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This past weekend saw the Stanford Cardinal move to 23-0 and win two games in very different manners. The victory Saturday over UCLA was the typical starless victory that has epitomized Mike Montgomery's squad this year. Rob Little led the team in scoring and rebounding against the Bruins, but overall, the win was a solid team victory. No one particular player stood out and shone, although Stanford got several solid performances from some of its best players. Nick Robinson played his usual overall game by scoring a career high fifteen points to go along with six rebounds, while also playing his brand of basketball that produces uncounted positives that don't show up in the box score. Matt Lottich continued his recent hot shooting by scoring fourteen points on only six shots from the field. Josh Childress didn't have an awesome overall game, but he was consistent and chipped in a healthy fourteen points, five rebounds, and three assists. Chris Hernandez didn't reach double-digit points, but his effect on the game was also very important as he once again did a very good job of running the offense. Finally, senior Joe Kirchofer provided good minutes off the bench in the front court for the Cardinal. When you add up all of the parts you are left with a very typical performance from the Stanford Cardinal team in 2004; no star player taking the game over and everyone knowing and fulfilling their roles. Saturday was the ultimate team performance from the a squad that does its very best to play team oriented basketball. Chalk up Saturday as the perfect example of winning games on a starless basketball team.
Thursday night's victory over USC was the polar opposite. Josh Childress and Matt Lottich combined to score 56 of the Cardinal's 76 points, and Childress was spectacular for most of the evening. Childress was simply dominant and easily scored on a vast array of flips, drives, and jumpers. Most importantly, when his team needed a basket most he rose to the occasion and took over the game the way a leader should. Lottich showed that he is as unflappable as players come. Despite a horrendous shooting performance in the first half (and the fact that he has been slumping badly as of late) he kept shooting the ball in the second half and helped fuel the biggest Cardinal run of the game. On a night when the rest of the team combined for 20 points on 9-24 shooting, Lottich and Childress needed to be every bit as good as they were. Credit Childress for realizing that his team needed a spark and for taking over. Lottich got hot mostly on the strength of the Trojans having absolutely no answer for Childress and having to play a zone defense. The zone continually had to collapse to prevent Childress' penetration and this left Lottich all alone on the perimeter. If history has taught Cardinal fans anything it is that Lottich is a streaky shooter. Once he gets going he can put on some truly awesome shooting displays. His 18 points in the second half against USC are the perfect example of this fact. Chalk up Thursday as the perfect example of winning games based solely on the effort and ability of a team's stars.
So, we are left with two very different games, and in my opinion, even more reason to believe that this is the Cardinal basketball team that can make it back to the Final Four and beyond. Saturday's game against UCLA, and many of the previous games this season, showed the uniqueness of Stanford. Stanford is so difficult to defend for most defenses because they are so deep and have so many options. If a team focuses on stopping Justin Davis and Rob Little they ultimately leave tremendous perimeter shooters unguarded. If a defense tries to focus on stopping the incredible talent of Josh Childress then other players find themselves with wide-open jump shots. If teams try to harass and pressure Chris Hernandez and Matt Lottich they leave their interior defense badly exposed and vulnerable to getting burned in tough one on one matchups. If players get tired or hurt, the bench is very deep with all sorts of contributors and diverse talents for Coach Montgomery to utilize. Essentially, what makes this team so difficult to defend is that they play offense with no ego. Everyone contributes and the offense functions very fluidly with opposing defenses being unable to focus on any one particular aspect of it to shut it down.
However, while the reliance on such a team offense makes Stanford so difficult to defend, it is also one of their greatest weaknesses. If teams play a very aggressive pressure defense (as USC did on Thursday), and a few Cardinal players have off nights shooting the ball, the offense can bog down in a series of missed shots and turnovers. Thursday's game though, is why Stanford fans should really start to get excited about this team (if 23-0 and a number one ranking wasn't enough reason already). Stanford finally found the answer to the problem of what to do when the offense bogs down. It turns out that Stanford does have a star that is capable of creating his own shot when the offense is sputtering and is more capable of taking over a game than just about any player to come through Stanford in recent memory. Josh Childress is a truly special player because he is a star who is more than content to work within the structure of the offense. He doesn't force shots or try to dominate the ball. He helps Stanford do what they do best; play team oriented offense. However, Stanford fans no longer have to worry about whether Childress can lead this team though the tough times. Childress proved on Thursday that he is a big time player and that when the pressure is mounting and things going poorly, he can carry the team. Every team will play poorly for a stretch during the tournament, and every team, no matter how good they are, will need a star to emerge to win them a game at some point during the grueling six-game event. Stanford fans always believed that the player to lead this team to great things could be Josh Childress; Thursday night at the Sports Arena proved it.
