It's no fun watching Stanford Basketball with such a poor offense this year, but it is hard to see a chance for dramatic improvement there. The glaring deficiency is perimeter shooting, which is worse than any seen on The Farm in more than a decade. Coming into this week, the Cardinal trailed the rest of the conference by a shocking margin in both three-point percentage and makes. Stanford stood dead last at 22.8% behind the arc, while every other team in the Pac-10 was at 30% or higher. The Card had just 13 three-point field goals to their name, lagging dramatically behind the next worst team (Cal, 33).
Stanford's purest three-point shooter, Jason Haas, is unraveling on the court every time he gets into the game. The junior point guard has attempted a mere four three-point shots in seven games this season, hitting one. It is the single most difficult mystery to crack - how Haas is underperforming in games so badly compared to his performances in practices. The team's best shooter is redshirt junior Chris Hernandez, but he freely admits that he has not yet regained his shooting rhythm after missing almost the entire preseason with a high ankle sprain. He is trying to shoot the ball, firing up over half of the team's three-point attempts, but he is hitting just 33.3% (11-of-33). We cannot predict how long it will take for the preseason All-American to regain his form, but it can't come soon enough.
Junior starting small forward Dan Grunfeld has been the greatest (and possibly only) positive surprise for this team thus far this year, leading the way with 16.6 points per game. While you may wish to point fingers at almost every other player on the roster before you start listing faults with Grunfeld, it cannot be ignored how he has evolved as a scorer. In his freshman year, Grunfeld attempted 42% of his field goal attempts behind the three-point line. As a sophomore last year, the 6'6" wing was noticeably gun-shy and moved more of his offense closer to the basket, attempting just 35.6% of his shots from outside. Without trying to understand why he regressed, the savvy scorer indeed was less effective from three-point range and maybe was right to emphasize slashing to the basket. Grunfeld was a verifiable long-range threat off the bench that freshman year, hitting 39.0%; as a sophomore he slumped to 22.6% from three-point range.
The trend has continued now in his junior year, with Grunfeld attempting a mere 16% of his field goal attempts from outside. When he does shoot behind the arc, he is making just 23.1%.
That freshman season was no fluke; Dan Grunfeld is a very capable three-point shooter. But he has deliberately changed his offensive attack to one that drives to the basket. Scoring is up for sure, but this team needs balance. It is not reasonable to expect Nick Robinson, Tim Morris or Fred Washington to suddenly light up from outside. All three are intrinsically poor perimeter shooters, and shooting is a skill you are unlikely to improve during the season. Grunfeld has a nice stroke but has made up his mind against using it. In practices, coaches craft defenses that sag off him in an attempt to bait him into three-point shots, but he continually passes them up.
Grunfeld denies that has has consciously changed his offensive repertoire: "When defenders come out to guard me, I'll drive to the basket. But when they sag off to stop the drive, I will shoot the ball." Observations thus far this year overwhelmingly disagree.
The soft defense that Grunfeld is seeing is the same put forth against the entire Stanford team this year. It was a dramatic statement in Maui last month when Louisville, a notoriously up-tempo team that enjoys exerting defensive pressure, played stretches of zone defense against the Cardinal. Fans should brace themselves for zone defenses almost every night when Pac-10 play begins, and there will be some games Stanford will lose to inferior teams as a result. There are teams who will accomplish the same result while staying in man-to-man defense, but by playing far off the Stanford offensive players. Denver did just that on Monday night, packing their defense in so much that it almost looked like a zone, though their defenders maintained individual assignments. The Cardinal were just one or two plays at the end of that game away from losing to the Pioneers.
The added difficulty for Stanford on offense when teams can pack it in defensively is found in numerous areas. The greatest strength of the Cardinal's top four wings (Grunfeld, Robinson, Morris and Washington) is clearly their ability to slash to the goal. But as defenses sag off and hang out near the basket, driving lanes become intractably congested. As a result, the attacking drives have difficulty getting to basket, while picking up more offensive fouls and turning the ball over with greater frequency. The ripple effect is found for Stanford's post players, as well. They have far less room to operate this year than when defenses had to race out at Hernandez, Matt Lottich and Josh Childress. Passing lanes to get post players the ball are disappearing, and they are struggling to find time and space to make a move to the basket.
