The message boards have been flooded with posts about the impact of Justin Davis' injury and absence on Stanford's postseason hopes. At this point, nobody knows for certain how Davis' knee will respond over the coming weeks and how close he will be to his former self when the NCAA tournament commences March 18.
Regardless of when Davis returns and whether he's close to 100% for the postseason, the one certainty is that the Cardinal will be without his services for the next few weeks. Therefore, the immediate question is how the senior power forward's absence will impact the team down the regular season stretch?
1. Davis' minutes at the power forward position will be filled by a combination of players. It's tempting to look at the impact on Stanford's lineup by simply comparing how Matt Haryasz, Davis' replacement in the starting lineup, will fare in the minutes that would have been logged by Davis. But that is too simplistic an analysis. Even before Davis' injury, Haryasz was averaging about 16 minutes per game, while Davis was averaging about 22. Clearly, Haryasz will only take up a portion of the minutes that the injured senior would have played. (Against Oregon, he played 33 minutes.) Joe Kirchofer is likely to see his minutes increase almost as dramatically as Haryasz'. Expect Nick Robinson to log more than the occasional minute or two at the power forward position, as well, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Montgomery utilize Josh Childress at the four on some rare occasions when the matchups favor a small (three guard) lineup.
2. The absence of Davis will have a ripple effect on the rotation at the wing positions. The more minutes Robinson plays at the four, the less he is available to back up the small forward and shooting guard positions. Coach Montgomery had shown a recent willingness to play Robinson at the "two" alongside Childress at the "three," but that combination is going to be less likely now. Dan Grunfeld and Fred Washington will get more playing time and will need to step up to the challenge.
3. By now, most Stanford fans are familiar with Haryasz' offensive game to know how he differs from Davis. He is most comfortable facing the basket in the high post. He can shoot from there or put the ball on the floor and take it to the hole (sometimes with just one dribble). He is less comfortable with his back to the basket and occasionally has trouble holding position, but he does have a fadeaway jumper and up-and-under move that can be tough to defend. Haryasz is more vulnerable to being doubled than is Davis, as he is less comfortable passing out of the double team (I'd rather not mention his assist to turnover ratio). Mike Montgomery has shown an inclination to adjust the usual mix of plays to take advantage of Haryasz' strengths when he is in the game. With an increase in the sophomore's minutes, the different strategy should become more obvious to fans. Haryasz will get the ball in the high post between the foul line and arc a bit more often than Davis did (and somewhat less in the low post), giving him the opportunity to shoot his jumper or take his man off the dribble. He'll also be used to set high screens for our guards, particularly Chris Hernandez, who utilized Haryasz screens effectively on Saturday and was able to turn the corner a couple of times. When Nick Robinson plays the "four," we can expect another set of adjustments on offense, as the redshirt junior will rarely get the ball in the low post.
4. The impact of Davis' absence is likely to be felt more on the defensive end than the offensive end. Davis was our most well-rounded post defender, agile enough to handle quick forwards, but big and strong enough to put a body on any power forward in the conference and not get backed down. While Haryasz is an effective defender in many respects and can change games with his shotblocking (at least when the officials are calling a reasonable game), he is somewhat vulnerable to strong post players backing him down. The sophomore will erase some of his mistakes with blocks, but he'll give up a few more easy buckets than would Davis. Kirchofer, the other primary recipient of "Davis' minutes," is less versatile than Haryasz on defense, but can be very effective defending the low post. He uses his bulk well, and draws quite a few fouls on both ends by working hard to establish position. One concern applicable to both Haryasz and Kirchofer is that each has shown an occasional propensity for picking up fouls in bunches. That didn't hurt the Card when it had a full complement of post players, but that's something that could hurt Stanford going forward, particularly against Arizona State and Ike Diogu on Thursday.
5. A number of players are going to have to log more minutes than they have been accustomed to. Many Cardinalmaniacs™ have been worrying about the extreme number of minutes logged by Chris Hernandez, but we're likely to see the other starters push their limits, not only because Stanford is shorthanded, but because the Card is likely to have more games that come down to the wire. Fatigue could become a factor.
A Davis-less Future
Because nobody knows how healthy Davis will be for the postseason, it's difficult to assess how Stanford's chances of success in the NCAA tournament have been impacted.
In one scenario, Davis works his way back from injury and is relatively healthy by the time the NCAA tournament starts. Simply put, I don't see a frontcourt out there that is superior to Stanford's when everyone is healthy. The Card's "two-deep" of Childress/Robinson, Davis/Haryasz and Little/Kirchofer boasts not only quality and variety, but enough depth to overcome foul trouble and even deal with a superstar like Emeka Okafor (think Tim Duncan, 1996). The Cardinal big men learned a painful lesson last March, and put in the off-season work to ensure that they will not be pushed around again. When healthy, Stanford's frontline is significantly stronger than last year's edition, and it gives our guards the opportunity to thrive as well. Regardless of Stanford's seeding, if Davis is at or close to 100% by late March, Stanford has as good a shot as anyone at the Final Four and the National Championship. In my opinion, when healthy, Stanford can beat anyone with its "A" game.
