Rough Road

To keep their season alive, Stanford will have to do something tonight in Springfield (Mo.) they have not done all year - beat a Top 100 opponent on the road. Downright dismal away from home, the Cardinal have posted just their second losing road record of the last decade. Lengthening the odds, Stanford endured brutal travel yesterday and will face an angry opponent and fans tonight at Missouri State.

At the end of a 15-13 regular season that saw Stanford miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994, there were (and still are) a wealth of factors that could receive scrutiny for a terribly disappointing year of Cardinal Basketball.  The analysis has to carefully distinguish between substance and the superficial, while also recognizing the difference between the core disease and its various symptoms.

On the surface, Stanford missed the Big Dance this week because they have been a poor road team.  Everybody has a tough time on the road, and an average or "good" road team will suffer losses away from home.  But the Cardinal exceptionally incapable of logging wins at opponents' arenas.  Stanford was a respectable home team this year, finishing 7-2 in conference games including two wins over NCAA Tournament teams.  But the knife that plunged repeatedly into the Cardinal's chances at the Big Dance came when it failed to record any semblance of a mediocre road win this year.  Forget finding a "quality win" on the road - Stanford could not beat any Top 125 team outside of Maples Pavilion.

The only Pac-10 road wins for the Card this year came against the absolute dregs of the conference: Oregon (RPI #147), Washington State (#166), Oregon State (#174) and Arizona State (#180).  And all four of those teams finished the season with losing overall records.  Stanford's fifth and sole remaining win away from Palo Alto came on a "neutral" floor in Oakland against RPI #199 Princeton.  Stanford failed to beat Montana (#61), USC (#118), and UC Davis (#295) away from home, in addition to the entire upper crust of the conference.

Fans too often look at basketball games on paper.  Matchups of size, quickness, athleticism and skill are indeed important to the final score, but you will find disparate records for home versus away games in almost every Division I team.  The noise and emotion you face in an opposing gym has an effect on both the players and officiating.  Shooting at an unfamiliar basket will often dampen field goal percentages.  The process of travel, as well as the absence of sleeping and eating at home, takes a very real mental and physical toll.

Teams can win on the road.  Stanford was an extraordinarily impressive 36-5 in road arenas over a four year span from the 1997-98 through 2000-01 seasons.  As recently as two years ago, the Cardinal were nearly unblemished before their final Pac-10 game at Washington dipped their road record to 11-1.  Top talent can help carry a team to wins in most environments, but the tight battles in hostile environments are a greater test of the mental and physical toughness.  That is where Stanford has fallen short this year, playing excellently in spurts but unable to maintain a consistency of performance and execution when outside the familiarity of The Farm.

Why is this a germane topic of discussion today?  Because the NIT, unlike the NCAA Tournament, is played at non-neutral sites until you reach the semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden.  Stanford justly was hit with a #7 seed in their 10-team region of the NIT and will play road games for as long as they stay alive in this postseason, unless and until they reach the Big Apple.

Their first road stop tonight arrives at Missouri State, formerly known as Southwest Missouri State, in Springfield (Mo.).  The Bears are on paper a better basketball team, by a wide margin, than any team Stanford defeated outside of Maples Pavilion this year.  As far as the RPI fairly measures a team's worth, Missouri State (#21) would be the second-best team in the Pac-10 this year, behind UCLA (#10) but ahead of Arizona (#23), Washington (#35) and California (#52).  It has been often cited since Selection Sunday that four teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, home of Missouri State, made this year's NCAA Tournament - tying both the Pac-10 and the ACC.  Discussed with great vigor, Missouri State's #21 RPI is the best ever to not make the expanded (64/65-team field) NCAA Tournament.  No team previously with an RPI better than #33 had missed the Big Dance.

"This is a very good basketball team who probably has no business of playing in the NIT," comments Stanford head coach Trent Johnson on the Bears.  "They are probably one of the three or four best teams we have played all year."

