Sifting Through the Wreckage

It may be time to amend the Constitution, as there is little question that USC owns Stanford basketball this year. The combined losing margin of these three losses is only matched by the combined 11 total Stanford losses in the regular season from 1998 to 2001. But before you shake off this loss as more of the same from the last two SC games, read on to find some different and poignant issues.

The first thing I want to do is give a world of credit to USC. They played truly phenomenal basketball today - the best I've seen in the Pac-10 this year. They played tight smart defense while shooting lights-out on offense. The best comparison I can make, for those who couldn't see the game... or those who are suffering mental trauma that doesn't permit any recall of the game, is to Maryland in Anaheim last year. Sam Clancy from mid-range and David Bluthenthal from long-range looked like they were throwing pebbles into the ocean. Unreal. Clancy in particular showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the Pac-10's player of the year this year. His turnaround baseline jumper looked automatic, and I thought many of them were tightly defended. Bibby's boys shot 55% for the game, but more importantly hit for 67% in their torrid first half when they put the Cardinal away - including 64% from three-point range. You can't do much but take your hat off to that out-of-this-world shooting.

Now... that all being said, when you face thirty-point deficits in a game, and fall by twenty-five at the end, you flat out aren't competing. And Stanford has no business being that noncompetitive with any team in the country, period. USC gets a lot of credit for playing at their high level, and putting the pressure on Stanford that helped deflate the Card's play. But Stanford has to do a lot wrong to take a good SC effort and turn it into this magnitude of a blowout. That means we need to dig deep and find out just what went so sour in this game.

Though Stanford did make a mini-run early in the second half, closing the gap down to 12 or 13 points for a bit, the game really looked like it was won in the first half. Things have to go horribly awry to trail by 20 before you hit the last media timeout in the first half of a game. The "where" isn't too tough to pinpoint.

The good guys registered just one field goal between the 12:00 mark and the 5:19 mark. The one field goal during that stretch came when Chris Hernandez attacked SC's defense coming out of the trapping pressure, heading straight to the hoop for a lay-in. The score that ended that 6-plus minute stretch of just Chris' field goal wasn't even a made basket - it was a goaltending call by Jerry Dupree. But during that stretch, the game was essentially given away. The score went from 16-20 to 19-37. A four-point game slipped away to an eighteen-point disaster. Just a couple minutes later, the margin had grown to 23.

All told, this game got away when USC went on a 34-11 run over an eleven minute period. Stanford shot 5 of 20 during that stretch and hit 1 of 3 FTs. No 3-point field goals fell during that stretch.

Though Stanford lost in ugly fashion for the third time in three games to USC this season, I wouldn't say that the root causes were the same. The first game at the Sports Arena was an ambush, where Stanford looked ill-prepared and certainly ill-suited to execute the press-breakers necessary against the full-court pressure Bibby installed late in the first half. The result was a season-high of 27 turnovers, many of which led directly and instantly to USC scores. That proved to be fatal in the 8-point loss. The second game also brought pressure, but Stanford executed the breakers and took Bibby out of the full-court press. The half-court and three-quarters trapping pressure still took Stanford out of sorts, though, and took them out of their offense. At least, it cut the shot clock down to effectively a 25 or 20-second clock. Stanford didn't set up its offense, and resorted to chucking up threes. They made just 26%, one of the lowest performances of the season, and lost. The turnovers weren't so eggregious - heck, Stanford turned the ball over more times in each of last week's wins at Tucson and Tempe. I'd give Stanford's defense and intensity much of the blame in that game. That and a failure to attack and punish the press when it was broken. Stanford tried it early in the game, but had a series of turnovers and offensive fouls that shook their confidence. It never really happened again.

So you might look at the pressure USC applied in this game and think that was again something Stanford couldn't do or failed to do against the press. Stanford can always cut down on turnovers, and certainly could have converted press breaks for a higher percentage, but I think this game was lost in the first half with deeper seated problems. Consider that in the first half, where Stanford trailed by as many as 23 points, the Card had just 7 turnovers officially. Furthermore, USC also had 7 turnovers in that half. Actually, I went and tracked every play from the first half off the tape, and found 8 Stanford turnvoers vs 6 USC turnovers. But contrary to what you might think, USC only coverted 3 of Stanford's 8 turnovers into transition points. Stanford converted 3 of USC's 6 turnovers into transition points. Surprise: Stanford actually did a moderately better job of making the opponent pay for turnovers.