On the other hand, if Davis is unavailable or substantially limited, Stanford may need a favorable draw to get past the sweet sixteen. Without Davis, Stanford will not necessarily have an advantage in the frontcourt in a given game, although it will in most. As good as Chris Hernandez and Matt Lottich are, they are at their best when Stanford establishes an inside game on offense. On the defensive end, Stanford has been vulnerable to the three-pointer, but its ability to shut down the interior in almost every game and to control the boards has been the key to the team's success. Without Davis, Stanford cannot be assured of owning the paint, and at some point in the six games necessary to win the national championship, foul trouble is likely to catch up to the Card. My bottom line: if Davis is unavailable or is significantly limited in the tournament, Stanford needs some serious breaks to have a shot at the Final Four. Even if Stanford plays its "A" game, there are a number of teams out there that can beat the Card without Justin, and many can win if Stanford doesn't bring its "A" game.
Although the National Championship is Stanford's ultimate goal, there are a couple of other prizes within the Cardinal's reach. Two-thirds of the way through the regular season, a perfect record is still within reach. And halfway through the Pac-10 season, the Card has a three game lead in the conference standings. A hot topic in the coming days will be whether Stanford can remain undefeated and win the regular season conference title without Davis. In my opinion, an undefeated regular season is extremely unlikely at this point. Although Stanford has a chance to be the betting favorite in each of the remaining nine games, several dangerous contests remain, most notably the two this week and the games at Cal, USC and Washington. At some point, it is almost inevitable that foul trouble will cost Stanford a game or two. With Davis, Stanford could get away with some foul trouble thanks to its extraordinary depth and the versatility of several players, most notably Nick Robinson. Without Davis, foul trouble along the frontline can be critical. Stanford was able to overcome Rob Little's foul woes against Oregon, but the Card won't get away with that too many times. My best guess is that Stanford will finish 6-3 down the stretch and win the regular season conference title at 15-3. Of course, Stanford can all but clinch first place with a sweep this week, as it would create a full four game cushion (at least) in the standings.
1. Stanford (18-0, 9-0). The Card would be the #1 seed in the West if the season ended today. I've posited that Stanford fans would not need to worry about losing that coveted slot unless the Card loses more than two games before the tournament. That's even more true now, as the selection committee will cut some slack based on Justin Davis' injury (so long as he's reasonably healthy by the time Selection Sunday arrives). On the other hand, if Stanford loses some games and the senior forward is not healthy for the big dance, the Card's seeding could be adversely impacted. The Committee is not shy about taking into consideration in the seeding process the unavailability of key players.
2. Arizona (14-4, 6-3). The Mildcats came perilously close to being swept in Washington last week, and are now looking at a #5 seed. This week's games will be key for Arizona's seeding prospects, and the game at Maples represents the Mildcats' last chance for another quality road/neutral site win.
None. Go ahead, berate me for ignoring the historical precedents for the Pac-10 getting at least three teams into the dance every year. Criticize me for being a "homer" if you will. If the season were to end today, the Pac-10 wouldn't even come close to getting a third at-large bid. Unless one of the bottom eight teams goes 7-2 in the second half, there's no need to bring up the "B" word again. Of course, it would come as no surprise if a team like USC were to continue to play up and down ball for the remainder of the regular season and then tear through the field at Staples to get an automatic bid. In fact, I almost expect it.
1. Oregon (10-6, 5-4). After blowing their shot at a quality win, the Ducks look like a lock for the NIT.
2. Kal (9-9, 5-4). Win-lose-win-lose. The momentum-less Bears should split yet again this week, continuing their season-long quest to redefine the terms "middling" and "mediocre."
3. USC (9-9, 4-5). With the most upside potential despite a certifiable coach and volatile players, the Trojans could win the NIT, or be left out of the field completely.
4. UCLA (9-8, 5-4). The Bruins are here by default only, thanks to their 9-7 (5-4) record. After getting smoked by St. John's, the Bruins will have a tough time finding anything positive to build on. Ben Howland is playing out the string at this point, waiting for "his" recruits to arrive. Wonder what his current players think about that? Next year will be very interesting in Westwood.
1. Washington State (9-10, 3-6). Coach Dick Bennett had to miss a game with the flu. It's the dead of Winter in the Palouse. Marcus Moore's head is already in the NBA. Any chance Bennett is questioning what the hell he was thinking in taking this job?
2. Arizona State (8-10, 2-7). Way too much talent to be 2-7 in a weak Pac-10.
3. Oregon State (8-11, 2-7). At least the Beavers have exceeded expectations by not being in sole possession of last place.
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