Thud!

"What the hell is happening with the basketball team?" That is the question asked repeatedly today. Sure, Stanford started 2-3 last year - 6-7 by early January, in fact - but the Cardinal have faced nothing like Louisville, Michigan State or Washington this year. These have been bad losses to bad basketball teams, hitting rock bottom in the UC Davis defeat. One core problem is clear...

A staple of strong Stanford teams through the past decade-plus has been defense.  It was a primary tenant of Mike Montgomery-coached teams and a driving factor in the playing time he doled out.  An important reason why Trent Johnson was hired to follow Montgomery was his like-minded fervor for defense.  Though his team had a rocky adjustment in the early going, Johnson righted his team's defense into what became one of the best in the Pac-10.  The high water mark for Stanford defenses came in the 1999-2000 season, when the Cardinal broke the NCAA single-season record with a .352 opponents' field goal percentage.

Over the last 10 years, very few teams in Division I basketball can claim the quality and consistency of Stanford's defense... until now.

  FG Defense 3-pt FG Defense
1996-97 41.4% 34.9%
1997-98 41.6% 33.6%
1998-99 38.0% 28.4%
1999-2000 35.2% 29.8%
2000-01 42.7% 32.8%
2001-02 42.1% 35.1%
2002-03 40.7% 30.6%
2003-04 38.5% 32.9%
2004-05 42.5% 37.7%
2005-06 46.2% 40.8%

Sure, it has hurt that Stanford in the last two years has been without a McDonald's All-American on their roster for the first time since Brevin Knight's senior season in 1996-97.  That will be rectified next fall when Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez plant their roots on The Farm.  But the precipitous drop-off in Stanford's defense thus far this year is worse than the above statistics appear to describe.  Keep in mind that the Cardinal's preseason opponents will almost always offer a weaker aggregate offensive threat as compared to Pac-10 play.  As such, one would expect Stanford to display their best defensive numbers at this time of year.  Returning to that record-setting 1999-2000 season, the Cardinal entered conference play sporting a .311 field goal defense... after playing the likes of Duke, Georgia Tech and Mississippi State in November and December.

This fall's foes have been exceedingly weak for Stanford, with the Cardinal carrying a schedule strength ranked #292 out of all 334 Division I teams in the country - according to Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings.  For Stanford to defend so poorly against such a horrifically weak first five opponents is simply staggering.  Considering the remaining schedule that the Cardinal still must face, this could become ugly.  Virginia Tech and Gonzaga are waiting in the wings, as well as 18 Pac-10 games.  The conference looks a little lax today, but be mindful of the fact that every one of those nine teams is a better rated team by Sagarin than any of Stanford's previous five non-conference opponents played to date - save UC Irvine, who at #124 would be the seventh best team in the Pac-10 today if they joined the conference.

Two defensive performances that bear closer examination are the Cardinal's first two losses this year: vs. UC Irvine and at Montana.  Below is a tabulation of how the Anteaters and Grizzlies have shot the ball this year against all of their opponents.  Take a good look at the two tables before you scroll past the second table.  This is an exercise in comparing the defensive job done by Stanford versus the defensive performances by some other teams that UCI and UM have faced this fall.

UC Irvine vs. XX

Field Goals

3-pt Field Goals
Team A 18-of-56 32.1% 2-of-18 11.1%
Team B 37-of-58 63.8% 12-of-19 63.2%
Team C 30-of-51 58.8% 8-of-15 53.3%
Team D 27-of-51 52.9% 14-of-23 60.9%
Team E 21-of-64 32.8% 10-of-33 30.3%
Team F 34-of-58 58.6% 8-of-20 40.0%
Team G 27-of-48 56.3% 7-of-12 58.3%

Montana vs. XX

Field Goals

3-pt Field Goals

Team H 27-of-69 39.1% 7-of-21 33.3%
Team I 27-of-50 54.0% 4-of-13 30.8%
Team J 34-of-54 63.0% 6-of-14 42.9%
Team K 29-of-49 59.2% 7-of-15 46.7%
Team L 28-of-48 58.3% 8-of-13 61.5%
Team M 29-of-66 43.9% 7-of-22 31.8%

UC Irvine has a schedule strength ranked by Sagarin #196, while Montana's slate to date stacks up #300 among Division I schools.  Both teams have additionally played one non-Division I opponent each, which Sagarin completely ignores in his computer ratings, but I have included those two teams in the above tables.

