It is not the most pressing story surrounding Stanford Basketball today, but certainly the hottest story for Cardinalmaniacs™ since we reported it last Saturday has been the news that Stanford submitted a request with its bid to the NIT that they prefer not to host a home game. Reportedly, that decision originated with the players on the team and the seniors in particular.
Yesterday, head coach Trent Johnson for the first time commented on the issue. As has been his manner throughout his two years on The Farm, Johnson is not a talkative fellow when in-seasons questions come around about post-season tournaments. He declined to elaborate on the specifics of what communication was sent by Cardinal administrators to the NIT, but he was willing to comment on Stanford's role today in making talk and decisions about the NIT. At 15-12, with no quality road wins this year and a poor performance overall against good and mediocre teams, Johnson would prefer that the Stanford program and community take a helping of humility.
"It is real premature for our basketball team and our basketball program to think that, regardless of what bid we may have put in, we're going to be in a situation where we are selected to host a home game or go on the road," Johnson castigates. "We're on the bubble of the NIT, and that's why I choose not to talk about it. That's the philosophy that I've always had - to take things one game at a time."
"You worry about that next game," he says. "You don't worry about that other stuff because it's not promised. A week or two from now is not promised. Your opportunity to compete today and to enjoy this opportunity is [promised]."
"To talk about the NIT, for me personally, shows a lack of respect for the game. It shows a lack of respect for competition. It really does," Johnson charges. "You talk about the Pac-10 Tournament when you're there. You talk about the NCAA Tournament if you are selected. You talk about the NIT... when you are selected. And we haven't been selected into any of it. Any of it. I watched tape of our UCLA game, and all I know is that the team I saw that afternoon - that's not any tournament team."
Some observers have questioned whether the (perhaps too) proud players of Stanford, who currently enjoys an 11-year consecutive streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, would play in the NIT at all. The man in charge says that his players will play and had better relish the chance to play more basketball, in any form, after the conclusion of this week's competition at the Staples Center.
"From our program's standpoint and where we're at, we are always going to play games," Johnson offers. "And we're going to enjoy playing in any - any - opportunity we have to play."
Johnson also opened the door again to the possibility that Stanford could host a game in the NIT, should they be invited to the tournament and be a team worthy of a seeding to play their opener at home.
"I do know this, having participated in the NIT while I was at Nevada: the NIT selects teams, whether for home or road games. They basically make that selection based off of the amount of fans that will be in the stands and the money that is generated," the Cardinal coach says. Translated: the NIT makes hosting decisions best for the financial health of the tournament, which may or may not be aligned with the desires of a few senior student-athletes.
Of more immediate importance, of course, is Stanford's game tomorrow in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament versus Arizona. The Cardinal are already 0-2 against the Wildcats this year, though both games were tight affairs. Stanford nearly wrapped up the first game in Tucson before some late controversial calls helped push the game to overtime, where the Cardinal crumbled. In the second game at Maples, Stanford started strong and led at halftime before imploding at the start of the second half and allowing an Arizona 16-3 run. The final margin was still just four points.
This biggest Pac-10 rivalry of recent years has been evenly matched. Over the past six years, Stanford and Arizona split the season series four times. Stanford swept in 2003-04, while Arizona swept in 1999-2000. The Card and Cats tied in the Pac-10 standings this year with 11-7 conference records.
The dynamic that could change tomorrow's third battle of 2006 is the suspension of Arizona senior Hassan Adams after a DUI arrest earlier this week. The 6'4" superstar has guard skills and athleticism but the strength and leaping ability that allows him to play as a forward. He scored 23 points the last time against Stanford, while also snaring four big steals as a key in the Arizona defensive pressure that devastated Stanford after halftime. This has already been a "down" year for the Wildcats, and they enter the Pac-10 Tournament at a new low without Adams.
"He causes problems in transition. He causes problems on the defensive end. He causes problems in the halfcourt with his ability to get to the rim," praises Trent Johnson of the Arizona senior
"Any time a team loses a guy of the caliber of Hassan Adams... it obviously hurts," says Matt Haryasz. "But they're a very resilient team who can step up."
