Depending upon what you want out of tonight's NIT opening round game for Stanford, you can either thank or curse ESPN. Of the 16 teams seeded such that they are playing a game today, there are no power programs or "name" programs from power conferences that approach Stanford and Virginia. The fact that the Cardinal and Cavaliers were paired together in the one and only NIT game airing today on ESPN is no accident. This is the premier matchup of the opening round of the NIT. Their 15-13 and 15-14 records may not impress, but this Pac-10 vs. ACC match-up is one of the best played in either post-season tournament the next few days. If you wanted Stanford to coast through to the next round, then ESPN and the NIT did you wrong. This is not Lipscomb or Fairleigh-Dickinson. But if you wanted a team with premier talent for your entertainment dollar at Maples Pavilion tonight, then this is your lucky day.
The Cavaliers start and end with their backcourt: 6'0" sophomore point guard Sean Singletary and 6'3" junior shooting guard J.R. Reynolds. These two co-captains combine for 35 points, eight rebounds and better than seven assists per game. Singletary was named First Team All-ACC this year, which tells you all you need to know. He and North Carolina wunderkind Tyler Hansbrough were the only two underclassmen on that five-man first team, joined by J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams and Craig Smith. Reynolds is no chopped liver, earning Third Team All-ACC honors, which puts him just outside the 10 best players in arguably the most talented conference in the nation. For point of comparison, Reynolds was sandwiched in the voting between Nik Caner-Medley and Reyshawn Terry.
"They're very explosive athletically. Singletary and Reynolds, I have to believe, are probably going to be better in person than they are on tape. And on tape, they're pretty good," comments Cardinal head coach Trent Johnson. "Both Singletary and Reynolds shoot the three. They're very adequate going left or right. They get into the lane, make people better and can get their own shot. So this will be a really, really good test for us."
"This is going to be a great match-up and great opportunity for our backcourt to compete against two of the best guards and one of the best backcourt tandems in the country in Singletary and Reynolds," says Stanford assistant coach and lead scout for this Virginia game, Tony Fuller. "Singletary is more of a point, whereas Reynolds is more of a 'two.' But Singletary is a scoring point guard. He averages 18 per game and just plays. He takes it to the hole, and if nothing is there, he can dish it for a three or drop it for a dunk."
"They're excellent," Fuller continues. "They both handle the ball so well. They're both extremely quick and extremely strong. They can shoot it, they can pass it, and they can get to the bucket and create their own shots. The are a very, very good pair in the backcourt. They might be the best guards we have seen all year. If they are not the best, then I can't say that we have seen any who are better."
Virginia's starting backcourt dominates their stat sheets, night in and night out, scoring more than 50% of their points and taking nearly half of the team's shots. They are also the only two players who average 30+ minutes for the Cavaliers. Big-time playmakers, they can be a nightmare for Stanford tonight if they are "on." Look at their box score in their 14-point February 21 home upset of #11-ranked Boston College - combining for 44 points on 30 shots with 73 minutes played.
The other tale to tell for this Virginia team, however, is their 2-10 record when playing away this year. A young team, the Cavaliers have just one senior on the roster, Billy Campbell, and he plays just 7.6 minutes per game. They start three sophomores and two juniors. That is also noteworthy because it means that the Virginia team you see on the floor tonight will almost entirely return next year, when Stanford will travel to Charlottesville for a non-conference game. That 2006-07 match-up is the front end of a home-and-home agreement that will return to Maples Pavilion in the 2008-09 season.
Poise has been a problem at times for them this year, and that includes the sometimes out-of-court ballyhooed backcourt. Both Singletary and Reynolds have more turnovers than any player on Stanford's roster, and the Cardinal's problems taking care of the ball were plenty evident last Thursday with 23 turnovers against Arizona. Whether Stanford can capitalize on those turnovers remains to be seen. They have not executed or scored well in transition in recent weeks, either turning the ball over, missing shots or simply backing it out and running their halfcourt offense.
Stanford will be most certainly challenged in defending this dynamic duo. Trent Johnson says that the starting assignments will put freshman Mitch Johnson on Singletary and fifth-year senior Chris Hernandez on Reynolds. Stanford is on the wrong end of the quickness and athletic match-ups at both positions. If the Cardinal are hurt early, you may expect a quick hook taking Johnson to the bench and bringing redshirt sophomore Tim Morris and/or freshman Anthony Goods onto the floor to shore up defensively. Something we know Stanford will employ is their "made-miss" defense, whereby they play their 2-3 zone defense after made field goals and free throws but resort to their man defense after misses. The zone defense has been far from fool-proof for Stanford this year, but it ought to minimize the one-on-one athletic mismatches where Virginia can break down the Cardinal's guards.
On the other end of the floor, the Cavaliers are not as defensively proficient as they are in executing their offense. On the offensive end, there are some striking similarities between this Virginia team and UCLA. They have very talented playmaking guards, through which everything runs on offense. Their big men pale in comparison in the box score, but they make the offense work because of their tough and physical play opening lanes and working the boards.
"You just don't play for [Virginia head coach] Dave Leitao if you're not going to stick your nose in there," Johnson explains. "He preaches and emphasizes it, but also he has kids who embrace it. As much as any coach wants to talk about being tough, and that is their philosophy, you've got to have guys that are tough guys willing to embrace it."
