I don't think my keyboard can handle the number of kudos and superlatives that need to be handed to Monty's men tonight. They took the game with the most dismal outlook that Cardinal fans can remember all season, and they crushed. Down two top-flight forwards were dressed in street clothes on the bench, unable to drive the lane without the use of a cane, the Cardinal were set to face the team that probably should have ended their unbeaten streak in Tempe. Arizona State showed in that January game that they could rise beyond their label of the "Diogu Devils" and push Stanford to the final seconds of regulation. Stanford fans had a million butterflies in their collective stomach coming into this game, so what did the undermanned and (relatively speaking) underdog Cardinal do?
They whipped up on ASU for 40 minutes, pushing their lead higher throughout the final 30 minutes of the game. The final score was 81-51, but the most impressive aspect was how each and every member of the roster made big plays on both sides of the floor. Coaches and players have recently lamented that the team cannot expect to win games when a choice couple players "step up" on various nights. Without Justin Davis and Matt Haryasz, the margin for error was thin, and the execution and effort needed to flow forth in a controlled and consistent manner from the remaining Stanford players.
On this night of frightful expectations, the walking wounded pasted ASU by 30 points, which is triple the average margin of victory in Stanford's previous nine games of Pac-10 play. The 30 points outpaces the combined winning margins of Stanford's last three games combined, and almost doubled the high set at home against Washington State more than a month earlier. And if you look at the lineup scoring in this game, the bench players were the ones that really pounded this game and stretched the lead, in both halves.
In hockey parlance, this is not just scoring a short-handed goal while your star forward is in the penalty box - this is a short-handed slapshot from the blue line, top shelf.
In football parlance, this is not just a heroic touchdown pass on the final play of the game - this is a halfback pass thrown to your gimpy quarterback, 50 yards down the field, off your back foot to win the game.
In baseball parlance, this is not just a no-hitter - this was won with your heralded pitcher slapping an opposite-field double off the wall to drive home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
In hoops parlance, this is just Stanford Basketball.
"I was really pleased with that," Mike Montgomery offers after the 30-point drubbing of ASU. "We lost two guys, and the kids really bought into the fact that we needed to get after [ASU]. We needed to be aggressive."
Earlier this week, Montgomery stated that this team tended to let its defensive intensity derive from its offensive success. When the Card could not buy a bucket in Eugene for the first 25 minutes, they would saunter back to the other end of the floor and yield quick scores. The defense only started to get stops when the offense found its groove, and that is troubling indeed for a head coach.
But on this night, the defense was tenacious from start to finish. Though the second half had more consistent highlights, it was the first stanza where the Cardinal "D" set the tone. Excepting for some very ridiculously plays made by All-American Ike Diogu, who scored ASU's only six points in the first five minutes, the man-to-man defense was suffocating. Then about midway through the first half, the famed "thumb up" sign came in from the bench and Stanford went into its zone. ASU was absolutely stymied from that point on, and they went scoreless for five and a half minutes.
There were some criticisms about Montgomery's defensive plan against Diogu down in Tempe, given how the double-teams appeared to give other ASU players the space and inattention to allow them to score in droves. But the Cardinal coaching staff believe that players tend to play to their tendencies, and ASU tends to toss up bricks from outside. It still puzzles how the Solar Satans tossed in 56% of their shots from three-point range in that first game, but you cannot ignore how they have shot less than 33% in their other conference games. Diogu can dominate, so the bulk of the defensive plan this night was to zone up and freely rotate into double-teams whenever super sophomore touched the ball.
More than just a good plan, the Stanford defense executed superbly. Rob Little or Joe Kirchofer would put a chest up on Diogu as soon as he caught the ball and extend both arms over his head. Then usually Nick Robinson (at the power forward) would collapse to pin down the conference's leading scorer. Not only did Diogu have to pass out of these double-teams repeatedly, but also he was so masterfully trapped that he could not manage enough space to draw fouls. For Stanford's foul-prone big men to execute that plan and in doing so only give Diogu two total free throws in the game (he averages 10 made FTs per game), is as impressive as any other statistic in this game.