The Wildcats start Adams at the wing, with Kirk Walters and Ivan Radenovic in the post. Adams' replacement in the starting lineup will be senior guard Chris Rodgers, which accentuates the perimeter identity of the team. That could be beneficial for Stanford, who saw Arizona score at will in the paint last month. The Cardinal were also outrebounded 33-27 in the game.
For too many years, we have known Arizona to be a program loaded with athletes and playmakers. One injury may be just as likely to uncover their next big thing as it is to bring them down. Who can forget the game at Maples in 2000, when Richard Jefferson broke his foot in the opening minutes, yet Arizona went on to topple #1-ranked Stanford.
"That's usually the case," says Johnson of Arizona's armed arsenal. "They certainly have individuals on that team who are capable. Radenovic - I don't know how much better he can play than he played against us last time, but he's capable of doing more. Kirk Walters is capable of doing more. And then Chris Rodgers - my goodness - he certainly can score the ball, let alone defend it..."
One key, without question, is to not allow 6'10" junior Ivan Radenovic to have anything tomorrow that resembles his career day last month at Maples. He scored an eye-popping 8-of-10 from the field, plus 7-of-10 from the free throw line, to total 23 points. For the most "Euro" player in the Pac-10, that is a ridiculously high-percentage production. Indeed, Radenovic operated in the paint like a man unguarded. Stanford sophomore Taj Finger will have to shore up his defense in the rematch, along with the rest of the Cardinal.
"I think we need to play good, physical defense and not let him get to the line so easily," Haryasz opines.
The greater focus for Haryasz may be on the other end of the floor, where he in no way today resembles the player he was just a few short weeks ago. The Stanford senior was riding high as the top player in the Pac-10, with 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game before he was hit in the eye by Sasa Cuic at Oregon State. Since that injury, Haryasz has scored four times in single digits. Previous to the game in Corvallis, the Stanford center hit double digits in 15 of his 16 games. In his last nine games, Haryasz is averaging a mere 11.7 points - below his season average of a year ago.
There are three prevailing schools of thought on this Cardinal's collapse. One is that the defensive double-teams he has faced throughout most of the last eight games have negated his scoring threat. There is undoubtedly at least partial truth there. Another explanation is that this third injury of the year has dealt Haryasz a blow to his conditioning, timing and rhythm from which he has had difficulty recovering.
A final theory suggests that Haryasz' vision is still an issue. To that end, it is worth noting that he shot 9-of-10 from the free throw line at California in his first game back from the eye injury, and he shot very well from the field (including a three-pointer) in the second half. However, he was wearing prescription goggles for that game. Over his last five games, Haryasz has shot well below his average from the charity stripe for a combined 55.2% (16-of-29). Previously he was hitting 78.0%. He has shot below 50% from the field in four straight games.
Many of Haryasz' free throws, as well as his field goal attempts, have not just missed but instead been remarkably off the mark. Last week, he left most of his shots well short. Something is very broken for the Stanford senior.
"He was in a good rhythm, and he was very confident. He was shooting the ball well," comments his head coach. "That just goes. I think that this is just one of those situations where it goes and comes. His approach in practice to shooting free throws - our approach in practice to shooting free throws - hasn't changed... I think he's going to concentrate a little more, and he'll knock 'em down."
"I just need to get a rhythm back," Haryasz offers. "That [free throws] is just an area for me where I'm in a little bit of a slump. The only way to get back is to get extra work."
Haryasz stayed after Tuesday's practice to shoot an extra 30 minutes of jump shots and free throws. Johnson says that the free throws are going down in practice, and it is a matter of concentration come game time. The coach does not, however, want to say a lot on the issue to his senior. Discussing an issue that is mostly mental can exacerbate the problem.
"He's shot them well in practice, but shooting in practice is different from shooting in a game," Johnson shares. "I want to say that he's been a foot and a half short, on the front of the rim, for probably three out of the last 12 misses. I think a couple of times he's overadjusted and hit the back of the iron. I think the bottom line is that when guys are good free throw shooters or great free throw shooters, it's just a concentration thing. The more you talk about it or make a big deal out of it, it's up to that individual to relax. That's why I don't bring a lot of attention to shooting. As much as we've struggled from the perimeter... you can't sit out there and overmagnify it. Get the bad ones out, and hopefully it will come back around."
