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Saturday's Senior Day showed why the Cardinal Basketball program is one of the best in the nation. The growth that all of these players have gone through under the care of Mike Montgomery and his coaching staff is amazing. It is truly fascinating to think about what these players were when they came to the Farm and what they are now that they are readying to leave. None of the three seniors will ever be the star of an NBA team, but Mike Montgomery has done a truly amazing job (as he always does) of making these players reach their potential. A closer analysis of each senior shows exactly what I am talking about.
Justin Davis has gone from a gifted "athlete" to a highly skilled basketball player. No one ever doubted Davis' raw skills, but many questioned his consistency and his ability to put it all together on the basketball court. Davis still goes through bouts of inconsistency, but when he is healthy he is the premier rebounder in the conference and one of the better low post scorers. The very fact that Stanford fans are so concerned about his injury status shows just how much he has grown as a player. The fact that people rightly believe that Stanford needs his low post presence, dominant rebounding, and cagey defense to win in the Tournament speaks to how much he has grown as a player and polished his game.
The same goes for Matt Lottich as well. Lottich arrived on campus with the reputation of being a streaky shooter who couldn't hold his own on the defensive end. The Matt Lottich that we know four years later is a much different player. Lottich has put the Cardinal on his back many times this season and has emerged as a true floor leader. Lottich is one of the most intense defensive players on the court for Montgomery and he is willing to give up his body to dive on the floor and bang with players. Lottich is frequently flushed bright red on the court because he is so intense and wants to win so badly. Lottich still goes through cold streaks from the field, but he has emerged as the team's top shooting threat and fiercest competitor. He also has learned how to play within the frame of the offense and only take what is given to him. Not bad growth in four years for Matt Lottich.
Finally, Joe Kirchofer epitomizes everything that is right with the Stanford Cardinal. Kirchofer came to Stanford as an under-appreciated and unheralded big man who liked to mix it up and played with a lot of passion. Kirchofer has grown so much as a player, and while he has changed little in terms of physical skill, he has grown so much as a person that he embodies the zeal and passion that the Cardinal team plays with. To call Kirchofer the emotional leader of this team understates his importance. Kirchofer is the heart and soul of this team. He never complains about playing time, he stands and cheers long and loud for the team whether he hasn't been off the bench in the game or played 25 minutes, he hustles all the time (even during warm-ups), and I have never seen him hang his head in shame. He is the ultimate team player, and the fact that the other members of the Cardinal were fortunate enough to play with him this year will make them better players down the road. Kirchofer will never be a big scorer or rebounding monster, but he effects the game in ways that will never show up in the box score. Kirchofer has grown from a little used reserve big man, to one of the most important leaders to come through Maples Pavilion in a long time.
The fact that all three of the Stanford seniors have gone through such growth speaks volumes to the program run by Montgomery. He can't recruit all the most highly touted kids out of high school (with some exceptions), but rather takes hard-workers with high ceilings for improvement and makes them into good basketball players. There are not very many programs out there that do things the right way, but Stanford proudly is one of them.
As the Pac-10 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament rapidly approach, it is time to take stock of where Stanford sits as a team. The long winter months are coming to an end. Soon we will learn just how much the Cardinal have grown as a team, and all of their strengths and weakness will be exposed to the nation. So, in honor of a successful home season and the nearing postseason, it is time to sit down and analyze what the Card do well and what brings cause for concern in the postseason.
- Teamwork: Stanford is the best TEAM in the nation. Rob Little's gesture of allowing Joe Kirchofer to start the final home game of his career further confirmed this for me. Stanford works well together, plays offense and defense as a team, and most importantly, picks each other up when things are not going so well. These guys seem to genuinely care about each other and play hard for one another. That kind of attitude and team unity has worked well for tournament teams in the past (see the Mateen Cleaves-led Michigan State Spartans). Stanford is such a good team that they are nearly impossible to defend because all of the players are so unselfish.
- Team leaders: One of the problems with an unselfish team is that they sometimes don't know who to give the ball to down the stretch. That is not the case on this team. Josh Childress has now established that this is his team. Childress is somehow able to balance the team nature of Stanford with his ability to take over a ball game, and the results have been breathtaking. His performance against Oregon was something to look at with amazement. Plus, if Childress is struggling and Stanford needs a big hoop, both Matt Lottich and Chris Hernandez have shown the ability and competitive fire to deliver in those circumstances. Stanford is a team full of leaders, no one seems afraid to pass up or take a big shot depending on the situation, and they work perfectly within their system.
