This is the first installment of a weekly column I'll be writing for the Bootleg. Future columns will be posted on Tuesdays. The topics will vary from week to week, but the main focus will be on the state of our basketball team. I'll review the previous week's games and offer up some thoughts on what went right and, if appropriate, what went wrong. I'll also provide some commentary on the rest of the Pac 10 and, occasionally, the national scene.
The basketball team is currently ranked #11 and #14 in the polls. The higher ranking in the coaches' poll is due primarily to the fact that votes in that poll were cast prior to our loss at kal on Sunday night. The good news at this point in the season is that we're ranked high in the polls and are still garnering a fair amount of respect nationally. The bad news is that in games against decent opponents (using the term generously), we are just 4-3, with wins against New Mexico, Purdue, Michigan State and kal, and losses against Texas, BYU and kal.
The team's most recent game, against kal, was particularly disappointing to Stanford fans, in part because the loss came against kal and ended our 10 game winning streak in hoops (and 17 game winning streak in football and basketball combined). But of greater concern to some fans is the fact that kal outplayed Stanford so clearly and that our offense struggled with turnovers (19) and was only able to put up 54 points.
There are quite a few reasons to be optimistic about the team going forward, including the fact that we have two of the better players in the nation in Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt. But in light of the recent disappointments against kal and BYU, I'll use this week's column to focus on some of the areas in which the Cardinal is struggling and needs to improve.
Defense: Stanford's main weakness on defense is our ability to defend the perimeter. That has a lot to do with the quickness and athleticism of our wing players, which is probably no better than average for a top 40 team. Our perimeter players have, at times, struggled to get through screens and to run out quickly enough at open shooters. Fortunately, kal was cold from beyond the arc last week and didn't make us pay for conceding a fair number of open looks.
Curtis erases a lot of mistakes, so when our perimeter defenders are beaten off the dribble, opponents often have a difficult time finishing or even getting shots off cleanly in the paint when Curtis is in the game. Going forward, I would expect our team to continue to struggle at times to prevent opponents from getting open looks from three. The good news is that Curtis should continue to limit opponents' ability to finish in the paint. Look for us to be vulnerable to teams that are hot from the outside, but solid defensively against teams that can't bury the open jumper. And of course, Curtis must remain healthy and avoid foul trouble.
Offense: Stanford's half court offense has generally relied on an inside-outside approach in recent years. On most possessions, we attempt to dump the ball into the post (preferably to Curtis) after the initial pass to the wing. When the post player receives the ball, it's important that we get good spacing on the floor. What happens next is often a reaction to what the defense does. If the post is not doubled, the post player will generally try to score or at least get in position to score. If the post can't gain an advantage, he kicks the ball back out, or sometimes to the second post player on the weakside if he's left open. (Various screens and cutters are sometimes used as well to create open looks.) If the post is doubled, we try to achieve good spacing on the floor and have the post player kick the ball to the player whose defender is doubling the post. The key to executing in this situation is finding the open player and having that player knock down the shot if his defender doesn't recover in time.
In years past, Stanford has given opponents headaches with this strategy. If the opponent didn't double the post player (usually one of the Collins twins), the post player would generally make the defense pay by taking a high percentage shot or drawing a foul. If the post was doubled, we had devastating outside shooters, including McDonald, Mendez and Jacobsen, who could knock down the open three when the ball was kicked back out to the open shooter.
The inside-outside approach is simply not as effective this year. Our outside shooting has been inconsistent at best, so our offense is not making teams pay for doubling the post. Curtis has been facing double teams with increasing frequency, and kal doubled him to such an extent that The Mantis was only able to get off four field goal attempts on Sunday. Going forward, for the inside-outside game to work, our perimeter player must be willing to take and able to make open jumpers that result from double teams in the post. With defenses also keying on Casey and limiting his open looks, our other wings and point guards need to take and make their open looks if our bread and butter offense is going to thrive. With Tony, Julius, Chris and Josh shooting inconsistently from outside, Coach Montgomery looked to Matt Lottich in both games against kal to add some outside shooting. Going forward, look for Matt to continue to play more minutes if our other perimeter players struggle from the outside.
Although Stanford is running mostly the same offense as it has in past years, Coach Montgomery is trying to get the ball in Casey's hands more often so that he can create. At times, Casey is playing almost as a point forward (like a Scotty Pippen). With defenses keying on Casey and playing effective help defense on him (if not outright doubling him), Casey has been creating more and distributing more than in past years. His assist numbers bear this out. At times, Casey has struggled to find the right balance between forcing the action and trying to draw fouls, and dishing off to the open man. Look for Casey's decision-making to improve as he continues to adjust to this role.
It's apparent that our opponents will continue to key on Casey and Curtis and attempt to force Stanford's other players to beat them. We have seen flashes from Josh and Julius (but rarely in the same game) of the ability to make defenses pay for overplaying Casey and Curtis. However, we'll need to get more consistent performances from Julius and Josh going forward if our offense is to have a reliable third scorer. Another key barometer will be the ability of not only Josh and Julius, but of Tony, Chris and Matt (and maybe even Teyo) to knock down the open three. The success of our offense may very well track the three point shooting percentages of those players.
One final comment on our offense -- although Coach Montgomery is loathe to discuss it, the point guard position looks particularly unsettled given that we're at about the mid-point of the regular season. Several weeks ago, the staff decided that Tony and Chris would be our point guards and that Julius would play almost exclusively at the wing. With our offense struggling against kal on Friday night, Monty turned to Julius who had one of the better performances at the one that we've seen recently (albeit in only about 15 minutes of action at the point). Monty turned to Julius again on Sunday night with kal ahead 11-6 early and our offense struggling. Although Stanford went on an 8-0 run, Julius struggled, as did Tony and Chris, much of the rest of the game. At this point in the season, it looks like we're back to having three point guards and it's anybody's guess how the minutes will be allocated. Because Tony, Chris and Julius have such dissimilar games, I would look for our offense to struggle to find an identity and consistency if all three continue to log minutes at the point.
Overall, I think the two keys two our offense going forward will be (1) getting more reliable outside shooting and (2) finding consistency from the point guard position.
Oregon State and Oregon: Stanford is a 3 ½ point favorite against the Beavers tonight, and will be an underdog (I'm guessing + 5-6) against the Ducks on Saturday. This road trip should reveal a great deal about our team and how it handles the adversity of coming off a bad loss. A 2-0 performance would put us right back where we want to be in the Pac 10 race and would improve our national ranking (given the numerous upsets this week, including upsets of teams ranked immediately ahead of Stanford). Saturday, in particular, will be a "statement" game for both Stanford and Oregon.