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Stanford Basketball fans can rest assured; the future is in very capable hands. Saturday's game at The PIT in Oregon confirmed what all of us had been believing and hoping for most of the past two years. It turns out that Matt Haryasz and Chris Hernandez are going to be just as good (if not better) than advertised. I know that one game might seem a bit hasty to make this type of pronouncement, but the evidence was certainly present during Stanford's exhilarating come from behind victory. On a day when Justin Davis was injured, Rob Little had almost as many fouls as total minutes played, and Josh Childress struggled in many facets of his game, two of the younger Stanford Cardinal stepped forward with the best performances of their careers. The graduation of Davis and Matt Lottich, plus the possibility of Childress entering the draft, could leave Stanford somewhat depleted next season, but leadership on and off the court will not be a problem.
Consider the performances by Haryasz and Hernandez on Saturday. Essentially, the sophomore combo took the game over on the offensive end when they were needed most. Haryasz looked comfortable and confident holding the ball at a number of positions around the court. When he caught the ball in the post he scored on a variety of flips and scoops. When he caught the ball up top he was confident putting the ball on the ground and driving to the hole. Haryasz was also responsible for sealing the victory with his aggressive drive-and-dish basket to Nick Robinson down the stretch. The basket epitomized why Haryasz will be such a valuable contributor to the Card in the future. Haryasz realized that the defense had no answer to his aggressive drives and when they shaded additional defensive forces over to him in the hopes of getting the crucial stop, he dumped to the open Robinson for the easy hoop. One of the most important skills for a talented big man to learn is that he can't do it all himself. He needs to be able to sense when he is the focus of the defense and find the openings. Haryasz has done a good job of contributing all season long, but on Saturday he was a dominant force inside for Stanford and showed Stanford fans why they should be excited to watch him continue to grow in the next two-plus years.
Chris Hernandez has been no secret to Card fans this season, but it appears that he is now being talked about by people all over the nation. Hernandez played aggressive defense for much of the season, hit a high percentage of threes, and generally had a nice assist to turnover ratio. On Saturday he grew from stable point guard to dynamic floor leader. Hernandez recognized that Stanford could only get back into the game by using skills that are unique to him (the ability to drive the offense at breakneck speed but still make excellent decisions). After a scoreless first half Hernandez scored on drives, jumpers, and three-pointers. More importantly, Hernandez helped the Card establish an offensive rhythm that had been sorely absent for most of the previous three halves of the road trip. The ability of Hernandez to take the reins of a struggling offense and initiate the huge comeback is very telling. Essentially, Chris Hernandez refuses to lose. I have never once seen him quit on the basketball court and it was no different Saturday afternoon. With all of the odds stacked against him, with the crowd bouncing and raucous, and with Stanford facing a 19-point deficit, a lesser point guard would have succumbed. Chris Hernandez is not a lesser point guard. Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz began their quest to become one of the most explosive duos in the Pac-10 on Saturday and because of that, the future looks very bright for the Cardinal.
Halfway home: Is the impossible becoming more possible?
After the impressive sweep in Oregon the Stanford Cardinal are now halfway to completing the first perfect season in the Pac-10. After having faced everyone once it is fairly apparent that Stanford will have no easy games left on their schedule. Each of the nine other teams in the conference will have their sights set squarely on the Card. For a lesser Pac-10 team a victory over Stanford would make their season worthwhile. For a team like Oregon, Cal, or UCLA, beating a team of Stanford's caliber could be the quality win that earns them a spot in the NCAA Tournament. With that said, Stanford has to be brimming with confidence at the halfway pole. Here is a closer look at the four most dangerous games that still stand between Stanford and the perfect season.
- Arizona at Stanford - Arizona has struggled recently dropping conference games at USC and Washington, and because of that some of their national prestige is beginning to fade. However, Arizona would certainly reestablish that they are a real contender with a victory at Maples Pavilion. Other than Stanford, Arizona is the most talented team in the Pac-10 and still remains the most likely threat to knock off the Card. Maples will be rocking on Saturday but there is also the little matter of four consecutive Wildcat victories on the Farm…
- Stanford at USC - Just remember the game last week at home against the Trojans. USC had one of its most inspired efforts of the season and were nearly too quick and tough for the Card. Stanford bore down and hit harder, ran faster, jumped higher, and executed better than the Trojans down the stretch, but USC has to feel that they let one slip through their fingers. If USC can repeat their same effort and intensity at home in front of a tough crowd, Stanford could find themselves in some trouble. Plus, something tells me that Desmon Farmer might be just a bit fired up…
- Stanford at California - Cal has been playing better as of late and playing in front of the rowdy Cal student section is never an enticing option. The schedule would have been better if Stanford had played the first game at Cal when the Bears were really struggling, and this game should be very emotional and hard fought. Remember, Cal still needs a quality win to have any shot at an at large tourney bid, and if Stanford somehow wanders in to their home gym with a perfect record, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Bears will do everything in their power to ruin that.
