game.

WF Jim Hanchett - 6'5" junior - For the most part this year, Stephens has started, which gives the Beavs a three-guard lineup. But Hanchett plays more like a traditional small forward. In his first start last Saturday he pulled down nine rebounds, and his stats all year have shown that he can hit the boards very effectively despite his height. He has strong legs with a surprising amount of spring. Offensively, he is both an inside and outside threat. He is a verifiable ray of hope for a hopeless team right now, but don't expect his good times to continue against Josh Childress...

PF David Lucas - 6'7" junior - Lucas is the most talented all-around scorer on this team, and he can fill it up on any given night. He averages better than 16 points per game, and he can score from a variety of positions. He is an excellent catch-and-shoot guy for his size, which makes him tough to defend for big forwards. Lucas also can face up and pop it when you expect him to drive. The one constant is that the guy is an black hole - worse than Brian Wethers was at Cal. Lucas is guaranteed to shoot the ball when he touches it, and his 0.8 assists per game backs that up.

C Derek Potter - 6'11" center - Potter is like Hanchett in that he has just recently been moved into the starting lineup. Though we don't know he will stick there or not tonight. Against ASU he played just eight minutes, while racking up four fouls and attempting no field goals (he scored two points on free throws). What Potter gives Jay John is a legit big body in the middle instead of a small lineup of guards and forwards. He is wide and he is a defensive presence, but he is also a stiff. Potter does not move well at all.

Off the bench, look for Chris Stephens and Kyle Jeffers to get big minutes. They have been prominent starters this year and average good scoring. Stephens in fact is averaging 15 points per game at the two guard spots. Jeffers is an intriguing case - a work in progress. He has some decent instincts inside and can defend pretty well. But he does not have much explosiveness and does not get off the floor like you would want from the position. See if he can survive on the boards when in the game.

Two other key bench players to watch for are Angelo Tsagarkis (6'2" wing) and Kenny Hooks (6'7" forward). Tsagarkis is a classic "chucker" who looks for his shot immediately off the bench. He's one of those shooters with no conscience, and loves anything he can get from deep. He'll shoot about one in six shots inside the arc... though he only hits about 30% from outside. Hooks is a very good athlete currently in a shooting slump. We'll see if he breaks out tonight or not.

It has become nearly unanimously accepted gospel that this 2003-04 Stanford Basketball squad is the most athletic seen in the school's history. But when asked the question, Mike Montgomery gives a typical deferential answer.

"I'm not so sure about that," the Cardinal head coach responds. "You look at teams like Washington and USC - they are some of the more recognized athletic teams in the conference. I don't know that we are more athletic than what they've got."

I hypothesized before this season that point guard Chris Hernandez would have an offensive role not dissimilar to what Mike McDonald did for Stanford on the famed 2000-01 squad. Three years ago, McDonald would drive and dish, and occasionally he would take the ball all the way to the hole. But his best scoring contributions came from spot-up three-point shots. When defenses had to concern themselves with Casey Jacobsen, Ryan Mendez and the Collins twins, very little attention could be reasonably paid to the unassuming McDonald. His shots were not always wide-open, but he seldom was hurting to get shots off. He delivered that year with 51.4% shooting from outside the arc - third best in Stanford history.

Defenses this year are keying more and more on Matt Lottich on the perimeter, and woe unto them as they try to handle an improving Josh Childress. Justin Davis and Rob Little are scoring with high efficiency down low as well. The skills and talents of these four do not precisely parallel the four at the same positions three years ago, but the premise remains the same. Chris Hernandez is getting his share of open looks and is knocking them down. He currently leads the team and the conference with 54.8% shooting from long range.

Schematically it all makes sense, but did anybody expect that the redshirt sophomore point guard could hit at this high clip halfway through the season? After all, Hernandez was never an exceptional perimeter shooter in high school, nor was he prolific from deep in his AAU career. For the former, he ran an up-temp fast-break offense at Clovis West in Fresno; for the latter he distributed the ball to some very talented wings and frontcourt teammates.

Mike Montgomery has one explanation for how Hernandez has emerged as such an accurate assassin from outside, relating back to his injury-affected time during his redshirt 2002-03 season.

"Chris had a lot of dead time last year, when he was standing around and couldn't run," Montgomery opines. "So he worked on his shooting; it was about all he could do. I also think he's taken shots when he's been open this year, and hit them."

Speaking of Hernandez, the rumor spread yesterday about his being out for this weekend's games at the Oregons is untrue. He told The Bootleg today that he practiced yesterday and feels fine. He is slated to start tonight and play normal minutes. Hernandez expects the same for Saturday .

Anyone else surprised at just how much Montgomery is using the 1-1-3 and 2-3 zones this year? They were a surprise he unveiled early last year to buy some wins against unsuspecting opponents like Xavier and Florida, but as the year went on, the zone defense gave way to more and more man-to-man. The explanation was that zone defenses worked less and less for Stanford as other teams figured out how to beat them. The execution was not exceptional, and their were structural flaws that could be exploited. Indeed, you saw teams hurt Stanford's zone when they passed the ball over the top and found open spots on the backside for easy looks at the basket. There were some seams that could be attacked as well.

This year, we instead see Montgomery using the zone as much in late January as he did in late November. There is no question the zone defense has real staying power with this year's squad - at least, to this point.

"We aren't going to catch people off-gaurd anymore," the Cardinal coach offers. "We've gotten some very good mileage out of it, for sure. But people will figure something out. Teams with different shooting or movement can do different things against us. That's what makes basketball interesting. But we've stayed with [the zone] a little bit better this year. The kids like it, and they hustle. But it takes a lot of energy, and when it does break down, it causes trouble."

Watch the key February stretch when Stanford plays conference teams for the second go-around this year. It will be interesting to see which coaches have "figured out" how to beat Stanford's zones, and it will also be interesting to see if the Cardinal players have the endurance to play through it. Many starters are logging longer minutes, and this is the time of year when the grind starts to wear on kids...

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