After losses to both LA schools this past week, the Stanford basketball team finds itself in a position it hasn't been in since the mid 90's dangerously close to the bubble. It's not at all clear at this point what the Card needs to do between now and Selection Sunday in order to make the tournament (and a lot obviously depends on how other teams fare), but it's probably safe to say that including both the Arizona trip and the Pac-10 tournament, the Card needs at least one more win to ensure an invitation to the dance. Stanford is unlikely to be the favorite in any of its remaining games, so it's a nervous time for Cardinal fans. An 0-5 finish to the season could spell N-I-T.
Most Stanford fans expected an up and down season this year, given that the team had less veteran leadership and more lineup questions going into the season than it has had in several years. Up and down performances in the first half of the season were perhaps not a cause for great concern given the foregoing; however, the bad losses to USC and UCLA raise some serious questions. With two of the better players in the nation in Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt, how can we be in danger of missing the tournament? Why is Stanford's offense so out of synch? With just two regular season games left, why don't we have a clear-cut first string point guard?
I'll attempt to answer some of these difficult questions, unpleasant as they may be. But before getting into that, I want to comment on some of the "excuses" I've seen on the message board. First on my hit list of excuses is that "we have a young team." Well, we do have a young team compared to last season's senior-dominated squad. However, there are countless teams, including many top 25 teams, that have less experience than our Cardinal. Casey is in his third year in the program, and has been a starter since the middle of his freshman year. Curtis is in his third year as well, and although his two previous seasons were shortened by injury, he's played in almost two full seasons worth of games in his Stanford career. Justin and Julius are both in their third years in the program, with Julius having seen playing time ever since his first game (at MSG against Duke) of his freshman year. Tony is in his fourth season in the program. Josh and Chris get significant minutes on a regular basis (Josh is averaging 23 and Chris 13), but we rely on freshman far less than most top 25 teams, and certainly less than some of the good Pac-10 teams, including UCLA and Arizona. (Overall, our three true freshman are averaging a combined 45 minutes per game, not a particularly large number.) Our team's experience level probably most closely resembles those of Oregon and Cal, two teams that are now ahead of us in the conference standings.
Second on my list of excuses that I hate is that the team lacks leadership. I happen to agree that the team is somewhat lacking in leadership, but there are some fundamental issues with this team that leadership, even if we had it, wouldn't solve. Stanford lacks adequate three point shooting. Incredibly, Curtis is the only Stanford player shooting above 40% on threes. As a team, Stanford is shooting 46% from the field, 35% from three, and 69% from the line. With better leadership, it's plausible that Stanford would run its offense more effectively and make better decisions leading to better shot selection, but this Cardinal team simply isn't going to become a good shooting team with leadership. Nor is leadership capable of conferring lateral quickness on our perimeter players. Yes, better leadership would be nice, but again, our team's problems run deeper than leadership.
Last on my list of excuses is that Jason's delayed decision set us back in recruiting, and that left us short a potential freshman who could've been a difference-maker. Yes, we all know that Emeka Okafor has turned out to be a stud, and many of us lamented his commitment to UConn last Spring. Yes, he could've helped us a lot this year. But lots of programs overcome the late decisions of players to enter the NBA draft. Other schools have an easier time filling the void when that happens because our admissions standards severely restrict the pool of recruits available to us (especially in the Spring). However, early departures to the NBA in general, and late decisions in particular, are a fact of life for most top 25 teams. Stanford is lucky that it hadn't encountered this problem before and that it's only happened once. It will probably happen again this Spring. Twice. This is a hurdle that Stanford is simply going to have to overcome if it is going to remain a top 25 team going forward.
Now, back to the issue of why the Cardinal has struggled this season and finds itself in a precarious position, and how it can be that we can have two stars of the caliber of Casey and Curtis and yet are staring at a sixth place finish in the conference? Two of the answers are obvious the point guard and power forward position. Justin and Teyo have proven to be foul-prone and have frequently struggled. An even bigger problem in my opinion is the point guard position and in particular the relative ineffectiveness of our point guards on offense. The approach of starting Tony and then adjusting each game on the fly depending on the matchups was a curiosity early in the season. Now, at the end of February, it looks like it could be one of the biggest factors leaving us on the brink of the NIT. Stanford's offense has frequently been out of synch this season, and it looked no better against USC and UCLA last week. In fact, it's probably fair to say that the offense struggled more last week than in any other week this season. Neither USC nor UCLA is a great defensive team, yet both shut Stanford down. USC's coach, Henry Bibby, stated the obvious after Thursday's game when he said that his team's approach simply focused on limiting Casey, Curtis and Julius, the only three players he thought capable of beating his squad.