- Stanford at Washington - Stop laughing, this could be a very difficult game for Stanford for a few reasons. First, if Stanford is still undefeated heading into this game they will be 26-0 (17-0 in conference play) and only this game would stand in between the Card and a perfect regular season. By this point, the pressure would be very high. Second, this is a much-improved Huskies team that has already beaten Arizona on their home floor. The crowd will be loud and the Huskies will be a game opponent. Finally, Nate Robinson is the type of player who can take over a game (like Desmon Farmer) and single-handedly lead his team to victory. If he gets hot this could be a tough game.
So can it happen? Right now the obvious answer is that it is highly unlikely. The Pac-10 schedule is just too difficult to expect perfection. However, as each game ticks away and Stanford remains undefeated, expectations grow and more people begin to get excited by the prospect of a perfect season. Just remember, nine games is a log way to go in the Pac-10, especially when you are a marked target.
Arizona's loss to Washington, as well as losses by Louisville and Cincinnati among others, is allowing Stanford a greater margin for error in its quest to earn the West's Number One seed. With Arizona now having four losses (including one to Stanford), Stanford could probably lose three times (including the Pac-10 tourney) and feel fairly secure in being the number one seed out West. Two of the three losses could come against the Wildcats and Stanford would probably still be safe. Stanford may even be able to drop four games and still be the top seed in the West. However, if two of those losses were to Arizona and they both finished with four, Stanford could find themselves in some trouble. The moral of this story is that because so many top teams have faltered as of late (Arizona especially), Stanford's margin for error has also increased. Right now it appears that only Duke, Stanford, St. Joseph's, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and maybe Mississippi St. would have the credentials (quality wins, potential quality wins, strength of schedule, etc…) to compete for a number one seed. Thus, Stanford has to be feeling pretty good about things with nine games to go...
It might not have been pretty, but it was certainly nice to see Matt Lottich shoot 5-of-11 against Oregon. Lottich had been slumping pretty badly up until Saturday (highlighted by a 1-of-12 performance against Oregon State) and it was nice to see his stroke back. Make no mistake about it, Stanford needs Matt Lotttich to hit a high percentage of his shots to make any sort of sustained run...
Joe Kirchofer is tough as nails. He was forced into a larger role because of Justin Davis' absence and Rob Little's ineffectiveness/fouls, and much like Matt Haryasz, he responded with flying colors. In 21 minutes, the senior had seven points and eight rebounds and played good defense. Most telling was that Kirchofer was on the court for much of the dramatic comeback and was a key contributor...
59 Points in the 2nd half! Wow, what an offensive outpouring. Once again, a tip of the cap to Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz, the two dynamos who initiated the final push...
What a great effort from the Oregon crowd on Saturday afternoon. That is what college basketball is all about. Winning on the road is so much more enjoyable when you can silence a raucous crowd. Make no mistake about it, the Oregon fans brought energy from the opening seconds. The Oregon fans came to play, but Stanford players were the big bullies who got the last word...
The Top 20
This week, a few mid-majors finally cracked the top 20, and why not? So many of the power conference teams are inconsistent and losing games they should win, so it is time to recognize some of the more consistent and lesser known teams in the nation. Plus, the gap between Duke and Stanford is as close as it has ever been. If Stanford sweeps the Arizona schools this weekend, expect a new number one…
- Duke (18-1, Previous Rank: 1) - The Blue Devils continue to win, but their stranglehold on the top spot is beginning to slip as Stanford keeps on winning. Still, the victory over Georgia Tech was big because they won despite facing a very motivated and skilled opponent.
- Stanford (18-0, PR: 2) - Stanford keeps finding ways to win. The comeback over Oregon was a thing of beauty and makes even the most realistic fans wonder if perfection is possible. Only a lackluster performance against Oregon State keeps them from rising to number one. Big weekend with the Arizona schools could very well move Stanford to the top of the rankings.
- St. Joseph's (18-0, PR: 4) - St. Joe's is one of the scrappiest teams in the nation. I still think they are the best bet to go undefeated and appear to have a complete team. 20 3-pointers against Temple is an incredible statistic.
- Connecticut (17-3, PR: 8) - The Huskies move back into the top four after a 2-0 week. Still, the game against Boston College was a little close for comfort and it is tough to tell whether this team is overrated or has yet to hit its stride.