- Coaching: Mike Montgomery is one of the best in the business at having his team ready to play. Stanford is one of the few teams in the nation that I would be shocked to see letdown in an early round game. The game plan is always fabulous and his players are so well drilled that they execute it nearly perfectly. The only knock on Montgomery is that while his teams rarely letdown, they also have trouble winning the biggest games.
- Rebounding : This is one of Stanford's major strengths, especially once Justin Davis returns. I don't know if many teams can match a healthy Stanford on the glass. So many tournament games are won by teams that are able to collect easy second chance points that it has become a critical determinant in games. I can't see Stanford being beaten to many rebounds, and Stanford should control the defensive glass. Add a healthy dose of second chance points from Little, Davis, and Childress into the equation, and the rebounding column is a big strength for Stanford.
- Defense: Stanford showed once again this weekend how good they are defensively. They work tirelessly to defend the perimeter and give up nothing easy on the inside. The team is not filled with defensive stoppers, but each player gives maximum effort and plays so well within a team defense scheme. We have seen Stanford hold some pretty high scoring teams to low point totals, and games tend to slow down and become even lower scoring in the tournament. I think defense is one of Stanford's biggest strengths, and holding teams in the tournament to low scoring and shooting outputs will put the Card in San Antonio.
- Intangibles: When push comes to shove, success in the tournament often depends on luck. Over the years, many good teams have lost heartbreakers in the tournament because of a bad break late in a ball game. Stanford has had the type of charmed season that leads you to believe that they will get the breaks throughout the rest of the season. The win over ASU, the come from behind victory at Oregon, and of course Nick Robinson's "Miracle at Maples," have all shown that this team is truly tough to defeat. The Cardinal never doubt themselves, never get down when they are trailing, and always believe they can win. That sounds like a recipe for success to me.
- Schedule : The Cardinal have not played the most difficult schedule in the nation, and while the fact that the Pac-10 was bad this year is not Stanford's fault, it does provide a source of weakness for this team. When was the last time that this team was truly challenged by a good team playing its best basketball? The home win against Arizona is all that comes to mind. Other games that the Card have played against tournament teams playing good basketball include wins over Rice, Kansas, and Gonzaga, but all of those were months ago. Honestly, Stanford has not played a good tournament-caliber team in some time, and that could hurt them. Also, outside of the game at Oregon and the two against USC, Stanford has not played a close game against a team playing well in some time either. Most of Stanford's close games recently have been because the Card haven't played a full 40 minutes rather than teams coming out and taking it to the Cardinal. Will any of this come back to hurt Stanford in the tournament? That remains to be seen, and Stanford will certainly be challenged by a good Washington team in a Tournament style atmosphere this Saturday, but Washington, much like Arizona, USC, and Oregon, does not play the style of basketball that Stanford will have to beat in the late rounds of the tournament (patient and efficient offenses that can easily create shots). Washington is an athletic team more similar to a Conference USA team that you might see in the second or third round rather than a hard-nosed ACC, Big 12, or SEC team you might meet in the Final Four. This is what I see as Stanford's largest weakness heading into the tournament. I know you can't control your opponents in any given season, but the lack of late season tournament style challenges worries me.
- 40-Minute game: The last two games against Oregon and Oregon State were encouraging in this regard, but it has been some time since Stanford rattled off consecutive 40 minute performances. Stanford has been winning games that they start slowly against teams like Cal, UCLA, and USC because the Card are better than these teams. However, when Stanford plays inferior teams in the Tournament, the failure to deliver an early knockout blow could be devastating. Teams that score upsets in the early round of the tournament are teams that hang around early on, build confidence, and then get lucky at the end. If Stanford starts slowly in an early round game against an upstart opponent, they could find themselves in trouble.
