When Is Big Not Enough?

Stanford struggled at times Thursday against an undersized #16 seed and were forced to play stretches of "small" minutes in their lineup. You would like to see your size advantage inside instead dominate and dictate play, forcing the opponent to make adjustments. Given some upcoming opponents with similarly small rosters, it is time to explore the question of what happens to Stanford's inside game when they face smaller opposition...

When laymen fans look at the starting lineups before Stanford basketball games, there are quick conclusions drawn about the kind of advantage the Cardinal big men should enjoy inside. Especially now that the Card have Justin Davis back in the fold, and in the starting rotation, confidence rides high that Stanford should rule the rebounding column whenever they face smaller lineups. After all, the Cardinal have held a +6.3 rebounding advantage through 31 games this season, despite playing just four games all year with Davis and Josh Childress as healthy starting forwards. With both players together again, the advantage on the glass should be stronger than ever - right?

Not necessarily. Thursday saw Stanford hold an embarrassingly slim 40-39 edge in the rebounding column against a diminutive UT-San Antonio squad. Another famous gaffe on the glass came two weeks ago at Washington in the team's lone loss, when Stanford was beaten on the boards by a 38-36 tally.

Given that Saturday's second round opponent, the Crimson Tide of Alabama, are also a vertically challenged squad with aggressive and explosive athletes, it is worth figuring out what causes the Card to come up short against shorter squads on the boards.

First, the Tide. They start one player with big size in 6'11" Jermareo Davidson, but the freshman plays the fewest minutes of any starter on a team with a very shallow bench. In Alabama's last several games he has played a minority of minutes inside while 6'4" wing Emmett Thomas has played longer off the bench. That substitution pushes 6'7" power forward Chuck Davis to a center position. Don't let the starting lineup fool you - these guys like to play small. It seems to work, with Davis leading the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. He led the way Thursday with nine boards in the one-point win over Southern Illinois. Put him together with 6'6" small forward superstar Kennedy Winston, who averages 5.6 boards, and you have a versatile set of athletes who could give Stanford fits similar to what they faced Thursday. The Card gave up 18 offensive rebounds to the Roadrunner runts, the most in 31 games this season for a Stanford opponent.

"We need to pursue the ball better - bottom line," Justin Davis says of the poor frontcourt showing 24 hours ago. "We didn't have the guys wanting the ball badly enough."

You could say that rebounding was a symptom of a greater difficulty faced by Stanford's big frontline against a smaller set of athletes. Davis and fellow frontman starter Rob Little scored just seven combined points despite decisive advantages in the paint. Fans expect players to dominate in the low post both offensively and defensively when they have several inches on their opponents, but there are advantages that go to the smaller players as well.

"I think it makes things difficult," says Stanford's starting power forward about playing smaller counterparts. "We like to bang inside. When it comes down to speed and quickness, those are not our strengths."

In the UTSA game yesterday Davis started off the game against Southland Conference Player of the Year LeRoy Hurd, who recorded 18 points and three boards, but the Stanford senior says that it was the smaller lineup he had more difficulty against, when 6'5" 205-pound John Millsap came into the game for 21 minutes off the bench. He pulled down five rebounds, including three on the offensive end, and gave Davis fits.

"I missed a couple shots I should have made in the game," the fifth-year forward laments. "It's hard. I knew Hurd would try to beat me off the dribble, and sure enough he came at me right away. But it was #21 who gave me more trouble. He was like six-foot-four - pretty quick."

Davis is used to knocking heads with 6'10" Matt Haryasz in practice, while Little spends his afternoons banging against 250-pound Joe Kirchofer. When either player tries to defend or post up a 6'6" or 6'7" athlete, the interaction between the two bodies departs from what Stanford's post players consider to be the norm.

That is not to say that a gameplan and adjustment cannot be devised to properly handle these deviating matchups. Take as evidence the rematch between Stanford and Washington last Saturday in Los Angeles. Davis went for 13 points and seven boards in that game, with the team taking a 42-33 rebounding advantage over the Huskies.

"I try to give a little more space on the defensive end," Davis says for his adjustment. "On the offensive end I have to slow down a little."

Alabama is a slightly better than average rebounding team, but they too can be dominated with the right gameplan and personnel. Against top SEC foe Mississippi State just two weeks ago in their regular season finale, the Tide were trounced on the boards by a 20-rebound margin. Bama gave up 56 rebounds in the game, including 29 offensive boards. 6'9" 235-pound Lawrence Roberts pulled down 21 boards by himself for the Bulldogs. If I were Mike Montgomery's staff, I'd be looking hard at that film to figure out how Alabama was so thoroughly manhandled on the glass in that affair.

But truth be told, most big men will tell you that rebounding is a product of desire and effort, more than technique and strategy. Positioning is important, but any rebounder will tell you the battle is won for that ball by the man who wants it the most. As for Davis, he has a simple recipe for going out and performing better Saturday than he did Thursday.

"I just have to go out there and play."

  • Reports came out earlier today that Justin Davis will throw away his knee brace for tomorrow's game, but the Stanford senior told The Bootleg today that it is likely to come off but not yet a done deal. The brace has noticeably slipped down his knee in games the last two weeks, as he works up a slippery sweat, which is a real nuisance for the athletic big man. "It affects my leg more than my brain," he reports. "It puts pressure on my fibula bone, which is a little painful." The prevailing logic among Stanford fans is that this problem with the brace is the motivating factor for its banishment, but Davis says that is not the cause. "If the brace comes off, it's only because the ligament is healed," the Stanford senior professes.
  • Often you will see head coaches match substitutions in a game, with bench players heading to the scorer's table from one team as soon as the opponent makes the move to rest one or more of his own starters. Similarly you may see long minutes mirror each other in some games, as each coach is reticent toward pulling his starters while the other team is pushing his best guys on the floor. That's something to keep in mind as Mike Montgomery makes substitution decisions tomorrow. Alabama played four starters 30 or more minutes on Thursday and brought just two players off the bench. Their last game in the SEC Tournament saw Mark Gottfried put four of his players into 40 or minutes of duty in an overtime loss to Florida. There may not be a tighter bench in the NCAA Tournament, so how long with Montgomery allow his reserves to matchup against Bama's best? With his starters averaging just 26 minutes in the UT-San Antonio first round opener, Montgomery should have confidence in his lead five given how much gas they should still have in the tank.
  • With this morning's action in Orlando complete, we now know the entire first round results for the Phoenix bracket. Seeds one through eight all advanced, with nary an upset. Lower seeds had fantastic opportunities for upsets, but some interesting end-game officiating and a couple boneheaded plays prevented the upsets.
  • Stanford continued their 10-year streak of winning NCAA Tournament first round games with the UT-San Antonio win yesterday. But they also set a mark in their season win total. For just the third time in the program's history, the Cardinal have totaled 30 wins, but never before have they reached that plateau this quickly. In 1998 their 30th win came in the Elite Eight famed win over Rhode Island. In 2001 the 30th victory transpired in a second round nailbiter over St. Joseph's.

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