There is talent on this team. There is some significant experience. And there is good chemistry that should bring those positives together into wins. But the numbers are frightfully thin, and that will undoubtedly come back and deliver some crushing blows at times this year. If the squad can stay reasonably healthy, I think they will clear 20+ wins and soar once again into the NCAA Tournament. But if injuries strike, the team will be greatly tested. Not only will their be some difficult gymnastics for the lineup rotation in games, when Trent Johnson is faced with less than a two-deep at each position, but also practices will take a hit. The team can barely put together five-on-five competition when completely healthy, as it stands currently.
This week gave the Card a taste of life in the gutter. You have known about the high ankle sprain to preseason All-American point guard Chris Hernandez, but another foot problem struck Stanford's other team captain as well. Fifth-year senior small forward Nick Robinson has been out most of the week with a bruise on the arch of his foot. Robinson may or may not play in today's scrimmage. Foot injuries have been a bugaboo for this program the last several years, and some critics have charged that the team was uniquely at risk for such ailments given the unique bouncy floor of Maples Pavilion. This problem for Robinson, as well as the trouble redshirt freshman Tim Morris had during the summer, occurred in the absence of that floor. The fact is that basketball players pound their bodies 12 months a year these days and endure a lot of stresses.
Morris was ordered special insoles for his shoes, much like what Josh Childress employed last year when he had to sit out the preseason with a stress reaction. Robinson similarly is looking for relief for his ailing foot, in the words of Spike Lee (aka "Mars Blackmon", circa 1990) - "It's gotta be the shoes!" Robinson has new shoes with extra support under the arch of his foot. So many new basketball shoes these days have taken out the rigid support to engender better spring and jump, but there are some unsightly trade-offs...
Stanford's other starting forward was lost for a stretch this week when Matt Haryasz was sidelined with a nasty head & chest virus. More than just weakened, he was in bad enough shape that he missed two days with the team. If you are one of the locals going to see this morning's scrimmage, you might expect to see less than 100% of what Haryasz can do physically on the court as he recovers from his bug.
There is some good news, however. Hernandez came back to action in practices this week, and the coaching staff was genuinely pleased with how well he played. After staying off his feet for the last four weeks with his high ankle sprain, the redshirt junior has to expect a good deal of rust in his timing and some shortcomings in his conditioning. He will be challenged to catch up with the team the next two weeks before the season tips off with the November 13 exhibition game against Concordia University. Coaches were excited in his first practices back this week, however, with his skills and with his execution. There is some urgency to get him up to speed as soon as possible, for his sake and to regain the timing with teammates, but the staff is cautious about pushing his ankle too much. They are expected to hold Hernandez out of today's scrimmage as a precaution.
Without these three veterans available in several practices this week, the Cardinal have needed some young players to grow up in a hurry and play over their heads. The exciting news is that the freshmen are delivering in their expanded roles. I have written previously about the exciting progress center Peter Prowitt made in his play with the team during the summer and early fall, though he has taken a little step back in practices as he adjusts from pickup hoops to organized basketball. Bigger questions remained about forward Taj Finger, and walk-on wing/guard Kenny Brown. Those questions are quickly being erased in the first weeks of practices.
"Taj Finger has been impressive," Trent Johnson declares of the freshman power forward. "He has held up well the first couple weeks. The biggest surprise is going up against Rob Little and Matt Haryasz everyday - he's held up well physically. If he can keep that up, we'll be alright. He has a good understanding of the game - a pretty good feel."
Though he weighs just a buck-ninety and looks wiry with his 6'8" frame, Finger is exploiting this skills and athleticism as much as possible. Some of his assets are innate, but he is also putting in a lot of extra work in skill areas he and the coaches feel could use development. In particular, both Johnson and Associate Head coach Eric Reveno are tickled about the time Finger has put into his role distributing the ball from the high post.
"He's a good passer at the four position," Johnson states. "I'm really excited about Taj Finger. I really am."
Maybe more surprising is the play and learning curve of freshman walk-on Kenny Brown. A month ago, he was just starting classes and holding his breath that he could make the team via competitive try-outs. Today, he is receiving high praise from eight-year assistant and former Cardinal standout, Eric Reveno. A lot of smart guys have come through this program in the last two decades, though not all classroom intelligence translates directly onto the basketball court. There is a different type of smarts in how quickly players can pick up fundamentals and plays in practices, and then translate them into execution. Reveno says that Brown has floored him with the steepest learning curve he has ever seen at Stanford.
"Kenny has already learned the one, the two and the three," Reveno explains of Brown's utility at both guard spots and the small forward position. "He's picking things up quicker than any other freshman I've ever seen. I can recall only one thing he's done wrong in all our scrimmages so far. One a double screen, he ran the wrong way once."
In college basketball news, the first preseason coaches poll has been released by ESPN, and the Cardinal slide in just barely at #25. With three key starters to replace, and so little depth left behind, it is understandable to see some skepticism. We'll see where Stanford stands at the end of the year, but the rest of the poll is interesting today. The Card have a number of teams on their schedule ranked in the preseason poll, including three different teams they could face in November at the Maui Invitational. North Carolina checks in at #3 in the nation and could meet Stanford in the second round of the eight-team event. Louisville (#13) and Texas (#15) are also in the Thanksgiving Week tournament. Stanford will play #10 Michigan State in their first game of December up in Auburn Hills (Mich.). And it's no surprise to see Arizona (#11) and Washington (#24), who the Cardinal will each face at least twice in conference play, in the rankings. The Wildcats and Huskies bring back much of their talent from last year and are the consensus top two favorites to win the Pac-10 this year.
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