The next myth you might come away with from this game is that Stanford once again couldn't handle the trapping and the pressure, causing these harmful turnovers. In fact, only 2 of Stanford's 8 first half turnovers came from USC pressure. One came early in the half on a sideline trap, while the other came on a steal during a Stanford in-bounds play. The other 6 turnovers: bad inlet passes, stepping out of bounds, losing the handle and fumbling the ball out of bounds. Those were unforced turnovers, and the kind you have to blame yourselves for. They were freebies handed to USC independent of any pressure.

One area where Stanford appeared strong was in the rebounding column, grabbing 20 more rebounds over the course of the game and 6 more during the first half. I charted 8 Stanford offensive rebounds in that decisive first half, versus 4 for USC. Given how the two teams shot the ball, that actually isn't so impressive. USC only missed 11 field goals in the entire first half, and thus converted 36% of them to offensive rebounds. Stanford missed 21 field goals in the first half and thus converted 38% of them for second chances. With that normalization, Stanford didn't really achieve in that respect. But even worse, it was the relative failure of Stanford to do something with those second chances that was excrutiating. According to my charting, USC converted an amazing 3 of their 4 offensive boards for points - and two of those makes were three-pointers! That adds up to 8 points on 4 offensive rebounds. Wow. In contrast, Stanford made just one measly two-point field goal in the entire first half off 8 offensive boards. That reflects upon a few core failings: interior affectiveness, overall aggressiveness & hustle, and shooting.

The disparate hustle underscored by this last statistic carried through much of the game. This sadly repeats the failures of the first half of the UCLA game at Maples, but once again Stanford played too passively and with no intensity on defense. USC was able to score 52 points during 16:26 of that half, but Stanford only committed 4 fouls. Only two of those fouls came during the first 14:50 of the game. Worse, just two of the four fouls actually involved defensive contesting of a shot or drive - the other two were ancillary contact that reset the shot clock. This underscores how little Stanford did to make SC earn their shots. There was no physical presence on defense, which very likely helped to contribute to SC's offensive efficacy. When nobody is going to put a body on you, check you as you go by, or come at you hard when you set for a shot... you have all the confidence that you get in a shootaround. Just you and the ball and the basket. Essentially, there's no part of your defender in that equation. For this situation to arise - again, no less - with this team and this program, is incomprehensible. Tough physical defense is a hallmark of Stanford basketball.

I thus think Stanford deserves some of the credit for SC's unwordly shooting in the first half. The difference between this game and the similiar problem in the UCLA game at Maples is that USC is flat-out a better team. But to be more specific as to how tough or easy SC's shots were, here are some more details. Out of the Trojans' 22 first half field goals, I tracked just 4 that were tough shots - either tightly contested or given by the defense because they were low percentage. All 4 were impressive. 4 more came in transition, and I can't ask much when you are on your heels with a 2-on-1, etc. But mistakes plagued the other 14 field goals. 5 came when Stanford didn't handle USC screens - 2 of them high screens and 3 of them inside screens. Although one of them was an inside screen set by Errick Craven where he stood in the key for 7 seconds... Another one involved two bad switching mistakes, where Joe Kirchofer first came out on a man without a screen necessary for a switch, and then Casey came out to switch when Joe didn't need it - leaving Clancy unguarded under the hoops for his easiest bucket of the day. Another bucket came on an alley-oop when Stanford went zone for one possession, and left Dupree (I believe) all alone on the baseline. Add one FG when Julius charged out to lunge for a steal that wasn't there, leaving Craven an open lane to the basket. Then another time Josh lost Dupree on an in-bounds play, letting him receive the pass under the basket for the lay-in with just 1 second on the shot clock. The rest were just open shots given to USC when Stanford defenders didn't play defense.

And the only two times Stanford made hard contact to foul and contest a shot, the shots weren't seriously altered and still went in.

Okay, okay. So the defensive horse has been sufficiently well beaten here. On the offensive end, the failings were just as responsible for this ugly loss. This is another place, though, where you may not realize how this game was precisely lost. Given the general malaise, if not outright nausea, you took away from the 40 minutes of botchery, you might think that Stanford again didn't really make USC pay for its pressure. That isn't true, as I will support from the tracking I did of the decisive first half. I tracked 33 field goal attempts from the Card in the half, and without question the failings came in the halfcourt offense, not on the run. Stanford did do at least a fair job of attacking USC, as measured by the 7 of 10 shooting when directly attacking the press or breaking traps. USC garnered just 3 field goals off Stanford turnovers, but only one of those made field goals actually came from their own pressure. Measure that one field goal against Stanford's seven they scored breaking SC's pressure, and I'm OK with the job those guys did Thursday. Furthermore, Stanford ran in transition off USC misses or turnovers 3 times, converting them twice for field goals. You might like to see more, but there frankly weren't many SC misses to work with.