Stanford should stand out among such a weak group of teams.  The Cardinal have been ranked the #1 team in the nation numerous times in recent years and currently carry a string of 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.  Stanford has been an up-and-down offensive team, statistically speaking, in the last decade-plus, but as evidenced atop this story their defense has been their rock.

Now let us reveal the identities of the teams who have played UC Irvine and Montana to date.

UC Irvine vs. XX

Sagarin

Field Goals

3-pt Field Goals
George Mason #52 18-of-56 32.1% 2-of-18 11.1%
Mississippi Valley State #303 37-of-58 63.8% 12-of-19 63.2%
Stanford #208 30-of-51 58.8% 8-of-15 53.3%
Santa Clara #132 27-of-51 52.9% 14-of-23 60.9%
Pepperdine #145 21-of-64 32.8% 10-of-33 30.3%
Cal State Stanislaus N/A 34-of-58 58.6% 8-of-20 40.0%
San Jose State #205 27-of-48 56.3% 7-of-12 58.3%

Montana vs. XX

Sagarin

Field Goals

3-pt Field Goals

Boise State #207 27-of-69 39.1% 7-of-21 33.3%
Loyola Marymount #228 27-of-50 54.0% 4-of-13 30.8%
Western Oregon N/A 34-of-54 63.0% 6-of-14 42.9%
Utah Valley State #260 29-of-49 59.2% 7-of-15 46.7%
Stanford #208 28-of-48 58.3% 8-of-13 61.5%
Loyola Marymount #228 29-of-66 43.9% 7-of-22 31.8%

Not only does Stanford fail to rise high above these weak sisters, but the Cardinal in fact appear alarmingly indistinguishable when stacked up defensively in this pathetic peer group.  Can anybody successfully argue that Stanford defended better against common opponents than Division II Cal State Stanislaus or Western Oregon?  To put a finer point on it, the only team that defended the Anteaters worse than Stanford from both the field and three-point range is Mississippi Valley State.  No team was worse than the Cardinal against the Grizzlies in both defensive categories.

The three-point percentages allowed by Stanford against these two opponents is cause for grave concern, but the overall field goal percentages are unforgivable.  Here are the highest shooting days demonstrated against the Cardinal last year, for comparison:

Mississippi State (NCAA) 56.1%
Arizona (away) 54.2%
Arizona State (home) 52.7%

Mississippi State was a season-ending meltdown in the final 25 minutes of the game, when a senior-heavy Bulldogs squad with size, athleticism and skill skewered a Stanford squad out of gas after an admirable run who hit a wall.  Arizona was a Final Four caliber team with a lineup full of future pros, including seniors Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire.  Two words alone explain Arizona State: Ike Diogu.

All three of those teams had dominating talents in the post, yet Stanford has yet to face any single remarkable post player thus far this fall.  Certainly, none with even half the threat of a Diogu, Frye or Lawrence Roberts.  Despite undersized and underwhelming rosters, UC Irvine and Montana at 58-plus percent each were able to score at higher percentages this year than the best of the best Stanford saw last year.  What horror awaits when Leon Powe, DeVon Hardin and Jon Brockman get their chance to crow against the Cardinal?

The perimeter defense has been the most visibly unforgivable transgression for Stanford this year, at least to these eyes.  While there were prominent post defense questions given the lack of size at Stanford this year, the vast majority of the guards and wings returned - with year-over-year improvements plus greater depth.  The Cardinal similarly started last season with great difficulty defending the three-point shot.  In the first 12 games of 2004-05, when Stanford was at full strength with an eligible Tim Morris and a healthy Dan Grunfeld, opposing teams shot 42.2% from outside the arc.  In the final 19 games of that season, opponents hit at just 35.1% from deep.

Without question, the Cardinal made great strides in their perimeter defense after a sluggish start.  A cynic might say that the subtraction of Morris had some correlative value, however, and observation of his defense would lend some support to that idea.  The subtraction of Nick Robinson - a tremendously challenged as a skilled offensive player but a lock-down defender - has clearly hurt Stanford's perimeter defense, as well.  Grunfeld is also a liability, which may be due in part to his recovering knee and accompanying quickness.