"We felt we needed to double down on him," Montgomery says of the ASU sophomore center. "We even managed to get some charge calls. I was just worried about foul trouble. We didn't have many places to go if we got in trouble."
"It's tough having a defender every where you turn," says Kirchofer of his Sun Devil opponent this night. "Nick did a great job - quick to the double. He didn't give [Diogu] any space."
Ike Diogu made just six field goals on 14 attempts for the game, and he was forced to turn the ball over five times. With 14 points and just two free throws in his 36 minutes, it was mission accomplished for the Cardinal defenders.
But the offense was a little rocky to start the game. Stanford missed its first three field goals, and one of them was a psychologically crushing blow. Without the services of Justin Davis or Matt Haryasz, the home team needed to see Rob Little step up as an efficient scoring threat in the post. But when he first touched the ball deep in the pain, he missed a chippie that should have been an easy bucket.
"I missed an easy shot and it kind of pissed me off," Little would offer after the game.
"Rob sometimes is a guy who goes as his first basket," Montgomery adds. Basketball fans think of perimeter shooters in this way, and teammate Matt Lottich carried that label last year, in fact. But Little is someone who thrives or crumbles with his first successes or failures on offense. If this was going to be another eye-rolling empty game for Little on offense, and if Diogu was going to dominated the way he looked in the opening minutes, this could be a long night.
Montgomery a couple minutes later substituted Kirchofer in for Little, even though the starting center did put down three of Stanford's first nine points. The offense stalled and did not score for a 4:40 stretch until Dan Grunfeld drove the lane and drew a foul. The sophomore wing hit a pair of free throws to nudge Stanford to a 13-10 lead, but then the Rob Little Show came back to front stage. The 6'9" 265-pound junior hit 5-of-5 shots in a five and a half minute stretch, ranging from lay-ups to turnaround jumpers to mini-hooks.
"You're going to have games where you get the ball in good position and the shots just go down," he plainly explains. "Who can predict these things?"
In the flash of an eye, Stanford took a one-point guard and from Grunfeld's free throws forward outscored ASU 32-12 in the final 10 minutes of the half. This was not your typical Cardinal scoring run, however:
- They attempted only one three-pointer in the first 19 minutes of the half, which Chris Hernandez missed. And by the time they hit their first trey in the final minute, they already were holding an 18-point lead. This was a lead built by scores in the paint and at the free throw line. No hot perimeter shooting was responsible for the run.
- Believe it or not, Stanford did not get out and score that much on the break. ASU's guards usually got back and fronted Stanford's ballhandlers, which put much of the scoring in halfcourt sets.
- The lead really opened up when Stanford had some key starters on the bench. It was Jason Haas at the helm for the middle minutes of the half that saw a small lead break open, and the substitution of Fred Washington for Josh Childress did nothing to hinder the burgeoning team success. Haas in particular deserves a load of credit for how well he controlled and directed the offense during arguably the team's best five minutes of the half.
If there was one slight smudge on the first half of play, where Stanford shot 51.6% from the field and 66.7% outside to ASU's 31.3% and 22.2%, it was the rebounding. When a team is hitting a high percentage of their shots and clamping down on the other team, there should be a concomitant rebounding edge. Defensive boards are always easier to pull down than those on the offensive end, and but the Devils outdid the Card in the first half with a 22-18 rebounding advantage.
That is about as tiny a nit as you can pick on that marvelous first half of energy and execution, and sure enough even it faded away in the second stanza, when Stanford won the battle on the boards 23-16. But that is window dressing. The real excitement of the second half was what Stanford was able to do with their lead.
The Card have been lambasted by fans, and internally by members of the team like Justin Davis, for not exerting the "killer instinct" to finish off games. Already up by 21, Stanford quickly extended the lead to 25 in the opening minutes on a slashing Robinson lay-up, a Little score on the low block from a Lottich lob pass and finally a Lottich three-point bomb.
