These are dark times for Stanford Basketball. Trent Johnson and the Cardinal keep rolling with the punches, suffering blow after blow this season. Stanford started the season three players under the NCAA scholarship limit and have been steadily losing bodies since. The unkindest cut of all came on Saturday when junior shooting guard and feel-good story Dan Grunfeld tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and was lost for the season. After already losing Tim Morris (academics) and Carlton Weatherby (broken foot), the Cardinal now are in a world of hurt in their backcourt, which has dizzying ripple effects in the frontcourt as well.
But in the big picture, the loss of Grunfeld hurts more than can be measured in points or minutes. It is true that Stanford has to use a lot of smoke and mirrors to manage a viable rotation the remaining four-plus weeks of this season, but keep in mind how irreplaceable Grunfeld truly was - not just as the team's leading scorer, but also as far and away the most consistent scorer. The 6'6" junior wing had recorded double figures in 16 straight games, and 20 of Stanford's 22 games this year. Grunfeld put up eight games of 20 or more points, while the combined remainder of the roster has done so just five times.
There were many observers this year who were suspicious of Grunfeld's meteoric rise in production, and through the pre-season they wondered quietly or aloud when his scoring would peter out. Pac-10 competition would surely return him to normalcy, especially once the scouting report got out that Grunfeld was the only scoring option on this anemic team. Instead, Grunfeld elevated his game to higher heights, scoring a career-high 29 points in Stanford's biggest win of the year over Arizona, and five times scoring 20 or more in conference action. He was the #2 scorer in the conference heading into last weekend and was enjoying one of his best games of the year against Cal. In that showdown with the Bears, he tossed up 13 of Stanford's 34 first-half points and had 16 in the early minutes of the second half before he went down.
Grunfeld did in that game, before his injury, what he had been doing all year: when the other pistons misfired, he lifted the team by himself. Stanford started in a 11-2 hole before Grunfeld scored eight of Stanford's 12 points in a run that pulled them ahead, 14-13. He added five straight points later to help stretch the lead before the half. Had he not pulled the team up, they might have lost a game that would have effectively ended their NCAA Tournament hopes.
No other player has been anywhere near as consistent at Grunfeld this year. Matt Haryasz has wrestled with foul trouble and focus in games, while Chris Hernandez has faded into the background at times. Rob Little has been sporadic in his production, while Nick Robinson has been offensively bankrupt for most of the season.
Fans have pondered the riddle of how this rag-tag team can replace Grunfeld's 18 points, with a myriad of supposition solutions. It is very possible that Stanford can piece together those points in a given game, but it is highly improbable that they will do so across the breadth of the remaining schedule. Take off your cardinal-colored glasses for a moment and give this roster an honest look. The abject lack of perimeter shooting ability was a glaring bugaboo in the preseason - so much so that a run & gun high-tempo team like Louisville opted to play a preponderance of zone against the Card in Maui. Only when Grunfeld and Hernandez found their strokes in late December, did Stanford stave off an imminent opponents' zone-fest.
With Grunfeld gone, Hernandez is the lone viable outside shooter on the roster. Jason Haas could be, with the team's best shooting form and pure stroke, but he is nearly done with his third season of Stanford Basketball and has shown an overriding inability to have a scorer's mentality on the court. Robinson is the worst shooting starting wing in more than a decade on The Farm, hitting 22.2% from three-point range and 34.6% overall from the field this year. Some wide-eyed optimists would ask how his shooting form can be improved to reinforce the outside marksmanship on this roster, but it is unreasonable for a 25-year-old at the end of his fifth year of college basketball to suddenly develop perimeter shooting skills.
Grunfeld's absence will attract zone defenses to the Card like flies to stink, not just because his perimeter shooting has been subtracted, but also because of his dribble penetration. Grunfeld was the one player on this team who showed he could and would consistently create and drive to the basket. How many times did you see Stanford's offense break down this year, and Grunfeld would force himself through traffic and draw a foul or finish a tough off-balance short shot? Hernandez has some of that in him, but he has shown it only in a minority of games thus far this year. Robinson's one real offensive strength is his move to the basket, but his ability to finish those drives has been off-scale awful this year.
There are three things on offense that need to happen for Stanford to survive what they will face the remainder of this season:
- Chris Hernandez has to take a score-first mentality. He has stepped up that assertiveness at times this year, but he has equally often stepped back into a secondary offensive role. His scoring average is respectable, but Hernandez has supplemented those numbers at the foul line. To wit, his two highest scoring games of the last month-plus, he scored 20 of the 43 points against USC and Oregon State at the free throw line. When the shot clock winds down, and Stanford cannot get its open shot or entry pass, Hernandez has to assume Grunfeld's role of creator. He will have to navigate the zone or come off a screen for a quick pull-up three-point shot. He has the ability to score in the low 20's or high 'teens if he makes it his primary focus.
- Matt Haryasz has to play more in the high post. The jumpin' junior broke out a month ago when Trent Johnson started to free up his offensive range and role during the Los Angeles road trip, and Haryasz responded with four straight double-double games, and a five-game streak averaging 15.8 points and 12 boards. Haryasz has the size and shotblocking ability to defend like a center, but at the core, he is a forward offensively who operates at his best when he faces the basket. With Grunfeld gone, Haryasz is now (incredibly) Stanford's second best perimeter jump shooter. That range may not safely extend beyond the three-point line, but he can hit out to 16-18 feet. The 6'11" athlete is a match-up nightmare at the top of the key, able to pull up easily against any defender who sags off him, while quick enough to beat most big men who might come out at him. It should also be noted that Haryasz' consistency level is probably a notch or two below what Hernandez can be expected to do, so it will take a great effort of patience and focus on the big man's part to stay within himself and keep out of foul trouble. Haryasz has to stay on the floor and play 34-38 minutes per game the rest of the way to give Stanford any chance at the NCAA Tournament.