Those offensive conversions sound downright dandy. The problem was that Stanford was asolutely putrid in shooting from the halfcourt offense. They were predominately good shots to take, but Stanford only hit 4 out of 20 shots out of the halfcourt offense. The first came on a gimmee for Curtis off an offensive rebound, though it was the only offensive board converted for a bucket the entire half. The next halfcourt score never actually got to the basket, as goaltending was called on a J-Chill attempt. The final two were the strongest two, and both came late in the half off the hands of Joe Kirchofer. When you see Casey and Julius fail to make a FG attempt from a halfcourt set in the entire first half, it's big trouble. Just to pile on a little, I tracked 7 of these 16 misses that came right at or under the basket, but were botched. True chippies that are just inexcusable misses. Tough to overcome a 20ish point deficit when you essentially take 14 points off your score like that.

I see three ways to react to this piss-poor offensive efficiency in the first half. One is to say that you took good shots, but it just wasn't your day for them to go down. A 17-point deficit at halftime could easily be ascribed to 1 of 8 three-point shooting, versus the 7 of 11 for USC. Keep shooting, and they'll go down. Shake it off and don't even think about this game. A second approach says that Stanford can't afford to be a team that relies on making open shots, especially from the perimeter. The shooting for this team has dropped off dramatically from what Booties enjoyed watching the past two years, and the stats bear it out. Stanford has had miserable perimeter shooting performances in many of its losses: USC (Staples), UCLA (home), USC (home), Arizona (home), kal (away), BYU (Vegas) and Texas (Chicago). That's 7 of 9 losses where you could say that a down shooting night was the death knell for a team that isn't all that good on average. The defense and rebounding have to be really outstanding to overcome shooting slumps on this team, and that's asking too much. The third approach says that there are some patterns underneath some of these poor shooting performances - certainly against USC. When the ball pressure and overall tempo take these guys out of their game, they are succeptible to off nights. Just as USC gained worlds of confidence by Stanford's passive defense on Thursday, you can argue that Stanford is out of sorts and can't get into rhythm. That translates not only into poor shooting outside, but also missing the unmissable shots that should go for near-unitary percentages inside.

I don't know this game well enough to give answers to this problem, but I do think you have to start looking hard at #s 2 and 3 above. I don't know that I believe #1 with this team, although you do have to tell your shooters to take really good shots when they can. I'll throw two thoughts out: 1) When you don't run into teams who can effectively pull off the pressure and tempo like a USC, you simply want to draw up an offense that gets even higher percentage shots. What was defined as a "good shot" last year or two years ago... well, it's not quite as good this year. Jacking up threes when you first touch the ball in the halfcourt, with 27 or so seconds left on the shot clock, is probably a bad idea this year. Set screens to get open looks where the shooter can get set. Work the inside where we know people can't stop Curtis. And when they go into a zone or collapse on him, kick it outside or have someone charge the basket to receive an open lay-up. 2) When someone like USC can effectively affect this team's tempo and rhythm, the coaching staff has to bear a great burden to keep guys on track. Coach K at Duke may be disliked by many Cardinalmaniacs, but he's a master motivator and has shown year after year how to push the right buttons at the right time for each of his guys. When Stanford does get the ball down low and misses even the easiest of shots, you as a coach have to take control of your guys. Otherwise, Bibby is the one pulling the strings and not Monty.

I don't think there's much of a silver lining to pull from this loss. This team has proven it can bounce back in glorious fashion, in response to the worst defeat. Last week's win at Arizona came on the heels of two horrific home losses. But that doesn't mean there is any certainty for this rebound. It is heartening to see Josh Childress shake off some of his shooting slump, going 5 for 11 for 12 points - his first double-digit output since the UCLA game at Pauley back in January. It is also positive to see Tony Giovacchini hit for 10 points on solid shooting. Joe Kirchofer chipped in 6 points in just 8 minutes of play. But the core failings in this game can't be overcome by a few positive surprises. The final score is solid testament to that.

One final note: the severity of these three losses to USC this year is unmistakable. Their combined margin of defeat can only be matched by the entire 11 losses in the regular season of the prior three years. The magnitude of this losing margin is also one of the worst in recent memory. In fact, the last time Stanford lost this badly, the Card took a 32-point whoopin' at McKale. It is interesting, though, that the loss of which I speak came almost exactly four years ago. It was February 28, 1998 when that woodshed job was dished out. Somehow, Stanford rebounded for its most magnificent postseason run in modern history. Just food for thought...

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