CJs Corner: Size Matters

As fans and the media alike are still scrambling to understand the new-look Stanford Basketball under Trent Johnson, one defining characteristic of the starting lineup has escaped examination. Chris Jaenike highlights how unusual the Cardinal are with their "big" starting five, relative to the national and Pac-10 college basketball landscapes.

At a time when many college teams have already gone "small," or switched to three-guard lineups, this Stanford team is an anomaly. Not only have the Cardinal not gone small or deployed a three-guard lineup, they have gone in the opposite direction, starting what is arguably a one-guard lineup.

Stanford fans probably tend to overlook this aspect of the team because the Cardinal have featured a big lineup in several previous years. The most obvious example is the 2000-01 team, which featured a starting lineup (Mike McDonald (6-1), Casey Jacobsen (6-6), Ryan Mendez (6-7), Jarron Collins (6-11) and Jason Collins (6-11)) that was huge by college standards and would have been considered at least average by NBA standards. In fact, each of the Collins twins has gone on to start at center for the majority of his NBA career. Because that squad featured a collection of shooters that was among the most impressive in recent college basketball history, a relative lack of quickness on that team did not hurt it on the offensive end; height, solid fundamentals and rebounding masked any quickness deficit on the defensive end.

The Cardinal have gone back to the future with its current lineup of Chris Hernandez (6-2), Dan Grunfeld (6-6), Nick Robinson (6-6), Matt Haryasz (6-11) and Rob Little (6-10). At first blush, that lineup might seem fairly conventional, if on the tall side. However, when you consider that Grunfeld is probably a more natural 'three' than 'two' at the college level, and that Nick Robinson has played the 'four' as much as the 'three' during his career, it is apparent that Stanford is bucking the trend of recent years in college basketball, particularly Pac-10 basketball. Instead of playing a two- or three-guard lineup, you could say that Stanford is playing a one-guard lineup (with three forwards and a center). And of the three forwards, one (Robinson) is a combo forward and the other (Haryasz) often plays at the 'five'. Talk about going against the grain!

Following is a brief comparison of Stanford's starting lineup versus those of the other Pac-10 teams. Because of lineup changes due to injuries and other considerations (such as disciplinary actions in the case of USC and Arizona), the starting lineups for some of the other schools may be in a state of flux. I have chosen the lineups that I think are most likely to be seen the most often during conference play. The number following each players name is the "natural" position for each player. Where a player is well-suited to more than one position, I have listed both positions, with the more natural position (in my opinion) listed first.

Hernandez (6-2), 1
Grunfeld (6-6), 3/2
Robinson (6-6), 3
Haryasz (6-11), 4/5
Little (6-10), 5

Shakur (6-3), 1
Stoudamire (6-1), 2
Adams (6-4), 3
Fox (6-9), 4
Frye (6-11), 5

In the past, Arizona often has had backcourt players capable of playing more than one position and has occasionally played with a three-guard lineup. The 2004-05 team features a conventional lineup. Each of the backcourt players on this year's squad has a natural position (suggesting their chemistry problems have little to do with basketball skills and much to do with attitude).

Arizona State
Braxton (6-2), 1
Moore (6-4), 2
Krueger (6-7), 2
Angounou (6-8), 4
Diogu (6-8), 4

ASU can afford to go with a pair of natural shooting guards, in addition to point guard Braxton, because spot-up shooters are a good complement to a completely dominant post player like Ike Diogu, who almost has to be doubled. Rob Evans tends to stay small with his substitutions.

Ubaka (6-3), 1
Midgley (6-2), 2/1
Kately (6-5), 3
Benson (6-10), 4
Hardin (6-10), 5

Although some list him as a combo guard-forward, I think Marquise Kately is a natural 'three', giving Cal a "conventional" starting lineup when healthy. With Ayinde Ubaka out with a foot injury, the Weenies have gone big. Although more athletic than Stanford, Cal's current lineup (without Ubaka) bears a passing resemblance to Stanford's in terms of size and a lack of pure shooters.