To lose or not to lose?
Much has been made about how Stanford would be at some sort of disadvantage by going into the NCAA Tournament undefeated. I have held silent on this topic because I had a feeling that the question would resolve itself eventually, (i.e. Stanford would lose) but it is now time for me to weigh in on the subject. Winning all of your games is not a bad thing! I understand that some Cardinalmaniacs™ feel that a loss can be educational, and this is really the only good argument for losing a game. However, that doesn't apply to this Stanford team. A loss is educational when you have a very young and immature team that is not well coached. When a team is not playing up to potential but is very talented, a loss can be the sort of thing to really get them rolling. Perfect examples of losses helping teams to learn hard lessons are: Mississippi State losing to Kentucky and then going on an absolute tear, Pacific losing a hard fought game to Duke and then playing excellent basketball that has left them tied with Utah State atop the Big West Conference, and Memphis losing back to back games to DePaul and Southern Miss before winning ten game in a row. What all of these have in common is that they featured teams exploiting their weaknesses to the point where it became educational for the losing team. Mississippi State hasn't been dominated inside since their loss, Pacific hasn't been rattled by intense pressure, and lackluster play and aggressive zones haven't stymied Memphis. For these teams, vital flaws were exposed, and the team was able to learn from them.
In Stanford's case, Coach Montgomery is good enough to know what his team's flaws are and he constantly works on them. Also, Stanford has been good enough to be taught lessons by teams and learn from them while sill winning games. Stanford learned a lot about how to overcome tough defensive efforts and boisterous crowds when they beat Rice, they learned about the importance of rebounding while sweeping the Oregon schools, they learned about underestimating opponents by barely beating Cal at home and Arizona State on the road, and they learned about how to deal with emotional and motivated teams by twice dispatching USC. Essentially, the point is that you don't have to lose games to learn lessons. Stanford is plenty well versed in their weaknesses and the pitfalls that are still in front of them. A loss only serves to wound your confidence and destroy your rhythm at this point in the season. Stanford will not approach games in an overconfident manner despite the fact that they have not yet lost. Montgomery won't allow it and the players have seen firsthand how they have almost lost games doing it.
The argument that an undefeated team carries too much pressure into the tournament is ludicrous. The thing putting pressure on the Card as they enter the tournament is that they will be a number one seed and that the fans are expecting a trip to the Final Four. Losing a game is not going to alleviate those pressures. If Stanford loses one game, all of the fans will still expect them to be playing in San Antonio, so to me, all of this talk about needing to lose a game to alleviate pressure is nonsense. The last time I checked, everyone enters the tournament with an undefeated record. No previous results mean anything, and the only thing that matters is a team's ability to win six consecutive games. All of the number one seeds feel the pressure of being favored in each of the first four rounds, and all of the teams below them feel the pressure of proving that they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the top four. The only time that the pressure is off is when you play as the lower seeded team and no one expects you to win. So, since Stanford will most likely enter the tournament as a number one seed, I see no way to avoid the pressure. Losing one game is not going to magically make a tournament run any easier. Everyone is 0-0, and everyone will play their hardest to beat you not because they want to ruin your perfect season, but because they want to survive and advance.
Where's the bench?
Stanford went 2-0 this week and got good contributions from a number of players throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, not one of those players came off the bench. In the two Stanford victories this weekend, the bench combined to score eleven points (six against USC and five against UCLA). If you take out Joe Kirchofer's performance in the two games (eight points, nine rebounds in 34 minutes) the results are even bleaker. Where has Matt Haryasz been? His weekend was less than impressive, and Stanford needs to be able to count on more than one lone point in 28 minutes of action over a two game stretch. Obviously the return of Justin Davis will make the bench stronger because Nick Robinson returns to the reserve unit, but the guys off the bench need to be more consistent. What makes Stanford a truly special team is the depth and variety of options on this Stanford team, and while the starters played well this weekend, the bench was brutally bad. An effort like this from Coach Montgomery's reserves could spell trouble in the tournament.
Number one seeds
- Stanford (23-0) - Stanford posted an impressive sweep of the Los Angeles schools and now stands poised to receive a number one seed barring a complete collapse. Whether Stanford remains the top overall seed (and thus receives a more favorable bracket) depends on a trip to Seattle and the Pac-10 tournament.
- St. Joseph's (24-0) - Everyone seems ready to acknowledge that the Hawks will finish the regular season undefeated, but a tough game against Rhode Island still looms. Still, St. Joseph's is safe as a number one seed unless they lose a couple of times.