- Injuries and depth: This all hinges on Justin Davis. If Davis is good to play 25-30 minutes by the tournament, this is much less of a problem. Nick Robinson is then able to head back to the bench and Stanford once again has the deepest front court in the nation. If Davis is still hobbled, the bench (especially Matt Haryasz' still gimpy ankle) becomes a bigger question mark. However, of equal concern to me is the backcourt situation. Chris Hernandez and Matt Lottich are obviously the leaders of this bunch, but what about the bench? It is not often that a team can get through the tournament without getting a key player either hurt or in foul trouble, and the bench is often called upon to win at least one of the six games. The backup guards have me slightly worried. Jason Haas had a good game against Oregon State and has been more aggressive as of late, but one game does not make a season, and Jason Haas playing big minutes in the second half is not what Coach Montgomery wants. Dan Grunfeld has been very erratic all season long, and while Fred Washington had a nice game against OSU, I have trouble believing that Montgomery has the confidence to turn to him at this point of his career in a big situation. Trust me, the Cardinal will need the bench at least once in the tournament, and while I have all the confidence in the world in Robinson, Haryasz, and Kirchofer, the jury is still out on Haas, Grunfeld, and Washington.
The Huskies in the Tournament?
Don't laugh so quickly, the Huskies may very well find themselves dancing without even winning the Pac-10 Tournament. It is going to take a little bit of luck and most likely a Stanford loss, but it could happen. If the Huskies beat Cal at home on Thursday they will move their record to 16-10, and set up a very interesting scenario. At minimum, the Huskies would likely need one victory over Stanford (either at home or in the Tournament) to feel secure at earning an at large bid. If they beat Stanford once and make it to the Pac-10 final, their record would be 19-11 or 18-12, and they would be very much a legitimate bubble team. However, even if everything falls into place for Washington and they beat Stanford, the Huskies still need some help. If teams like Gonzaga and Southern Illinois fail to win their tournaments, then their conferences send two teams to the Tournament and lesser teams grab spots that Washington could claim. Also, late success by teams like Purdue, Maryland, Georgia, Xavier, etc… makes Washington's chances less than they are now. In short, Washington likely needs to beat Stanford once, hope for some help, and not lose too badly in the finals of the Pac-10 Tournament to be an at large bid. Even if that doesn't all fall into place, I still think they are the toughest out in the Pac-10 Tournament for Stanford.
Arizona the spoiler?
If Arizona beats ASU this week and fails to win the Pac-10 Tournament; they are likely going to be seeded somewhere in the 7-9 range come Selection Sunday. History tells us that number one seeds always win in the first round, but that at least one number one seed usually falls in the second round. That is because dangerous but under-performing teams usually end up falling to an 8/9 seed and meeting the top seeds in the second round. We have seen 8/9 seeds like North Carolina and Cincinnati pull upsets in recent years, and Arizona could likely do so this year. Arizona wouldn't be in Stanford's bracket, and I can't see the Wildcats being able to ambush a team like Duke. However, if they find themselves in a bracket with a one seed like St. Joseph's, Gonzaga, Connecticut, or Kentucky, I think the Wildcats could continue the recent success of 8/9 teams against top seeds. Of course, teams like Arizona that play sloppily down the stretch have just as much chance to fall in the first round as they do to pull off the second round upset, so don't head off the Vegas just yet…
The rankings make another slight change this week. Instead of just ranking the teams 1-16 and making them 1-4 seeds, I put them into actual regions (like ESPN's Bracketology) and show you what the seeding would actually look like in my rankings. The teams get seeded along the actual S-Curve (meaning that the 1, 8, 9, and 16 teams play in the same bracket), with the only adjustments being made to avoid immediate conference conflicts. Thus, what you see below is my best guess (based on my rankings) of what the brackets 1-4 will look like in each region.
First, a look at how they rank 1-16.
- St. Joseph's
- Mississippi State
- Oklahoma State
- Wake Forest
- Southern Illinois
- Georgia Tech
And now the regions…
- Stanford (Rank: 1, 25-0) - Stanford gets no freebies as the number one overall seed. This bracket would be tough because it requires the Card to quickly change gears and play an uptempo Bearcats team one night, and play a physical team like Texas or Mississippi State two nights later. If Stanford and St. Joseph's finish with the same amount of losses, Stanford will be the number one overall seed; if Stanford has more losses they will likely be the number two overall seed.
- Mississippi State (Rank: 8, 23-2) - MSU falls a little further despite winning two games this past week. They are now 8th overall simply because the loss at home to Alabama two weeks ago was big. The Bulldogs do not have the same amount of quality wins as the other top teams, and they lost to Kentucky. Still, winning the SEC Tournament will likely move them up, but not to the top four.
- Texas (Rank: 9, 21-4) -. The Horns are playing extremely well right now, and wins over Kansas and Texas Tech last week were huge. Their win last night over Oklahoma State will likely propel Texas into the two seed region.
