Stanford started the New Year 0-3 in Pac-10 play and 6-7 overall. It had been a full 20 years since the Cardinal had dropped their first three conference games, and it was a disturbing trip in the time machine for Stanford fans who had become accustomed to the glory of 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament berths the last 10 seasons in a row. Just at the time when many Cardinalmaniacs™ were emphatically throwing in the towel, the beleaguered Card turned the ship right around. Stanford has now won four straight, with three of those wins coming on the road. That run of success has pulled the Cardinal from last place in the conference to sole possession of third place.
It is a truly remarkable turnaround job that has changed the entire complexion of the season. Three weeks ago, Stanford was projected to battle for a spot in the postseason NIT. This week they are projected as one of the last at-large selections to the NCAA Tournament. The Card are rolling.
"We're getting to the point now where if we don't have success, it's probably going to be because the other team is better," says head coach Trent Johnson of his team's marked improvement. "We're at a level of rhythm, of efficiency, where the ball just needs to go down. Prior to that, we were in disarray."
That disarray included a defense that was getting torched and an offense that was sputtering. Both have made giant leaps forward in the last four games. The offense is the most obvious for fans to see, with three-point shooting the crown jewel improvement. In their first 13 games of the year (6-7), Stanford shot just 31.6% from behind the arc as a team. The starting backcourt of Chris Hernandez and Dan Grunfeld were hitting 37.7% and 29.7%, respectively. In the last four games (4-0), the Cardinal are a red-hot 51.1% from three-point range. Hernandez has hit 11-of-19 for a 57.9% clip during that winning streak, while Grunfeld has sizzled for 60.0% (9-of-15).
Through the first four weeks of Pac-10 play, Hernandez ranks ninth and Grunfeld sits fourth in conference three-point shooting. Stanford as a team ranks third in conference three-point shooting, which is a far, far cry from their woeful marksmanship through December. You may remember my writing about the horrific split between the Card's three-point offense and defense, which may have been the worst in Division I basketball at the time. Believe it or not, in conference games Stanford has improved such that they are actually shooting better behind the arc (39.3%) than their opponents (38.1%).
"I think we all started out of the gate slow not knowing our roles," Hernandez says of the team's poor preseason. "It was a new team, new coach and new roles. We didn't all know when to shoot or where. Guys have been starting to figure it out, though."
"Guys are more comfortable with their roles," Johnson echoes. "We're going inside-out and moving the ball around better."
Though the winning streak started with the famed upset of Arizona at Maples Pavilion, the turnaround really began the prior weekend up in Seattle. Stanford played arguably their best game of the year in a tight 73-76 loss to the Washington Huskies. The herky-jerk of the Cardinal offense started to fade that afternoon, and it bred true confidence among the players that they could figure this thing out.
"The Washington game was big for us," offers Matt Haryasz. "I'm not a fan of moral victories, but we kind of turned the corner that day."
The Cardinal returned home 0-2 from a disappointing road trip to the Evergreen State, but they knew they were close. Players said that performance against the Huskies was the first time all year they felt like they had played "Stanford basketball." Evan Moore quit the team and Tim Morris was ruled academically ineligible the beginning of that week, however, which dealt a difficult one-two punch to the team. But still riding an emotional rising tide from the game in Seattle, the team bounced right back. Instead of folding, they had their best practices of the year with a mixture of raging fire and rising execution. Some of the veteran leaders got into teammates' faces. Players played better together, and coaches saw palpable improvement as their teachings came to fruition.
"I told the kids, 'Don't lose sight of the fact that we're playing better. If you keep at it, the ball will bounce your way.' The kids have kept their poise and kept believing. They've kept working," Johnson comments.
Coaches and players alike were expecting a tremendous performance that Thursday night against Arizona State, but that afternoon, Hernandez suffered terrible back spasms during the team's light shootaround. He was in great pain and lost for the game just hours before tip-off. After rallying all week with emotion and adrenaline, the team felt their wind knocked out. They were handled easily by Ike Diogu and the Sun Devils that evening, extending their conference losing streak and record to 0-3.
"I think if [Hernandez] had gotten hurt the day before the game instead of the day of the game, the guys would have had time to adjust," Johnson opines.