Brooks (6-0), 1
Taylor (6-4), 2
Hairston (6-6), 2/3
Crosswhite (6-10), 4
Platt (6-10), 4/5

Depending on how one characterizes Malik Hairston, this could be considered yet another Ernie Kent three-guard lineup, albeit with a little better height than usual.

Oregon State
Fontenet (5-10), 1
Hurd (6-4), 1/2
Nash (6-2), 2
Lucas (6-7), 4
Cuic (6-10), 4

The Beavers' lineup is in a near-constant state of flux, so it's anybody's guess who the starters will be down the road. When David Lucas returns, he should add stability. Regardless, the River Rats are likely to continue with a particularly small three-guard lineup. Lamar Hurd, a natural 'one', has played more off the ball with the arrival of Jason Fontenet, a quicker, natural point guard.

Farmar (6-2), 1
Afflalo (6-4), 2
Shipp (6-5), 3/2
Thompson (6-7), 3
Mata (6-8), 5/4

Ben Howland has decided to take advantage of the strengths of his team, perimeter players, and go with a smaller lineup featuring Dijon Thompson nominally at the 'four' and no true power forward.

Pruitt (6-4), 1
Stewart (6-4), 2
Young, (6-6), 2/3
McMillan (6-8), 4
O'Neil (6-11), 5/4

This could be considered another three-guard lineup, although with the Trojans, you never know how disciplinary considerations or defections may impact the starting lineup and rotation down the road.

Robinson (5-9), 1
Tre Simmons (6-5), 2
Roy (6-6), 2/3
Jones (6-6), 3
Jensen (6-8), 4

Who starts for Washington is not particularly important, given Lorenzo Romar's frequent substitutions thanks to the Dawgs' frenetic pace. Romar is still feeling out his post rotation, but at the moment, it looks like he might start one power forward (Mike Jensen) and no center. Of course, he has little choice given the lack of post players on the roster and the desire to play to his squad's strength, which is decidedly not at the 'four' and 'five' spots.

Washington State
Weaver (6-4), 1
Kelati (6-4), 2/3
Varem (6-6), 3
Gill (6-7), 3/4
Cowgill (6-9), 5

Like Oregon State's, Wazzu's lineup has been unpredictable. Without much height to work with, the Cougs are likely to play a patchwork lineup with substitution patterns that vary dramatically from game to game. Still, the one thing we do know is that Dick Bennett will tend to go small out of necessity.

Compared to the starting lineups of the other Pac-10 schools, a few things about Stanford's lineup stand out. The most obvious, which is apparent on paper, is that the Cardinal has the biggest starting lineup in the conference. Perhaps not surprisingly given the size advantage, the lineup features limited quickness and athleticism, below average by Pac-10 standards, and a skill set that skews toward interior scoring (including Grunfeld's ability to penetrate) and away from perimeter skills, most notably shooting.

Of course, we all know that Stanford has issues with its perimeter shooting and defense. The interesting question will be whether facing some of the smaller, quicker lineups in the conference will force Stanford to make adjustments. I think the answer is likely to be "yes."

We've recently started to see the emergence of Tim Morris as a factor on both ends of the court, and I think the trend is likely to continue. Morris is one of the few Cardinal players who can create shots for himself, as he takes good advantage of his exceptional athleticism by penetrating and pulling up for mid-range jumpers and floaters or finishing strong at the goal. On the defensive end, although his consistency is still developing, he is better able to stay with quicker perimeter players than is Dan Grunfeld, whose defense has been as spotty as his scoring has been reliable. Fred Washington's minutes should also increase, as his ability to defend at the wing is helpful. His health and practice performance will probably dictate just how much his minutes increase.

Perhaps the most interesting question for conference play from a strategic standpoint is whether and how much Stanford will attempt to pound the ball inside. The flip side of the quickness disadvantage Stanford will often face is that it will have a big size advantage in the frontcourt if the staff elects to take advantage of it. Playing Little and Haryasz together on the court has the potential to create serious problems for teams like UCLA and Washington, which simply don't have the defenders to deal with those two if and when they are fed the ball and assert themselves. If Little and Haryasz can defend well enough against smaller lineups to stay on the court together, they'll give Stanford the one edge it can count on most nights in conference play.

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