A Mystery Machine

When has Stanford Men's Basketball had so many questions about their lineup and rotation to start the season? While the "Big Three" of Dan Grunfeld, Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz are tremendous for the Cardinal, filling out the rest of a five-man lineup can go in a myriad of directions. We have some early ideas, including one probable starting lineup that may surprise you.

The big question on everybody's mind is what starting lineup we should expect for the Cardinal in 2005-06.  Some figure that the answer will be revealed today when Stanford starts their season with an exhibition opener against Sonoma State.  I have no such expectation.  Whatever starting lineup Trent Johnson rolls out at 2:00 PM (Pacific) this afternoon may be different than the one he puts on the floor after halftime.  Neither may match what he starts the next week, and the week after that.

There are more possibilities, and with that more uncertainty, in the lineups and rotations for Stanford Basketball than at any time I can remember in the last decade-plus.  This is due in part to the lack of a second proven post player to start alongside senior center/power forward Matt Haryasz.  It is also due to the fact that Stanford has a wealth of guards and wings who could play major roles for the team this year.

Something rarely if ever seen, the official press release in advance of today's game did not list a starting lineup for Stanford.  We checked yesterday, and there was still no decision on today's starting lineup.  The answer will come only this afternoon at Maples Pavilion, but more important is what will follow ensuing 40 minutes of play.  Trent Johnson is expected to rotate heavily - very heavily - throughout the game to try different lineups on the court.  The coaching staff has a few ideas of what they have on their roster, but the questions far outweigh answers right now.  That makes the exhibition games today and next Saturday more important than is the custom on The Farm.

There are three flavors of lineups with which Stanford can start and/or play significant minutes this year.  You should see them all today at Maples.  You will see them all throughout the year.  How they perform will shape the confidence that Johnson and his staff have in playing them this year.

"Big"
1:  Chris Hernandez
2:  Tim Morris
3:  Dan Grunfeld
4:  Matt Haryasz
5:  Peter Prowitt

"Medium"
1:  Chris Hernandez
2:  Tim Morris
3:  Dan Grunfeld
4:  Fred Washington
5:  Matt Haryasz

"Small"
1:  Jason Haas (or Mitch Johnson)
2:  Chris Hernandez
3:  Tim Morris
4:  Dan Grunfeld
5:  Matt Haryasz

We will discuss these quintets in greater detail after today's game, but the one that merits immediate comment is the "medium" lineup.  All factors taken into consideration, that is the starting five I would put onto the floor for the Cardinal at this time.  Junior forward Fred Washington is the story behind that lineup, with his emergence in this preseason as a post player.  The 6'5" athlete is classically undersized to play the "four" position, but in today's college basketball starved for big men, that is less and less important (see Arizona's 6'4" Hassan Adams).  More important is the fact that Washington is a physical and strong player who has added muscle in the off-season and plays with a skill set that can help Stanford inside.  He attacks the basket well from the high post and is a strong offensive rebounder.  Washington has led Stanford in field goal percentage in practices this preseason and gets to the free throw line with regularity.  He may not match up well with the power forward of every opponent Stanford sees this year, but the early evidence is that he can help a good deal.

Some additional observations on the 2005-06 Stanford roster:

  • Matt Haryasz is battling plantar fasciitis again, though this time it has hit his other foot.  The painful condition struck in November last year right as the regular season opened, and it greatly limited his play for the first two-plus months.  Now a senior, there are few things the 6'11" center/forward dreads more than another injury-plagued season.  The plantar fasciitis this year struck just before his tour with Team USA for the World University Games.  Not about to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play and win a gold for his country, Haryasz gutted it out during tryouts, training camp, and the final tournament in Turkey.  As soon as that gold medal was hung around his neck, however, Haryasz hung up his sneakers - completely.  The Stanford senior backed off all basketball through the remainder of August and September.  Only in recent (after nine weeks off) has Haryasz worked his way into scrimmage 5-on-5 situations on the floor.  The plan has been to keep him off his feet for as long as possible, and slowly bring him back, so as to best heal his foot for the season.  Haryasz may start this season off the top of his game, but he and the Cardinal coaches are willingly trading his performance in November and December for health come February and March.  The initial plan, actually, upon Haryasz' returned to the States from his Turkey triumph was to hold him out of Stanford's first couple (exhibition) games of the season.  His foot has healed ahead of expectations, however, which will allow him to probably play limited minutes this afternoon against Sonoma State.
  • A similarly cautious approach has been taken with senior wing Dan Grunfeld, who is coming off ACL repair surgery last winter.  In this month's issue of The Bootleg Magazine, we brought you up close to Grunfeld's inspiring story of work and progress through his rehabilitation.  He also told us that he would not hesitate to miss preseason practice time to fully rehab and prepare his knee.  Grunfeld sat patiently on the sideline with Haryasz in September and early October while teammates played daily pickup games.  We may see more of Grunfeld today than Haryasz, but Grunfeld and the coaches want to continue to take it slowly.  He is already playing better than anyone could have expected, making cuts to the basket and playing tough defense.
  • Much focus from fans in the early going this year will be centered on center Peter Prowitt.  The 6'10" sophomore is truly the team's only inside muscle this year, and his improvement is paramount for the Cardinal's chances to field a successful big lineup.  We expect that Prowitt will have an up-and-down year on the offensive end, as he makes incremental improvements on his post game.  The product we are seeing this fall is better than the freshman version - in fact, better than the version from two months ago.  Prowitt suffered a bad gash over one eye when a teammate's elbow caught him.  The post player had to wear a protective face mask while playing for a couple weeks afterward.  During that time, Prowitt turned the corner.  He had been struggling in pickup games to finish offensively inside, but that changed visibly while Prowitt donned the mask.  He will laugh off any correlation, and he continued to play improved basketball after the mask was removed.  Prowitt will have moments where he takes one or two steps forward this year, and moments where he takes a step back.  That's okay.  More important is that he defends and rebounds without committing the fouls at a clip like his freshman season.
  • It was a struggle at many times last year for Stanford to deliver a convincing set of threats at the three-point line.  If healthy, Dan Grunfeld and Chris Hernandez will be productive outside the arc.  Jason Haas has the stroke, if only he can muster consistent confidence to score (signs of this were seen at Maples and the SF Pro-Am league this summer).  Some surplus shooting may be seen this season from new places, as well.  Tim Morris has made tremendous strides in his stroke, and he should shoot north of 30% this year.  A magic number I have discussed with people close to the program is 35% - if the already dangerously athletic Morris can manage that, this team will be awfully tough to beat.  The other added threat is freshman Anthony Goods.  I didn't get a good look at him earlier in the summer, when he injured his ankle and sat out, but he has impressed me greatly with his perimeter shooting since the first day he returned to campus in mid-August.  There is lot more to the game than shooting, but Goods looks strong enough in that one skill to make him an important part of the rotation early and often this year.
  • At this time of year, the freshmen are a fan focus, and this trio offers plenty of intrigue.  Unfortunately, all three were injured during their summer quarter stay on The Farm, which delayed our evaluations of them.  Mitch Johnson continued to sit out of action for a number of weeks when he and the rest of the team returned to campus in mid-August, which has puts him developmentally behind his classmates.  The 6'1" point guard suffered a knee contusion that involved some internal bleeding.  That has healed after extended rest, but the muscles around his knee are taking time to regain strength for him to play at full physical capacity.  Johnson has some rust and timing issues to still rectify, but his ability to run the team already has teammates and coaches excited.  If he continues his current progress, Johnson will push for meaningful playing time at the point this winter, despite the depth in place at that position.  Lawrence Hill should have the greatest opportunity of the three frosh, given his size and wingspan.  Stanford is hurting for depth in the post, and Hill has the ability to be one of the team's better rebounders.  However, I would place him third among the three freshman in play thus far this fall.  The cerebral 6'8" athlete appears to be overthinking plays and trying to do too much at this early stage in his transition to college basketball.  By the time he is done, Hill could be one of the more complete players in the conference, but he needs to simplify his focus for now to rebounding and defense.

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