- Pittsburgh (20-1, PR: 9) - The Panthers have one loss (at UConn) and are playing as well as anyone right now. The only thing that keeps them out of the top four is that I am not ready to move them past Connecticut yet. Still, keep a close watch on this very explosive team.
- Louisville (16-2, PR: 3) - Louisville finally lost its second game, but Marquette has been playing well lately. Still, losing at home is discouraging for the Cardinals. Despite the loss, Louisville is still one of the best teams in the country, and I think there is a fairly distinct gap between the top six teams in the rankings and everyone else.
- Mississippi State (18-1, PR: 10) - This team somehow remains one of the best kept secrets in the nation. I am simply amazed that they don't get more credit for a phenomenal season. They blew out a decent Tennessee team and held on over Auburn. These guys are scary and will be a major player come March. Just ask Kentucky how good they are.
- Gonzaga (17-2, PR: 5) - The Zags have done nothing wrong. The only reason they are falling is because other teams are racking up big victories while the Bulldogs feast on San Diego, Santa Clara, and Loyola Marymount.
- Oklahoma State (15-2, PR: 11) - Another team flying below the radar, but the big win over Texas Tech keeps them climbing up the rankings. They play a fairly physical style of basketball and are quickly emerging as one of my co-favorites in the Big 12 alongside Texas.
- Kentucky (14-3, PR: 6) - Another inconsistent week from the nation's second most inconsistent top team (only Arizona is more puzzling). Kentucky looked very solid in dispatching Mississippi but then fell to Vanderbilt. It wasn't so much that they lost, but the Wildcats are letting opponents dictate tempo, which is never a good sign.
- Texas (14-3, PR: 13) - Beat a couple of state rivals (Tech and A&M) to rebound from the loss to Oklahoma State. As I mentioned, the Big 12 will be a tight race between these two very physical and highly skilled teams.
- Wisconsin (14-3, PR: 16) - With the Badgers' victory over Ohio State and the consecutive conference losses by Purdue, Wisconsin is the only Big 10 team worthy of top 20 consideration. The Badgers play tough defense and are a good rebounding team, which is usually a recipe for success in the Big 10. Still, does success in the Big 10 mean anything this year?
- Cincinnati (15-2, PR: 17) - The Bearcats suffered a tough loss to the Charlotte 49ers, but this is still a very aggressive defensive team with terrific individual offensive players.
- Arizona (14-4, PR: 7) - This is the most inconsistent top 20 team in the nation. This is a team that can beat UCLA by 30 and then lose to Washington and barely beat Washington State. I know the Washington schools are improved, but Arizona needs to win these games. Any chance at a top two seed on Selection Sunday is going to take a win this Saturday at Maples Pavilion.
- Georgia Tech (16-4, PR: 19) - The Jackets can't be penalized too severely for losing to Duke (even if it was at home). Duke is playing at a different level from most teams and the fact that Tech kept it close is encouraging. I still think this team has a Sweet 16 run and beyond in them.
- North Carolina (13-5, PR: 15) - The Tar Heels had a bad loss this week to Clemson, but really no one behind them deserves to jump any higher. The Heels are suffering from the same problems as many of the nation's other top teams (inconsistent offense, inability to stop penetration, and poor rebounding). Teams like UNC must fix these problems now to avoid early disappointments come March.
- Southern Illinois (16-2, PR: Not Ranked) - The Salukis finally crack the top 20, and why not? After a tough loss to Charlotte, Southern Illinois has won eight straight games. They are 10-0 in the tough Missouri Valley conference and lead by two games. However, this week features the first of two games against Creighton that will go a long way to determining if these guys are for real.
- Wake Forest (13-4, PR: NR) - The Demon Deacons move back into the top 20 after posting a pair of solid ACC victories over Maryland and Virginia. Despite a rough past couple of weeks they are still a very big threat in the ACC and will find a way to advance deep in the tourney.
- Utah State (17-1, PR: NR) - Only a close 11-point loss to Utah stands between State and a perfect record. Not only does this fundamentally sound team win all of its Big West games, but they seem to do it rather easily by dictating tempo and playing aggressive defense.
- Creighton (16-2, PR: NR) - They uncharacteristically dropped a couple of early conference games but have since rebounded. Like past Creighton teams, these guys will play solid fundamental basketball and won't beat themselves. They might seem a questionable number 20, but who below them in the bunch of inconsistent major conference teams deserves this spot more?
Also receiving consideration (alphabetical order)
Dropped from Consideration
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