There were a few hiccups, though. Rob Little picked up three fouls in the first five and a half minutes, which came after a fantastic foul-free first half. Josh Childress struggled mightily to get the ball in the hole, missing his first three shots after halftime. ASU did muster a little 5-0 run to cut the lead to 18, but Stanford again went off to the races and never looked back. The #2 ranked Cardinal jumped to a 14-2 run that suddenly pushed the margin out to 30 points and ended any thoughts of a comeback.
Once again, though, the reserves were the fuel during this fiery run. Jason Haas subbed in for Chris Hernandez with more than 12 minutes to go in the half and allowed the starting point guard to rest the entire remainder of the game. Nick Robinson had also logged huge minutes in the game, playing 17 in the first half as Little and Kirchofer primarily switched in and out at the center positions. But freshman Evan Moore was inserted into the game with 10+ minutes to go and almost went the distance at the power forward, had he not missed the last minute with a bloodied nose. Haas hit a three-pointer in the second half, which was his first make (or attempt!) since the Florida International game almost 50 days ago. Moore showed high confidence in the low post, putting up shots after pump-fakes and twice hitting buckets. He happened to be shooting at the basket where a small gathering of his football teammates were cheering like mad. All-everything free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was on his feet more than the Sixth Man Club while his receiver teammate was in the game.
Fred Washington provided a real spark in his eight minutes in the second half as well, aggressively attacking the boards and doing a very solid job out on the backside wing of the zone defense. You know it's all good when Washington drains a line-drive 19-foot jumper with his foot on the line. Maybe the quietest contribution off the bench came from Dan Grunfeld. He is pigeon-holed as a pure perimeter shooter, even though he has been a little reticent to put up shots from outside lately. But Grunfeld showed in this game why he is a versatile wing player who can contribute as a small forward. He posted up on the low block and was aggressive offensively in the pain. That helped him to nine points, including one field goal and 7-of-8 shooting from the stripe. His one made basket, by the way, was an offensive tip-in high above the ASU frontcourt players.
"The bench was great," Montgomery applauds. "Just fantastic. The game really started to move when we brought some guys in. Nobody played 30 minutes, and that's key with a noon game Saturday [against Arizona]."
Nine players logged double-digit minutes, and Moore would have joined that group had he not been whacked under the basket and bled his way to the bench. For a lineup so thin on numbers right now, and especially with Chris Hernandez having logged 35 or more minutes in five of his last six games, this was an incredible time to have such a huge lead and get guys rest.
But you should not think that Hernandez, Lottich, Robinson, Little and the rest are bouncing up and down tonight with energy to burn. The 40 minutes of defensive intensity took a lot out of every player, especially with how long they played zone defense. That requires a lot of movement on that end of the floor, not just for the perimeter guys but also for the post players. When you are swinging around for double-teams like they gave Diogu all night, you cover a lot of ground and make some pretty quick accelerations when you react to the ball.
"The guys are really tired, but it's a good tired," Montgomery offers.
Little and Kirchofer were both dragging at points in the second half, even though they averaged just a hair above 20 minutes.
"I actually felt like I was out of shape out there," Kirchofer admits. "I asked the coaches and they said I was fine. But I was frustrated because I was getting tired."
In perhaps the greatest feel-good moment of the night, the players certainly exhibited a wealth of energy and excitement in the final minute of the game when sophomore walk-on Carlton Weatherby took the floor. Fans and teammates alike implored him to shoot the ball, and he misfired on a three-point attempt in the final 20 seconds of the game. It appeared that he missed his one crack at scoring, but then Kirchofer blocked a shot attempt by ASU on the other end. The shot clock was off, but Stanford had the ball back, and the fearless Fred Washington grabbed the loose ball rebound and pushed it immediately the other way. He hit a streaking Weatherby on the right wing, who slashed to the basket and made a nifty lay-in with one second left in regulation. The bucket lifted every player and fan off their seats, and loving teammates swarmed around the beloved sophomore as if he had hit the winning shot.