Bad went to worse on Sunday when Stanford's defensive disaster spread to other aspects of its performance level.  Against UC Davis... who Sagarin ranks #288 in the nation... who came in 0-4 with losses by an average of 13 points to Northern Arizona, Dartmouth, Harvard and Sacramento State... Stanford played its worst game I have witnessed in the last 13 years.  By far.

The Aggies shot a woeful 40% from the field and 20% from three-point range, which underscores how bad an offensive team they truly are given the sorry state of Stanford's defense this year.  Indeed, UCD is averaging 43.5% from the field and 28.6% from deep.

That should have been a recipe for a go-away victory for the Cardinal.  But Stanford sunk to deplorable depths in the rest of their performance to ensure defeat.  They shot 43.9% from the field and an unprecedented 6.7% from three-point range.  1-of-15.  Stanford was 0-of-13 until the final minute of the game, when Chris Hernandez finally hit from outside.  Flipping through the last several years of box scores, I cannot find a Stanford shooting day as bad as 1-of-15.  Previous to the Davis debacle, the Cardinal had not been a strong three-point shooting team, but they were not remarkably bad.  Their 33% shooting from outside the arc stacked up reasonably against the 34%, 36%, 36% and 34% Stanford has shot the previous four seasons.

In the rebounding column, the diminutive Davis Aggies clobbered the Cardinal.  Stanford had won the battle on the boards in their previous three games by an average of more than eight rebounds per game (Matt Haryasz did not play in the opener versus UC Irvine).  Davis is neither tall nor athletic and came into Sunday with a net negative rebounding margin on the season, yet they grabbed 40 rebounds to Stanford's 33 in their first and only win of the year.  And two of those Cardinal rebounds came in the final four meaningless seconds by Haryasz.

Fans can talk about lineups, rotations and personnel - most of which looks at this basketball team through offensive eyes.  But this team's problems start on the defensive end.  Like a disease, they appear to be spreading to other areas of Stanford's game.  Terrible losses breed terrible confidence.  To regain confidence, the Cardinal need to play good defense.  The offense will follow.  I believe that.  How to achieve that - I have little clue.  If I knew, I would be sitting on the Stanford bench in a suit and tie, with a clipboard in my hands.

Stanford has run more defensive and rebounding drills in practice this year than in perhaps any of the last 10 years in Maples Pavilion, so it is not for a lack of attention.  Players and coaches both shoulder the blame for the downward spiral we have witnessed to start the 2005-06 season, and they will have to work together to dig their way out.  The Cardinal currently sit in a 13-day break between that Davis defeat and the December 17 Las Vegas Shootout against Virginia Tech - the same Hokies who came within a miracle buzzer-beater three-pointer from upsetting Duke in Durham.  That is a long rest before a tall test, and we will have to wait while the Cardinal crank away on their changes behind closed doors.

To close this depressing tale, I will offer two slivers of daylight.  The first is that Tim Morris played his best game of the year at Davis.  He showed improved defense, which started with a visibly different intensity in the opening minutes of the game.  The redshirt sophomore wing rebounded with a vigor not seen in any other game this year.  Morris entered the Davis game averaging just a shade over two rebounds per game, and that does not count the two total rebounds he managed in the combined two exhibitions.  In several interviews with Morris during the off-season and preseason, he consistently told The Bootleg that his greatest focus and contribution to the Cardinal this year would be defense and rebounding.  Those have been gruesomely glaring deficiencies for him, instead, which makes his six-rebound performance against the Aggies cause for hope.  Those strengths spurred him to (not coincidentally) his best shooting game of the year, hitting 7-of-10 from the field (including a pair of makes just inside the arc) for 15 points.  More of that from Morris can go a long way toward helping this team turn around.

Another sophomore harboring hope is Taj Finger.  He has yet to be tested by physically formidable forwards, which will come soon enough, but he has been one of Stanford's best defenders this year.  Lacking some of the strength and quickness, he has not lacked for smarts and positioning on the court.  Finger also leads the Cardinal in field goal percentage and ranks fifth in the Pac-10 today at 63.0%.  His rebounding average of 5.2 per game ranks 15th in the conference, and that has come in just 23 minutes per game.  Coming off a freshman campaign where he played just nine minutes per game, Finger is still building confidence and playmaking awareness on the court.


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