You may have completely wiped out the memory of Stanford's last game, a 21-point beatdown by the Bruins of UCLA, but it was notable that Stanford made two changes in the starting lineup of the likes not seen in recent weeks, absent injury. Freshman Anthony Goods started at shooting guard, while fifth-year senior Chris Hernandez moved over to the point guard position. Freshman Mitch Johnson, who had started 17 straight games, moved to the bench. In the frontcourt, Haryasz slid to the power forward position as sophomore center Peter Prowitt entered the starting lineup. Sophomore Taj Finger went to the bench.
Trent Johnson said the day before the UCLA game that he was thinking of moving Mitch Johnson (no relation) out of the starting lineup for the UCLA game, and he maintained that he would do so as a result of the match-ups against the Bruins. It was not an indictment of how the freshman was playing.
That sounded like coachspeak, but we now expect that Stanford will revert to its pre-UCLA starting lineup with both Johnson and Finger in the starting five. Given that Goods scored 12 points on a perfect shooting day in his starting debut, it will surprise most fans to see him on the bench initially tomorrow at the Pac-10 Tournament opener. Trent Johnson says that the 6'4" frosh wing will have a significant role for Stanford against Arizona and downplays the lack of a starting spot.
"He deserves an opportunity to play more minutes," Johnson responds to the query of Goods' deserving to start again. "Everybody wants to make a big deal out of starting and all that stuff. If you ask Anthony Goods, I don't think he's concerned about starting. I think our guys here at Stanford, in general, are concerned about winning and the team. I'm not so worried about whether he thinks he deserves to start or not. Anthony knows that he is going to play, and that he is going to have an impact on this game. Anthony knows that our coaching staff and his teammates are going to put him in the best possible situation where he can be successful, and that's the most important thing. As opposed to, 'Do you walk out there when the horn blows?' That's just something to write or talk about."
The question, of course, is why Goods was put on the floor among the starting five last Saturday. The second-year Stanford head coach says that the match-ups against UCLA looked more favorable for the Cardinal with the freshman wing rather than the freshman floor general on the court. In particular, Stanford wanted to better match up against Bruin sophomore star Arron Afflalo.
"It was a decision based on how well he defended Afflalo," Johnson says of starting Goods versus UCLA. "He could slow Afflalo down. We thought that Chris could do a better job than Mitch could on [Jordan] Farmar. Then you could push Danny [Grunfeld] over to where he could guard [Cedric] Bozeman. The first time, when they got out to that 18-1 lead, you had Chris chasing Arron. They posted Arron, and Chris got in foul trouble early. And you had Mitch trying to level Jordan Farmar, which is not fair to Mitch."
"Anthony has gotten better, and Anthony's confidence has gotten better since the first time around," the coach continues. "As he said - and that's what I appreciate about the young man - I think he said that earlier in the year he wasn't playing good enough. Well, I don't agree with that. I just think that earlier in the year, there were some guys who were playing better than he was. Also, Matt and Chris were not receiving the kind of defensive attention they are getting now. Mitch was also playing with more confidence, from a perimeter standpoint. Mitch can still run a team and make good decisions. But when the ball isn't going down and they're doubling down and Matt, somebody has to come along and hit a jump shot."
Tomorrow we expect to see initially Mitch Johnson on Mustafa Shakur, Chris Hernandez on Chris Rodgers and Dan Grunfeld on Marcus Williams. The Cardinal coaches believe this to be the best match-ups to start the game against Arizona.
"This is a basketball team who we lost to in Tucson in overtime. This is a basketball team that we lost to, when they were completely healthy, here at Maples by four," Johnson points out. "Why would there be any drastic changes in terms of who we start? At the start of the game, that combination of Mitch, Taj, Matt, Chris and Danny played well in Tucson and played well here."
Win or lose, questioning Cardinalmaniacs™ can be sure to second-guess this starting line-up. We will see soon enough whether Stanford's rotation gives them a chance to reverse the losing outcome they have seen twice this year against the Wildcats.
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