- Cincinnati (Rank: 16, 20-5) - The Bearcats had a good week, and the win over Charlotte was huge because it established Cincinnati as one of the top two teams in C-USA. A home game at Memphis and a road game at DePaul will challenge the Bearcats, but successfully navigating that stretch, and a decent C-USA Tournament showing should lock up a protected seed.
- St. Joseph's (Rank: 2, 26-0) - St. Joseph's needs a Stanford loss to wrap up the top overall seed, but they remain safe as the top seed in the East. Even if they lose in the A-10 Tournament they should not feel any stress at losing this perch, but the bracket below would be a real challenge for the Hawks.
- Pittsburgh (Rank: 7, 25-3) - The Panthers had a lot of their flaws exposed in a hard-fought to Syracuse. It is hard to not see the Big East getting a number one seed though, and if either Pitt or Connecticut can win out (including Big East Tournament), they should be a number one seed. Still, Pitt wouldn't mind this bracket, as St. Joseph's is a good matchup for them.
- Oklahoma State (Rank: 10, 22-3) - The Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to suddenly hot Missouri and dropped a few spots because of it. Their win over Texas probably moves them back to a second seed which is where they really want to be. Some might question being ranked below Texas, but Texas has more quality wins as of late and has been the better team recently. Plus, the physical Cowboys provide the "big" team that St. Joe's doesn't want in their bracket, so the Cowboys wouldn't complain about this seed.
- Georgia Tech (Rank: 15, 20-8) - The Yellow Jackets might be the most accomplished of the four seeds, but it is tough to ignore the eight losses. They have a good number of quality wins, but they still have to play at Duke and in the ACC Tournament. Still, the Jackets have beaten a number of good teams, and no one wants to see them in their bracket.
- Duke (Rank: 3, 24-3) - Duke has too many quality wins to not be a number one seed, even if they drop another game. They have won the toughest conference in the nation and played their usually tough non-conference slate. They don't care which region they are sent to; they are likely to be dominant in any location. They are probably the most talented team in the nation.
- Gonzaga (Rank: 6, 25-2) - The Zags are actually closer to a number one seed than many would like to believe. I think they are currently behind both Kentucky and Connecticut, but ahead of teams like Mississippi State and Oklahoma State. If the Zags win the WCC Tournament and Kentucky loses once more, the door is wide open. If Connecticut and Pittsburgh both fell in the Big East Tournament (and it could easily happen with the amount of good teams in the Big East), the Zags may very well end up the last number one seed.
- Providence (Rank: 11, 20-5) - The Friars certainly are making noise in the Big East. A win this week against Pittsburgh makes them a legitimate two seed, and a good showing in the Big East Tournament would only solidify that ranking.
- Southern Illinois (Rank: 14, 24-2) - Probably still too high of a ranking for the Salukis, but they beat Creighton again, and a win in their conference tournament would mean they have done all they could possibly do. Right now, I think this seed is accurate, but teams below them will earn quality wins in their conference tournaments, and Southern Illinois will not. Right now I believe they are a four seed, but when all is said and done, they will likely be a six seed.
- Kentucky (Rank: 4, 21-4) - The Wildcats have the most accomplished portfolio in the SEC. It is tough to ignore all of their good wins in and out of conference, so for the time being, they make the move up to number one. However, any slip up will move them back down, and I have a feeling that unless they win the SEC Tournament they will be a number two seed.
- Connecticut (Rank: 5, 23-5) - The Huskies still are not playing all that well, but they have put together a very good resume thus far, and certainly deserve a high seed. If they can somehow win out and win the Big East Tournament, they might very well end up as a top seed like everyone expected in the preseason.
- Wake Forest (Rank: 12, 19-6) - The Demon Deacons will likely need a big finish to move up from a number three seed. Six losses is already pretty high (even though they play in the rugged ACC), and the ACC Tournament will give them no favors. They would be well served to get out of this bracket though, as 1-4, I think this is the deepest and toughest draw.
- Illinois (Rank: 13, 20-5) - The Illini are finally playing up to potential and are being rewarded for their solid play. Even though the Big 10 has been down, it is tough to imagine the conference not earning at least one protected seed, and Illinois is the most accomplished team in the conference. Plus, with as well as they have been playing as of late, I certainly wouldn't want to see them in the draw.
Receiving Consideration (alphabetical order)
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