- Oklahoma State (21-2) - The Cowboys don't get any love. This team plays aggressive defense and loves to get out and run the break. I think this is the type of team that will give Stanford fits because they are one of the few teams that will match the Card's defensive intensity. State will have to win the Big 12 tournament to stay a number one seed or hope for either Pittsburgh or Duke to slip up and lose one more time.
- Duke (22-3) - Duke is likely safe as a number one seed even if they lose one more game. Home games against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest provide the opportunity for two more quality wins, as does the ACC tournament. Duke already owns nine wins over RPI top 50 teams, so I think they can still be a number one seed with four losses.
Number two seeds
- Pittsburgh (24-2) - The Panthers have only two losses and they play in a very deep and competitive Big East Conference. The Panthers will continue to battle Oklahoma State for the final number one seed, but a tough road game at Providence as well as a potential rematch with UConn in the Big East tournament may hold the Panthers down as a number two seed.
- Mississippi State (21-2) - The Bulldogs shot themselves in the foot with a home loss to Alabama. Teams that want to be a top seed don't lose at home to middle of the road conference teams in late February. Mississippi State has some work cut out for themselves, and will likely need some help, to get back to a number one seed. However, a decent showing in the SEC tournament should lock up a two seed.
- Gonzaga (23-2) - The Zags have the record and the quality wins to make a serious run at a high seed. However, while they keep winning their seed keeps falling because the committee puts so much emphasis on last 10 games played, and Gonzaga has only beaten teams from the pitiful WCC.
- Kentucky (19-4) - Kentucky needs to at least make the finals of the SEC tournament (and win out in the regular season) to stay here. A lot of teams behind them have been winning over some very good teams, and if any of them should pull an upset and win their tournament, Kentucky could tumble to a three seed.
Number three seeds
- Wake Forest (17-6) - Wake had a great week in defeating Duke and Georgia Tech. However, the ACC is so deep that games against Maryland, Florida State and North Carolina State are no laughing matter. The Deacons still have some work cut out for them to protect this lofty seed.
- Providence (18-5) - Providence has a couple of cupcakes before the huge showdown with Pittsburgh. That game will have huge bearing on the Big East race as well as the top of the seedings.
- Texas (19-4) - Despite the recent fall of Kansas, the win over the Jayhawks on Monday night was a big deal for Texas. If the Horns can establish themselves as the second best team in the conference (which right now is very muddled) they have a good chance of being a number three seed on Selection Sunday.
- Memphis (19-4) - The Tigers might be the best of a very deep Conference USA. Road games to finish the season against Louisville and Cincinnati will be the true barometer for this team, but right now they are flying high and beating everyone in front of them. Joe Lunardi has these guys much lower, but if they can beat either Louisville or Cincinnati, and then win the CUSA tournament, they can easily be a number three seed.
Number four seeds
- Connecticut (21-5) - I might be the only person to have them ranked this low, but they haven't really impressed me lately. They have no ranked opponents in their final four regular season games, so they will need to make a big splash in the Big East Tournament. If they win that, they can likely move up to a number two seed, but anything less than that keeps them in the three/four area.
- North Carolina (16-7) - North Carolina has a brutal closing stretch, traveling to NC State and Duke, and will be a low seed in the ACC tournament, meaning that the bracket will be very tough for them. Simply put, they are not a very strong number four seed right now and will need to play much better to stay a protected seed.
- Southern Illinois (22-2) - The Salukis have done everything in their power to earn a seed this high. They are undefeated in conference, won their bracket buster matchup over highly regarded Hawaii, have won 14 straight games, and have a high RPI. They will likely finish with over 25 wins, and if they can beat Creighton this week and again in the postseason tournament, they will have two more legitimate victories to add to their portfolio. If all this happens they could very easily slip into the four/five seed range. More likely, they will be like the Gonzaga team a few years ago and be stuck with an unfair six/seven seed.
- Georgia Tech (19-7) - Yes, a fourth ACC team in the top 16, but the conference is deep. They have a win over UConn, Wake Forest, North Carolina, and two over Maryland. They did lose this past week and are only 6-6 in conference, but they are a very good team. If they win a couple games in the ACC tournament they are a lock for a top four seed. They still have to travel to Duke, which might be troublesome as well.
Others Receiving Consideration (alphabetical order)
Charlotte, Cincinnati, Illinois, North Carolina State
Dropped from Consideration (alphabetical order)
Big Name teams that won't earn a top four seed (alphabetical order)
Overrated (alphabetical order)
Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Texas Tech, Wisconsin
Underrated (alphabetical order)
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