You have to go back 12 years to find a Stanford team that started the year 2-2. The 1992-93 squad was the last to come out of the gates that slowly, and that was a team that finished the year 7-23. It was the last losing record for a Cardinal Basketball team - also the last year before Brevin Knight came onto campus and started the meteoric rise of the program. Stanford lost two games all of last year and have matched that total this year before Thanksgiving, with Wednesday's 82-67 loss to #12 Louisville. However, the final score was not indicative of the tight competitive level of this game and it obscures the fact that this contest showed us Stanford's best basketball of the young season.
You might surmise that the Cardinals clubbed the Cardinal with a typical Rick Pitino style of basketball, racing up and down the floor with pressure and high-tempo play on offense and defense. Quite surprisingly, Pitino's team defeated Trent Johnson's squad with an outstanding half-court offense and a zone defense. The Cardinals were red hot shooting behind the three-point line, hitting 11-of-20 in the game and running smart offense. You have to go back two years to find an opponent who hoisted that many three-point shots and hit at 50% or better. For Stanford, there was no hope of keeping pace with the outside shooting given the weakness at that skill for this team. They managed 3-of-10 three-point shooting in the game.
While it is the second loss of the year, this game bore no resemblance to the Tennessee contest that opened the Maui Invitational for the Card. Stanford turned the ball over with great recklessness throughout the loss to the Vols and found themselves in a frankly uncompetitive situation. Against Louisville, Stanford held leads in the second half and showed resiliency through the first three-quarters of the game. One of the most encouraging moments came early in the first half, when Pitino's squad raced out to a 9-2 start in the first three minutes and seemingly overwhelmed Stanford. Trent Johnson called a quick time out, and afterward his team answered with a most impressive 13-0 run. Countless times during the Mike Montgomery era we saw Stanford struggle when the former head coach refused to call time outs to stop runs - particularly when a media time out was around the corner. Johnson signaled for a break at 16:56 in the first half and smartly stopped the bleeding. He came out of the time out with a call to get senior center Rob Little the ball, and he scored on a short turnaround jumper to start the Stanford run. It also started a sizzling morning for Little, who would finish the game with a career-high 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting.
The 6'10" center started the game 7-of-7 before he missed a shot midway through the second half. It was a fantastic performance from the Stanford senior, though just as he ran out of gas in the second half, so too did the team. The Card held leads in the first five minutes after halftime, but they went a stretch of more than four minutes without a field goal. Louisville took advantage and stretched a narrow two-point lead to 12 points on the back of four straight three-pointers. Stanford could not get the game back to single digits until the final 90 seconds when Chris Hernandez canned a three-pointer of his own. But it was too little too late, and the Card clearly did not have enough gas in their tanks to come back. Louisville sealed the game with nine straight free throws as Stanford mustered only one more basket, ending the game in a 15-point final margin.
Stanford did have some surprising opportunities in the final minute when they trailed by just eight points and twice saw Louisville miss the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities. But each time, the Cards outhustled the Card for offensive rebounds.
Stanford did not struggle badly against the pressure or athleticism of Louisville, and in fact the Cardinal turned the ball over 14 times to the Cardinals' 15 turnovers. The rebounding battle was close to a draw. The great positive in this game was strong performances from Little and Matt Haryasz, showing for the first time this year what the starting frontcourt should be able to do. Haryasz had a stellar all-around game, scoring 18 points (one shy of his career high), grabbing eight boards, blocking three shots and dishing four assists. He was a force on the defensive end of the court, rejecting and altering shots, and the 6'11" junior was deadly with face-up jumpers on offense.
The failings in the game came shooting the ball, from the floor and from the stripe. On the free throw line, the team's best shooters misfired. In the first half, Hernandez and Grunfeld each missed two free throws - and each missed badly on the back or front of the rim. In the second half, Grunfeld missed another pair, including a front end of a bonus situation. Haryasz also bricked a front end. Shooting from the field, Stanford lost its legs as the second half wore on. They shot just 38% from the floor after halftime, missing 16 of their final 22 shots in the game. For the Card, it was their third game in three days and fourth in six days. This would be the game of all games in the year when you would expect a loose rotation to keep players fresh, but what we saw from first-year Cardinal head coach Trent Johnson was just the opposite.
Johnson employed one of the tightest rotations in this game that we have seen in recent years for Stanford Basketball, playing all five starters 32 or more minutes. Only three players came into the game off the bench, and they averaged just six minutes each. Freshman center Peter Prowitt and sophomore small forward Fred Washington never came into the game. Given the strong play of Little and Haryasz, you can understand keeping Prowitt off the floor. He is not quite ready for prime time, in the eyes of the coaching staff, having now played in just one of the first four games of the year. But it is a stumper to see Washington stay on the pine for 40 minutes when his starting counterpart, Nick Robinson, was offensively bankrupt (again). The fifth-year senior shot 1-of-5 in the first half of the game, and then 1-of-5 again in the second half.
You can understand why Trent Johnson would want to stick with his battle-tested fifth-year senior down the stretch or in clutch situations, relative to the untested Washington, but 38 minutes was too long to keep Robinson in the game - given how he was struggling offensively and has predominately struggled in every game (regulation or exhibition) we have seen this month. We have bemoaned for months how difficult the thin 10-man rotation of scholarship players would be, and what rotten fruit that could bear. We did not envision an eight-man rotation where starters average more than 36 minutes per game. Fred Washington has significant flaws in his game right now, and few fans recognize that they are as great on defense as they are on offense. But when Robinson's play sinks to this level, the gap between him and Washington is not so great as to justify a gap of 38 minutes to zero minutes.
We have months more of observation still this winter, but early data points suggest that Johnson plays (incredibly) with a tighter approach to his rotation than Montgomery. That's something for fans to watch - something for fans to chew on.
You do have to give a lot of credit to Louisville, though. They also played their third game in three days but played four of their starters an average of 35 minutes. Their three players who hit their six second half three-pointers logged 18, 18 and 20 minutes in the second half. They played great defense and never looked like their legs gave out. They looked fantastic, and exactly as they were billed. They had great athletes making plays, and they did it with patience and skills. The famed Rick Pitino style of high tempo play did not win this game. It was not a "system" that defeated Stanford. Louisville had better players who made better plays over the course of the 40 minutes.
Criticisms aside, this was a more pleasing game to watch for Stanford than any other in this young season. They played their best opponent and had their best runs of play. The successes could not carry for 40 minutes, and the absence of threatening outside shooting reared its ugly head, but there were enough signs of improvement and progress to leave me feeling better about this team now than after the Card's first game in Maui. Up next is an intriguing test on Sunday at Santa Clara. The South Bay rivals have already knocked off an incredibly good North Carolina team this year and should give Stanford all they can handle.
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