Of course, there are problems a-plenty inside that Matt Haryasz and Rob Little need to address, independent of these snowballing circumstances. Haryasz is bigger and stronger than ever, and his minutes should allow him to get in better offensive rhythm than at any point in his Cardinal career. But the starting power forward is just having an awful time scoring with the ball, shooting 43.7% from the field. By comparison, Haryasz hit at a 50.0% clip his freshman year and then 52.9% last year as a sophomore. If you watch tape of the first seven games, you will more often than not find Haryasz attempting a broad array of moves when he touches the ball. The 6'11" junior is trying to improvise and do too many things as he now shoulders the responsibility as a primary offensive weapon in his new everyday starting role. His improvement will come if and when he can simplify to one go-to move to beat his defenders, and then later in a game change up with a secondary or tertiary option.
Little is acting little like a senior, with his bouts of foul trouble that have him playing less than 25 minutes per game. The 6'10" center has said that his number one focus and responsibility this year, where he can most help this team, is in rebounding. Little has laid out his own goal of grabbing 10 boards per game, and he is not even getting halfway home at his current 4.4 average. His per-game numbers are indeed hurt by his low minutes, but on a per-minute basis, Little has regressed. As a freshman, he pulled down 9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes of play. As a sophomore and junior, he 10.3 and 9.2 boards per 40 minutes, respectively. Thus far this season, he has mustered just 7.3 rebounds per 40 minutes of play.
But of all the things I have covered above, it is this last paragraph that most piques Trent Johnson's attention. There are a few levers to pull on offense right now, but they are very few. This team has little chance to suddenly sprout outside shooting. Johnson has to play the deck he was dealt. But the first-year Cardinal head coach believes that this team can control other areas where effort and intensity are within their means.
"As long as we are defending and rebounding, we will be able to stay in games," Johnson offers. "We don't need to worry about the offensive end."
"The offense will take care of itself," he continues. "They key is to get stops at crucial times, and develop the bench to the point that they can give us better minutes."
As much as it pains Cardinalmaniacs™ to see Stanford's offense struggle so much, it should offend them to see where the Card stack up in the effort areas of the stat sheet. Stanford ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-10 in a plethora rebounding and defensive statistics at this point in the season. Starting this week, we saw:
#8 in rebounding (34.7/game)
#9 in rebounding margin (-2.0/game)
#8 in scoring defense (75.2/game)
#10 in scoring margin (-7.2/game)
#10 in three-point field goal defense (.364)
#7 in total field goal defense (.442)
#10 in blocked shots (2.50/game)
It is shocking to see that Stanford has been outrebounded in five of its seven games this year, with their only edges coming against USF and Denver. The low point had to come in the game against Santa Clara, where the Cardinal were beaten on the boards by a squad with decidedly less size and athleticism. More troubling may have been the defense Stanford put forth in the decisive second half of the game, when the Broncos ripped their South Bay rivals for 62.1% scoring.
There are athletes on this Cardinal squad who have the ability to defend, but thus far have been lax in their discipline and effort. That has been the greatest focus in practices the last few weeks, and we saw nascent signs of improvement when Stanford last hit the road. They started off leading Michigan State on the back of an inspiring defensive effort, forcing turnovers and using those opportunities to get high percentage offensive looks. The Card led 13-6 through the first nine minutes of the game, holding the Spartans to 2-of-13 shooting. Tom Izzo made some adjustments and threw some new looks at Stanford which reversed fortunes, and Stanford unraveled after that. But it for the first quarter of the game, they defended like they wanted to.
Two nights later in Denver, it was again a strong defensive effort that ruled the early going, as Stanford took a 23-9 lead. While Michigan State is simply a superior team in depth, talent and athleticism, eventually winning out and doing so in masterful fashion, Denver made their run as the Cardinal team was sucking wind midway through the first half. The altitude took an obvious toll on the visiting team, as evidenced by the starters sucking wind right away at the first television timeout. As a side note, that probably tells us that the Cardinal could stand to double down on their conditioning, but the point remains that they came out early and looked their strongest when they defended the best.
"When we went to the bench, we lost a little bit of that," Johnson laments. "We have to recognize that those kids haven't had the experience in those circumstances... There are a lot of the guys on this team who were role players last year. A mistake made a year or two ago, we can't have that today. We have to build an air of confidence and sustain it."
The three opponents Stanford will face to close out the 2004 calendar year and their non-conference schedule are a combined 10-12. On paper, they are games where the Cardinal should fare well and hopefully rebuild that confidence - for their starters and bench players. Some big offensive nights might erupt for some of the Stanford men, but keep your eyes on the defense and rebounding. That is where this team has a chance to make a turnaround in the 2004-05 season.