- Other players have to step up, at least a little. It sounds nice to ask Nick Robinson to find a scoring touch, or for Fred Washington or Jason Haas to find a new gear in this time of need... but those are not realistic expectations. Those players, plus Rob Little in the post, have room for some improvements, but only a blind optimist can expect them to make marked improvements on a consistent basis. I have seen too much data this year to lead me to believe there is a great spurt lying just beneath the surface. The two players who have a chance to consistently carry this team are Hernandez and Haryasz. There is a need for the other players to play better, though, and give a little punch on occasion. Robinson will not average double figures hence forward, but the Card sure could use a couple games where he can break double digits and shoot (close to) 50% from the field. The great fear is that he will take this time of crisis and let him compel him to shoot more, and that would be disastrous - in fact, it is my single darkest fear. He is not a skilled shooter and has to take good shots, or drive to the basket. The same goes for Washington, who is even more challenged in shot selection and control. Trent Johnson says that Washington needs to work on his footwork and come to a better stop on his jump-stop, where he has too often traveled this year. Taj Finger is focusing on comfort and confidence when he receives the ball with his back to the basket, where he has been uniformly incapable of making any plays all year. Peter Prowitt has to cut down on his defensive fouls, which have escalated and currently tower above the rest of the roster. The freshman center is averaging 10.7 fouls per 40 minutes of play, and the coaching staff want to improve his sense of angles and timing so as to make better decisions on defense.
Trent Johnson has decided to go with Washington in the starting lineup tonight against USC, which will be the sophomore's first career start. Based on quality of play this year, you would prefer to start Haas and Hernandez together in the backcourt, but Johnson is uneasy about what that would do to his rotation.
"I primarily decided because of minutes. You need one of your primary ballhandlers to be able to relieve the other," the Cardinal head coach explains. "We need to keep Jason and Chris both fresh."
In other words, if you start Hernandez and Haas together, you have both your point guards tiring on the floor at the same time. When one of them substitutes out, the other is ostensibly getting winded. By bringing Haas off the bench, you have him at his freshest when Hernandez ebbs. When Hernandez has to go to the bench, Haas will not yet be lagging.
The starting nod is a momentous occasion for Washington, though his confidence will stem more from the totality of minutes he will play going forward.
"When you're allowed to play more, you have a chance to produce more," the 6'5" sophomore says. "Collectively, we have to look to score a little bit more, to fill the void left by Dan, but it does have an effect on me personally. I feel a little bit more confident - a little bit more comfortable - when I know I'll be in the game for longer stretches."
Washington has also been nagged with a wrist injury this year, but he says that has improved and is as great a source of confidence as anything right now.
"It feels like it's getting stronger," he shares. "We thought it would need surgery after the season, but I'm not so sure about that now. It's feeling better."
The Cardinal coaches hope that a stronger wrist will be followed by better decisions on the floor, but for the time being, they are keeping Washington at the small forward and playing Robinson at the shooting guard. Reasons are cited for both offense and defense.
"Nick handles the ball better, and he's better and making decisions with the basketball," Johnson offers to explain the position assignments. "I'd rather have Fred rebounding the basketball and let your 'one' and 'two' get back to limit the other team in transition."
Robinson is considered the team's best defender, if not one of the top two with Hernandez. As Stanford looks tonight to try and defend a high-tempo, athletic USC lineup that plays 10 players an average of 12 or more minutes, matchups will be difficult. Johnson says he would likely put Robinson on Nick Young, the Trojans' most versatile and threatening wing. Johnson prefers to match Washington on Lodrick Stewart, who is more one-dimensional.
"I'd probably have him stay outside on Stewart, who roams around on the perimeter," Johnson shares. "Out there, he won't have to make a lot of decisions."
But you might not see all man-to-man defensive assignments tonight and the rest of the way. This Stanford team has played an overwhelming majority of minutes this year in man defense, for reasons Johnson ardently defends, but with just eight scholarship players available, the zone has to play a larger part for the Cardinal.
"We are a better 'man' team because we can get a man on each body. Our lack of quickness hurts us in the zone," the Cardinal coach comments.
When Stanford went to its zone last week against Cal, it was done out of necessity rather than any planned move. Cardinal players were slow to the ball and slow around every screen in the opening minutes of the game, which led to their quick 11-2 deficit. The zone they played, which is a "2-3" zone and not the "1-1-3" look that Mike Montgomery famously employed the last two years, was poorly executed, but Cal's outside shooting and coaching was measurably worse. Bear perimeter players totaled 2-of-15 shooting outside the arc in that game, with Richard Midgley atop the stinking heap at 1-of-8.
USC will bring not only a disruptive defense and high tempo on both ends of the floor, but they also offer strong outside shooting, with Stewart hitting at better than 43% this year and Gabriel Pruitt knocking down 42% of his three-pointers. Leading into the Cal game, Stanford practiced zone only to a token extent. Most of their zone defensive work this year has come in practicing how to score against a zone. This week, more time was spent on the 2-3 zone, with assignments and rotations. The zone should help slow down the tempo of the game, while speeding up the clock and mitigating Stanford's short bench. The zone can also protect Stanford's post players when they are in foul trouble, which is a near certainty to be a problem.
"We have to buckle down on defense," offers Haryasz on the charge for the Cardinal going forward. "If we can't make up all of [Grunfeld's] 18 points on offense, maybe we can pick up six or eight on defense."
Says the wise Rob Little on what Stanford has to do: "Objectively, it's going to be hard to replace Dan. We have to all share the load and not have anybody step outside their comfort zone. We don't want anybody to try to have an out-of-body experience."
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