The execution of that toughness and physical talent on the defensive end is part of what separates the Virginia and UCLA comparatively. But how the Cavaliers have been able to perform defensively against a schedule ranked #30 in the nation does not adequately predict how they might succeed against a Stanford squad that has had great difficulty scoring the last four weeks. In fact, Virginia may play a more bold and aggressive defensive strategy pressuring Cardinal ballhandlers with their athletic guards in a way they were unwilling to do against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Boston College.
"Dave Leitao and Virginia may feel comfortable that they can come up and pressure us because they have seen our game film, and I think they will," Johnson opines. "If they feel that they can get up on our guards once they see them and get a feel as the game flows, then yeah, they'll probably get up and extend."
The Cavaliers play predominately a mixture of man defense and 2-3 zone, not unlike Stanford. They do have a 1-2-2 defense to extend pressure, most commonly employed after they shoot free throws. Watch that defense tonight, and see if Leitao runs with it after some early success. The one factor that might conspire against much pressure defense from Virginia is the long minutes that Singletary and Reynolds log in an average game. It is difficult to exert much pressure on a team unless you have depth. The Cavaliers use Campbell for token minutes off the bench, while also employing 5'11" junior point guard T.J. Bannister.
Singletary and Reynolds are the premier players on this team, but they have a nice supporting cast on the wing and in the post. 6'7" sophomore Adrian Joseph is a left-handed wing who likes to shoot and can shoot from outside. He is second fiddle in the Cavaliers' perimeter offense, but he's a very solid player who could get hot against Stanford's spotty three-point defense. It is interesting to note that Joseph, Singletary and Reynolds are all athletic and can score in a variety of ways, yet they all shoot just 40% overall from the field.
Virginia's starting post players are an interesting pair. Sophomore Tunji Soroye and junior Jason Cain are both 6'10"/6'11" 210/215 guys. The former plays in the high post but is an impact athlete with leaping ability and good timing as a shot-blocker, while the latter is a lunch-pail defender who leads Virginia with 7.7 rebounds in just 26.6 minutes per game. Soroye often starts, but he logs fewer minutes than Lithuanian freshman Laurynas Mikalauskas, a 6'8" 245-pound player who will be different from what you expect. A 6'8" forward from that part of the world connotes a certain "Euro" player in terms of high skill level but a proclivity to play away from the basket. Mikalauskas is instead the thickest post player who will suit up for either roster tonight, and he is a physical back-to-the-basket operator who leads the team (by far) with 56% shooting from the field.
"Cain is probably their most productive post in terms of scoring and rebounding numbers and minutes played, but I like [Mikalauskas]," Fuller reports. "He's a bruiser. He's an ass-and-elbows guy, meaning that he is going to get his ass and his elbows right up into you. That's what he does."
There is a lot to admire with this roster, and they are undoubtedly on the rise under Leitao. The Cavaliers missed the post-season a year ago and have a young nucleus that will return almost entirely intact next season. The NIT is often regarded as a "springboard" postseason tournament where young teams and/or young players can get experience and confidence to leverage the next year. That fits this Virginia team perfectly, and they are as hungry and excited as can be to play in this postseason event. Stanford is senior-dominated and cannot deny the disappointment of playing in this second-tier tournament after consensus preseason Top 15 rankings. This game has all the markings of a letdown, both in the circumstances and the athletic match-ups.
After reading all of this, you may ask why Virginia is playing in the NIT and not the NCAA Tournament. They sound like world-beaters, don't they? The truth is that they have looked fantastic at home, beating North Carolina and Boston College as part of an 11-3 record, while they have struggled even worse than Stanford on the road this year. That is the primary explanation for how the Cardinal are favored by five points tonight. Both teams finished the year on a sour note, each 2-4 in their last six games. But the emotional edge has to go to Virginia, as they are enthused under their first-year coach and feel like they are being rewarded with this game and opportunity for a season where they sometimes overachieved. I would call the game a toss-up, if not giving a small edge to Virginia.
I also give more credit to the Cavaliers' record, though it looks so similar to Stanford's. Virginia played a superior schedule by virtue of the ACC alone.
"They have a lot of young guys playing in a very, very talented conference," notes Trent Johnson. "They're playing in a league and their schedule where they are playing against some of the best players in the country. There is no question that the ACC is more talented, from top to bottom, than the Pac-10. There is no question that their schedule, and who they played and where they played, is tougher than what we had."
Among common opponents, both Stanford and Virginia lost to Arizona and Gonzaga. While the Cavaliers were trounced 81-51 by the Wildcats, that game came when Arizona had their full roster, unlike the shorthanded squad (minus Rodgers or Adams) that outdistanced Stanford by slimmer margins. It is also worth noting that Stanford lost by seven points to Virginia Tech, while their in-state rivals topped them three times this year.
However you stack up these teams, this an exceptionally outstanding game for fans to enjoy tonight in Stanford's NIT opener. If you have been clamoring all year for a good non-conference opponent at home, this is your great chance to see a talented and rising ACC team at Maples Pavilion.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!