There are not too many positives you can draw from Stanford's opening loss Monday in the Maui Invitational. The grossly disturbing statistic is of course the seven assists to 24 turnovers, which has to be the worst ratio seen in a Cardinal Basketball game in more than a decade. While it is true that Stanford players did not shoot the ball too well, we had few pretenses coming into the season that this would be a team of marksmen. We did expect that a starting lineup of veteran players would make smart decisions and take care of the ball. In this first game of the season away from the Bay Area, seniors Rob Little and Nick Robinson combined for 10 turnovers and just one assist.
The breadth of the game was ugly, but most painful was a stretch two-thirds of the way through the second half when the Cardinal had a surprising shot at reclaiming the game. After spending the entirety of the second half down double digits, Stanford saw the deficit grow to 20 points at 53-33 when Tennessee hit a jumper at 10:49 left in the game. The Card then raced to a 12-0 run in the next two minutes to make the contest very much in doubt. Stanford was down eight points with almost nine minutes to go, and they had all kinds of momentum. Trent Johnson had switched to a zone defense that was marvelously executed, highlighted by great hustle plays by Robinson and Matt Haryasz. On the offense end, they were not quite shooting lights out, but they hit the boards hard and used several key offensive rebounds to get second chances and good looks. The final score in that run was a three-pointer from Chris Hernandez at the top of the arc - just his second field goal of the game and first in four tries outside the arc.
The Stanford defense continued to make stops and force turnovers with their 1-1-3 zone, manned by Hernandez, Tim Morris, Dan Grunfeld, Robinson and Haryasz. Tennessee would not score a point again until the 5:05 mark - more than five and a half minutes after their last bucket. Stanford did add one more score to close the game to six points, when Grunfeld ran the ball in transition and beautifully slashed solo through two defenders for a lay-in. But they had a stretch of five offensive possessions where the margin held at eight points before that basket, with four of them ending in turnovers. Only two shots were attempted during that entire stretch. It was a glorious opportunity to bring the game all the way back to even, but Stanford could not get out of their own way.
Two of those turnovers came from fifth-year senior Nick Robinson. The first of which was the play that essentially ended Stanford's scoring surge. The defense had just forced a stop; Robinson grabbed the rebound and raced up the court on the right wing. He had Haryasz and Tim Morris with him on a two-on-three break, but Robinson opted for a one-handed bounce pass right at the feet of the 6'11" Haryasz. The ball trickled across the court and out of bounds harmlessly. Stanford would add a fifth turnover during the Tennessee scoreless streak, and a third for Robinson in that time, when the senior utility forward again made a poor one-handed pass attempt in transition. This time, the Volunteers netted a three-on-two break and their first score in nearly six minutes. Stanford would never get the game below a six-point margin.
While turnovers ended the Cardinal's golden chances at a second half comeback, it was their first half turnovers that dug them into such a deep hole. Stanford had 14 miscues with the ball in the first 20 minutes of play, which Tennessee converted for 21 points. The Vols finished with 28 points off 24 Stanford turnovers in the game. You have to go back to the 2001-02 season to find that many turnovers in a single game for Stanford Basketball. And there is no question that the easy baskets Tennessee converted from these gaffes were the difference in the game. The Vols made only two field goals in the final 11 and a half minutes of the game, and Stanford stayed within single digits into the final minute before Tennessee hit their free throws to secure the final margin. The difference between these two teams was narrow, if not non-existent, without all the Stanford turnovers.
You do have to give credit to Tennessee, though. They had a balanced lineup with strength and quickness, and what they did with their aggressive play to Stanford reminded me at times of the infamous Alabama NCAA game this past March. They shot the ball very well most of the game until that final stretch of nearly 12 minutes when the Stanford defense pulled out some wrinkles and extra effort. Scooter McFadden led the Vols in scoring but I was most impressed by junior point guard C.J. Watson. If that name rings a bell, he was ranked the #2 point guard in the West back in the 2002 class. The Las Vegas (Nev.) product blew up the summer before his senior year and let it be known that he dreamed of going to Arizona. UCLA also took a pass on him. Watson recorded five steals, five rebounds and scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting against Stanford in this game. He was an explosive troublemaker that helped keep the Card out of rhythm while also giving them fits on the other end of the court.
The turnovers were just so pervasive and so ugly throughout the game that it is hard to come up with many positives you can take away from this game for the 1-1 Cardinal. Stanford shot the ball poorly - 42% for the game, including an eye-gouging 2-of-12 from three-point range. The offense had no flow, and the Card looked athletically overmatched by a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad. Rebounding was lacking as well, with Stanford losing the battle on the boards. You simply cannot sugarcoat how poorly Stanford played in this game. And it does not all fall on the head of the players - the coaching staff did a poor job of making personnel adjustments when players struggled on the floor. Most notable was the insistence on playing Robinson through a six-turnover game where he (again) could not shoot the ball, while sophomore small forward Fred Washington received just five minutes on the floor. Washington has real shortcomings, to be sure, but if you cannot play him in this game for Robinson, when will you make that substitution this year?
I offer just one bright spot from this entire game: Dan Grunfeld. The junior wing showed us that his prolific performance on Friday against USF in Oakland was probably not a fluke against "mid-major" competition. We remember how last year Grunfeld broke out for 21 points against Southern Utah last December, but he mostly flailed against good competition, averaging a disturbing 2.1 points per game in Pac-10 play and never cracking double digits. But this Tennessee team has some pretty good athletes who can defend and who dictated a pace of the game within which last year Grunfeld could not have done anything well. He has made athletic strides and raised the consistency of his offense, and with that has come a greater confidence and aggression. He threw in a team-high 19 points and for the second straight game led Stanford in field goal attempts. The next best scoring came from Haryasz and Hernandez, who chipped in only 10 points apiece. Those two players are the two most talented playmakers on this team and have to make their presence felt on the offensive end... by something other than a combined seven turnovers.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!