Both USC and UCLA threw lots of zone at us, and our offense couldn't capitalize. Many posters were worried back in November when Monty announced his starting backcourt of Tony and Julius (before temporarily switching to Josh instead of Julius) that the Card wouldn't have enough shooting in the backcourt to be effective or even to keep defenses honest. Those concerns have been borne out during the course of the season, but never more so than this past week. Stanford's shooting percentages on the season are as follows:
3 PT FG: 35%
It's fair to say that Stanford's lack of shooters has also been a huge factor in its failure to play up to expectations. Despite the overall level of talent on the team, there aren't as many quality shooters as you'd like for a team that relies heavily on its structured, half court set offense.
Against UCLA, Stanford managed to score 92 points, and some have pointed to that number as indicating that Stanford's defense was to blame for the loss to the Bruins. A closer look, however, shows that Stanford's offense was not effective against UCLA. The Card shot 28 of 76 overall, and 14 of 42 from beyond the arc. Simply put, Stanford played poorly on offense last week, and it's not hard to figure out why. Outside of Casey and Curtis, and sometimes Julius, Stanford lacks credible scoring threats. Opposing defenses are free to either double Casey and Curtis or to throw a zone at us, as USC and UCLA did, and dare us to shoot. The strategy that worked down at Pauley, which featured Julius and Casey taking their defenders off the dribble, was not really an option at Maples because UCLA zoned us. With Stanford's lack of perimeter shooting, we can expect any team with a decent zone defense to zone us in the future. In the past, Stanford consistently torched zone defenses because it has almost always had a fine collection of outside shooters. This year, we are extremely vulnerable to the zone.
Given Stanford's relative strengths and weaknesses on offense, the most effective defense against the Cardinal is likely to be a 2-2-1 press (or 1-2-1-1 press) falling back into a 2-3 zone. The first USC game demonstrated the Card's vulnerability to a good press. While the second game against USC showed that the Card had worked on its press-breakers and was less vulnerable to the press, Stanford failed to make the defense pay by scoring easy buckets when it beat the press and had a numbers advantage. If the defense isn't made to pay for pressing, there's no reason for the opponent not to press, even if it doesn't force an exceptional number of turnovers. If Stanford makes the NCAA tournament, something to keep an eye on is whether our potential opponents employ a zone defense, or a press falling back into a zone. If they do, we'll be vulnerable.
The UCLA game exposed Stanford's area of vulnerability on defense. With its 1-4 base offense (one post inside and four players outside), UCLA was able to isolate defenders one on one and exploit certain matchups. Bozeman was a nightmare matchup for our point guards. He has a huge size advantage over all our point guards, and a slight quickness advantage over Tony as well. That combination was simply too much to deal with, and Ced had one of his better performances in some time. With Julius playing the off-guard most of the game as usual, we faced a size disadvantage at the two as well. Bozeman and Thompson/Knight is just an awfully big backcourt for our guards to deal with. UCLA's guards had too many easy chances as a result. Stanford tried to adjust at one point having Julius run the point and inserting Josh at the 3 (which is statistically our most effective lineup), but despite the more attractive defensive matchup, the Card was unable to make a run until the game was a foregone conclusion. (The run at the end was about the only positive that Stanford can take away from the debacle Saturday, and Chris Hernandez's play was certainly inspired; whether that translates into an increased role for our freshman point guard is anybody's guess.)
Fortunately for Stanford, the UCLA game was one of the few this season in which the Card's defense let it down. Overall, the team's field goal percentage defense is slightly improved over last year (41.8% v. 42.7%). UCLA's particular combination of size and athleticism on the perimeter is one that few teams possess, and UCLA's 1-4 offense is also uncommon. So while the Card has to be concerned about its problems on defense against UCLA, those problems are not necessarily likely to recur.