- We are still several weeks away from the inevitable talk of NCAA Tournament projections, and Stanford will at best make the "bubble" group in those discussions. The most Stanford can hope to carry into conference play is a 6-4 record, and they will have some struggles in the Pac-10. Right now, it is easy to imagine that the Cardinal will require a Pac-10 Tournament title in March to get into the Big Dance. A quick glance at Jeff Sagarin's latest ratings shows that the Pac-10 is ranked just eighth in the nation among conferences, lagging behind the likes of the Mid-American and Missouri Valley Conferences. If there is one tiny good detail to report on the Cardinal's résumé, it would be their admirable strength of schedule - currently #29 in the nation, easily tops in the conference. The next closest team is Washington at #87.
- Tonight is the first home game of the year for Stanford, playing in Maples Pavilion for the first time since February. Trent Johnson waves his hand at that issue and is unwilling to make excuses for this team, but nobody will mind if these three home games help to get the team back in winning form. The Cardinal face off against UC-Davis tonight and then next week welcome Dartmouth (Dec. 22) and Montana (Dec. 23) to Maples.
- The game tonight against the Aggies provides one subplot of obvious interest. Davis senior Ryan Moore is not just the Aggies' second-leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, shooting 45.3% from the field, 31.8% from outside the arc and 87.5% from the free throw line... the starting small forward is also the older brother of Stanford sophomore Evan Moore. The two have had this game circled on their respective calendars all year, though it has been a moving target. The game was originally scheduled for February, much to the pleasure of the Moore brothers. That late date would have allowed Evan to get into better basketball form later in the season, as he adjusts to the skills and conditioning after his football season. When the Stanford schedule saw some changes that necessitated a move to December, the brothers feared they would not get to play each other - Evan was planning on being in the midst of bowl preparation today. Football follies of course ended that season early and allow the younger brother to suit up tonight. It is not a given that the siblings will see time against each other on the court, however. Evan Moore has appeared in just one game for two minutes thus far this season. If circumstances do allow the Cardinal sophomore onto the floor, the brothers may not guard each other (Evan is a power forward; Ryan is a small forward), but watch for some extra-physical screens set out there.
- After a road trip that came on the heels of finals week, with two games in three days (Saturday and Monday), the team took Tuesday off. That timing allowed sophomore Fred Washington to get a cortisone shot on Tuesday for his ailing wrist, which has been an on-and-off problem for him since the summer. The shot required the small forward to sit out Wednesday's practice, but he is back in action and ready to play tonight. The question of playing time for Washington has been a hotly debated topic by fans of late, and this wrist injury is a disadvantage to consider for the already challenged jump shooter. However, the 6'5" wing has seen his game time primarily limited due to his energy in practices - primarily defense and rebounding. The pain in his wrist may be affecting him more mentally than physically, though there are a few signs of encouraging progress. Through Stanford's first five games of the season, Washington netted just three rebounds in 31 minutes of play. He then regrouped during the two weeks Stanford did not play, and came back this past week with three rebounds in eight minutes. That improvement is something the coaches are excited to see, though Washington is still well below his rebounds/minute from his freshman year. Continued improvement here and on the defensive end are the keys to more playing time, which we expect these three upcoming home games. With more playing time, Washington will hopefully regain his confidence.
- Two other young players who are improving and earning more minutes are freshman center Peter Prowitt and redshirt freshman shooting guard Tim Morris. Prowitt was hurting worse than any scholarship player on the roster for minutes through the first five games of the season. The 6'10" frosh saw just 10 minutes of action and only came off the bench in two games. He was not picking up things in practice, on offense or defense, like he or the coaches may have liked, but he did not give up. Prowitt redoubled his efforts and has made great strides the last three weeks of practices. The coaches are gaining more confidence for him in games with what they have seen in practices, and they consequently ramped up his playing time to 26 minutes with action in both games last week. In one practice this week, the Cardinal post players conducted a one-on-one round-robin game of "cutthroat" competition in the paint. It was young Prowitt who won... Morris has played in every game this year, but his playing time is increasing as he gets a better feel for the game after a redshirt year. The 6'4" wing averaged 15.6 minutes per game through the first five contests but has logged 19.5 minutes per game in the last two. His brightest moment of the year came at the end of the Denver game on Monday when he blocked a shot in the final seconds to save the game. When asked Wednesday if that block was clean, however, the honest Morris grinned and shook his head.
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