Turning the Corner? Not Yet.

The last glimmers of optimism for many Cardinalmaniacs have clung to the hope that Stanford underperformed in their first seven games of the year due to a tough schedule - all on the road. The Card play their final three games of the non-conference season at home against weaker opponents. Early returns say that Stanford has not yet turned the corner, despite the favorable conditions.

After a opening seven-game road trip and a somewhat disappointing 3-4 record, Stanford Basketball and its fans were hoping for a rousing rebound at home to finish out December and the non-conference schedule.  While we have two games these next two nights to give us more data, there was not enough from the UC Davis game to brighten our hopes substantially.  But to keep from raining on the parade of that 72-62 victory too quickly, here are the positives you might pull away from the game:

  • The return of the trey - The four three-pointers made were a season high, sad though that fact may be.  Shooting 50% from the perimeter against a zone is something we will gleefully take in Pac-10 games.  The best sign of all was that Dan Grunfeld looked at least moderately assertive from outside, making a pair of three-pointers in this game after hitting only three of them in his previous seven games.  The Cardinal are going to need some heavy scoring in spurts in many games this year, and it will require a respectable three-point threat to get there.
  • Pounding in the paint - Stanford will never again have an advantage of size in another game this year like they had against the Davis, with the Aggies sporting a starting frontline of 6'6" forwards.  If there is an offensive identity that Stanford wants to assert right now, it is to pound it inside and score in the paint.  Rob Little and Matt Haryasz combined for 12-of-16 shooting for 26 points.  Trent Johnson will take that any day of the week.  Though it is a faint achievement against the competition the Cardinal faced, it is a positive reinforcement that the entire team needed.  Let's see if Little and Haryasz can dominate like that, together in the same game, again sometime soon.
  • Rebounding - It's no secret that you need to clean the boards to win ballgames, and that has been a staple of Stanford success for as long as Cardinal Basketball has had any success.  The rebounding has been a disappointment thus far this year, with the Card getting beaten on the boards in every one of their four losses.  Stanford had one of its best games rebounding the ball against Davis, with a +11 advantage - second only to the +14 rebounding margin against Denver.

Now, here come the dark clouds.  It is disheartening to see that the talent level and execution of this Stanford team is such that they could only squeeze out a 10-point win in a game where they outrebounded their opponent by better than a 3:2 margin and shot 63.3% from the field.  Grunfeld handed out a nice quip in the post-game press conference that this was not the BCS, where margin of victory is important.  That drew a chuckle from the assembled media.  But it is hard to ignore that the Cardinal could not at any point truly put away a team who will likely not rise into the top 200 teams in the country this year in Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings.

The glaring failure in this game, and thus far this year for this team, is defense.  Though Davis was challenged in their size, as evidenced by the combined 13 points that their starting center and two forwards scored, the Aggies as a team presented two problems that have been bugaboos for the Cardinal all year:

  • Three-point defense - While it irks Cardinalmaniacs™ that this Stanford squad is so impotent in scoring behind the arc, it is more troublesome how they continually fail to defend at that same range.  Your 2004-05 Cardinal still rank dead last in the Pac-10 in three-point defense, and it is by a significant margin.  The other nine teams in the conference are allowing between 25% (UCLA) and 35% (USC) at long range, while Stanford is being scorched at a 39% clip.  UC Davis shot 58.8% from outside in the game at Maples Pavilion, including 7-of-11 (63.6%) in the second half.  It was by the three, and exclusively by the three, that the Aggies stuck with Stanford so long in the game.  While the Card hung on for the win, it was never a safe game.  This is not an anomaly, but instead a predictive pattern of some danger coming this season.  Inferior opponents, whether they be undersized or untalented, can easily put together a run at Stanford on the back of three-point shooting.  The most discouraging part of Stanford's perimeter defense in the Davis game, and we've seen this several times this year, was the lapses at the very end of the shot clock.  For example, when Stanford came out firing after halftime to build a lead and take over the game, Davis pulled themselves back in with two straight three-point baskets.  Both were hit in the final five seconds of the shot block - both coming on individual breakdowns after a strong defensive possession.  Somehow, the coaches have to hammer home to these Stanford players the importance of 35 seconds of defense.
  • Shutting the screen door- Davis was not a big team, but they ran a disciplined and relentless motion offense that ran players around screens over and over again.  They used high screens to try and set up three-point shots; they used middle screens to open cuts to the basket.  One of the biggest criticisms of most (if not all) the Cardinal players this year has been their poor decisions in moving around screens.  Too often they are caught on the backside of the screen and lose their man, giving open shots at the basket.  That is probably the single greatest contributor to opponents' high field goal percentages against Stanford this year.  It has also contributed to fouls, as players grab their man or bulldoze the screener.  In the Davis game, for example, Stanford amassed a load of whistles in the second half as they committed lazy fouls against screens.  Jason Haas had the most glaring offense, when he came into the game late in the first half for a single play.  The junior point guard had already been hit with two fouls in the opening stanza and went to the bench, but Grunfeld drew his second foul (against a screen) and pulled Haas off the bench.  Haas was whistled for a foul as he grabbed his man to try and prevent him from running around a screen - before the ball was even inbounded.  Haas went back to the bench with his third foul after playing 0:00 in that substitution.

If you are watching - at Maples or on the television - these next two games against Dartmouth and Montana, watch these two areas of defense.  Offense and rebounding will be obvious to your eye, but focus on how Stanford defends the trey (particularly late in the shot clock) and how they handle screens.  These are fundamentals that should be well within the capabilities of these players.  It is not a question of skill, as in three-point sharpshooting; nor is it a question of athleticism, which is an important component in rebounding.

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