The team knew that without their engine, they played below their capability that Thursday, and they rebounded for a strong Friday practice. Hernandez returned to action to play that Saturday and delivered an inspiring performance that will go down as one of the most heroic efforts of the year in college basketball. He and Grunfeld combined to shoot 6-of-8 from behind the arc to upend the Wildcats in a rocking Maples Pavilion, and the Card have not relented since.
"When you get that winning mentality back, you get on a roll," Haryasz describes. "Everything just seems to be clicking together now, as compared to a few weeks ago."
But the secret behind this great turnaround is not actually found on the offensive end of the court. The Cardinal have made their greatest improvement on defense, where they had been the laughingstock of the Pac-10 in the preseason and now ranked near the top in the conference. In Pac-10 play, Stanford ranks fourth in defensive scoring average at 69.3 points per game; they rank second in the league in field goal defense, allowing just 41.6% shooting in their seven conference games. Only Washington State under Dick Bennett are better, with 37.9% shooting allowed.
Stanford had been allowing an alarming 44.0% three-point shooting in their first 13 games of the year. In their four-game winning streak, they have allowed just 28.8% shooting by opponents behind the arc. USC hit 35.3%; UCLA hit 25.0%; Cal hit 26.7%; and Arizona hit 42.1%. It is worth nothing that the 'Cats shot the best but also enjoyed 3-of-6 shooting from Salim Stoudamire in that game, who was and still is enjoying one of the hottest shooting streaks in recent college basketball memory. Stoudamire has hit 34-of-54 of his shots from downtown, for 64.8%, in his last 10 games. Though he hit half his shots in Maples that Saturday afternoon, he was a relative non-factor in the game, as Arizona was stymied to 38.4% overall shooting from the field.
"The key all year for us has been defense," associate head coach Eric Reveno opines. "Offense will come and go, but defense has to be our trademark. It has to be consistent."
It is rare to see a team make such a marked turnaround on the defensive end. Players and teams can run through shooting streaks of hot and cold, but defense is typically more of a constant through a season. For Stanford, defense has been a consistent strength for years, so it was an awful surprise to see them so poorly defend so many opponents in preseason losses. I sheepishly admit that I was of the mind that the Cardinal should make a dramatic shift toward a predominately zone defense after I watched their man defense flail in November and December. I was so very wrong. Trent Johnson and his staff instead moved away from the occasional zone they had in the mix and redoubled their efforts in practices on man defense fundamentals.
"We made a basic commitment to play solid man-to-man defense. Stay low, don't bite on the fakes and don't give up easy stuff," Reveno reveals. "It could be dangerous for the young guys on the team if we got away from man defense, which is our core of what we want to instill."
The rest is history, or at least history in the making. Regardless of where this season goes, and whether the Cardinal do or don't make it into the NCAA Tournament, Trent Johnson has his team believing in themselves and enjoying success on both ends of the floor. Making adjustments, and making improvements, mid-stream during the season like we have seen - well, it's a rare and wonderful thing to see.
There does remain, however, one very troubling failure of this team that has pervaded even their four-game winning streak. Despite the improvements on defense, which have yielded better offensive opportunities, and with better ball movement and shot selection have come better offensive execution - the rebounding is rotten.
Stanford has been outrebounded in each and every one of their last four games, against a breadth of teams with differing size and strengths. The constant is the Cardinal's average -5.5 rebounding deficit. The one number that can curdle your milk faster is the average of 18.3 offensive rebounds that Stanford has given up in the last four games. For a comparison, the Card allowed 10.6 offensive boards per game last year.
Rebounding and defense are matters of effort and focus, more than anything else. To see the defense improve while the rebounding has declined is difficult to explain. It is true that Justin Davis and Josh Childress were gifted leapers with a good sense of timing on the boards, but Trent Johnson says that he is happy with the rebounding he is getting from Rob Little and Matt Haryasz in the post in recent weeks. Haryasz pulled down 19 bards last weekend in Los Angeles, while Little is averaging nine boards per game in this winning streak. Johnson instead paints this as a team failing, which includes the efforts of the guards and wings.
"The reason we're getting outrebounded - we don't have the foot quickness of a Washington or a UCLA to get the ball," Johnson explains. "Teams shoot the long ball and we get beaten to the long rebounds. Our post guys do a good job under the basket; our perimeter guys need to do a better job."
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