In every way, this was a feel-good night. You were reminded that this team is far greater than the sum of its parts, with constant surprises unveiled in each game. Defense, hustle and intensity carried the game, while focus finished it in the second half. Stanford logged 20 assists in the game versus 10 turnovers, while slapping and stripping their way to nine steals. They took precious few three-point shots, simply because they did not need to take more, but hit nearly 63% of them. The defense held ASU to just 21 field goals and 17% outside shooting, while fouling very few times.
Rob Little scored 13 of his 17 points in the first half, tying his high for the season, while Josh Childress and Matt Lottich each added 11. Childress shot 5-of-12 from the field, and struggled offensively, but he again dominated on the defensive boards, with a game-high seven (eight overall). Stanford now sits at 19-0 and are one game away from tying their all-time best starting record. Saturday brings the up-and-down Arizona Wildcats to Maples, where the Card have dropped each of the last four years.
- How deep is UCLA's funk right now? They're so bad that they've lost seven of their last six games. Well, it sure seems like it with the pervasive stink of burnt rubber from their epic skid. Losing a streak of five games in a Pac-10 this bad is not nauseating enough. No, Ben "Houdini" Howland crossed into uncharted waters by serving up the first ever loss for the Baby Blues in Pauley Pavilion to Washington State. This now begs the question: if last year was rock bottom for UCLA fans in the Steve Lavin swoon song, then does that mean Howland is drilling with a tungsten-carbide bit to break through that previously impenetrable chasm floor?
- Kudos to the Berkeley Bears. They managed a four-point win over a team just one game ahead of them in the Lower Pac-9 standings. Ah, but the win was a marvelous one for Benny Braun's boys. For the first time in the entire 2003-04 season, they are above .500. To celebrate this magnanimous measure of mediocrity, their fans stormed the court. Who ever heard of such a swell of emotion to mark a program's placement on the NIT bubble?
- Actually, let's dispense with the specifics. It's barely entertaining to look around the conference these days, despite the hilarity and hijinks provided twice each week. It becomes increasingly clear that there is no number two team in the conference; Stanford is towering above nine indistinguishable ninnies. The "conference race" has as much intrigue as the very unpublicized Flo-Jo vs. Steven Hawking 100m pay-per-view flop of 1989. The good news is that next week brings just one game for Stanford, and that means more days for global strategy. If Mike Montgomery wants to get serious about NCAA Tournament preparation, then he needs to pow wow with Ted Leland and push the long-discussed secession proposal. That's right - it's high time to high tail it out of this cesspool for the remainder of the season. After Saturday's mauling of the Mildcats, Stanford could forfeit the remainder of their games and probably still win the conference crown. Monty and the kids could spend the ensuing five weeks in the much more productive practice of intrasquad scrimmages. If we have learned one thing tonight, it's that Stanford's "white team" of reserves is very likely the second best team in the conference. And you only get better when you push yourself against top competition. The best part of this plan is that Stanford's schedule strength will rapidly rise as the Card keep playing themselves...
- One final thought. What do you bet the Pac-10 gets three teams in the NCAA Tournament? No, no. I'm not talking about some darkhorse team like Cal or Washington getting hot and winning a huge run of games these next four weeks. I'm thinking that if Stanford sleepwalks as per their usual Staples Center fashion, they could certainly bounce out early. Arizona looks awfully iffy right now as well. So it would not surprise me at all if somebody else bumbles and stumbles their way into the Big Dance by winning a 52-49 stinker in the final game. I have to believe all the other eight schools want to do right now is qualify for the Pac-10 Tourney. Just don't end up in 9th or 10th place when the music stops. Once the eight teams get to L.A., it could be a total crap shoot who wins.
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