At this point, we have to take a detour to talk about the Missouri Valley Conference.  They finished the year with six teams owning an RPI of #39 or better.  Missouri State actually owned the best RPI in that supposedly stacked conference, yet they are a #2 seed in the NIT.  How does that happen?  A look up and down the Bears' 2005-06 schedule does leave you a little confused as to how they own the #46 schedule in the nation.  In fact, the entire Missouri Valley Conference owns an impressive strength of schedule, despite a dearth of obviously big-time opponents.  RPI #25 Northern Iowa has the #40 schedule.  #27 Wichita State has the #58 schedule.  #29 Southern Illinois has the #59 schedule.  #33 Bradley has the #50 schedule.  #39 Creighton has the #55 schedule.  All 10 teams in the conference own a Top 100-rated strength of schedule, with Indiana State the bottom at #96.

The word on the street is that the Missouri Valley Conference got together and figured out how to "game" the mathematics of the RPI and strength of schedule.  They scheduled a slew of opponents they thought beatable who would still yield a high schedule strength - absent the very lowest bottom feeders but also without the powerhouse teams likely to defeat them.  Entering their conference schedule, the Missouri Valley Conference was sitting pretty as a group.  When the top six teams all finished with 11 or more wins in league play, they rose to Top 40 in the RPI and were all in position for NCAA bids.  The Selection Committee apparently saw the conference as paper tigers, snubbing both #21 Missouri State and #39 Creighton from the Tournament.  Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Bradley all earned at-large bids well below what their RPI would suggest, as #10, #11 and #13 seeds, respectively.  And the Salukis won the conference's post-season tournament on top of a tie for second place in the regular season standings!

That means it's back to the drawing board for the Missouri Valley Conference braintrusts, but don't think the supporters of Stanford's host tonight are not steaming mad at their NCAA snub.  The Bears' backers will be out in force at the Hammons Student Center to tear apart their Pac-10 opponent this evening.  Stanford will also be feeling the effects of a long day of travel yesterday, flying from Palo Alto to Springfield.  The wondrous resources of the NIT were such that the Cardinal had to split into two travel groups, leaving campus at 4:30 a.m. (PT) and 6:30 a.m. (PT) and arriving each some 12 hours later by way of scattered connections.  Add in the demands of dead week and finals for Stanford's student-athletes, and this sets up for very possibly yet another in a long string of road disappointments for the Cardinal this year.

On paper, the Bears are an unspectacular yet wonderfully balanced team.  They own only one scorer who averages double figures in scoring, though their next six scorers all average between 9.2 and 7.1 points per game.  Stanford played arguably their best game of the year Tuesday in their NIT opener against a Virginia team that had traveled three time zones on 16 hours' notice and possessed a shallow bench, this Missouri State team is deep, rested and ready to pound on the Stanford squad that now will be travel weary and less offensively balanced.

6'2" 175-pound junior guard Blake Ahearn is the scoring and playmaking leader for Missouri State, averaging 16.8 points per game with nearly twice the scoring and over twice the three-point attempts of any of his teammates.  He is a shooter, and shooters shoot.  Ahearn puts up over six three-point tries and nearly 12 total field goal attempts per game.  While his 39.3% shooting from deep may not overly impress, Ahearn is in a way the J.J. Redick of his league.  Defenses know of his reputation as one of the best shooters in the land and do everything in their power to defend him from outside.  His shooting percentage on paper is not one of the best in the nation, but on tape you see how fantastic a shooter he truly is.  Ahearn is also good off the dribble and can attack defenders when they close out on him.  He is a competitor and clutch performer in the mold of a Matt Lottich, with a better handle and more athleticism who can attack off the dribble more effectively.

"He really shoots it and is really smart," Johnson assesses of Ahearn.  "He's very skilled and a very talented player."

Ahearn starts as the shooting guard in the Bears' three-guard lineup.  They have 6'0" 180-pound senior Deke Thompson at the point and 6'2" 180-pound freshman Shane Laurie out at the wing.  Missouri State head coach Barry Hinson worked for four years under Bill Self at Oral Roberts in the 1990s before Self moved to Tulsa and Hinson ascended to the ORU head job, after two years of which he became the head coach at (Southwest) Missouri State.  Hinson runs the "early offense" you see from Self at Kansas, which takes advantage of the Bears' balanced scoring lineup and versatile trio of guards.  Unlike opponents Stanford fans have considered this year, there is not one or two key defensive assignments or match-ups where Stanford has to succeed to win this game.  Though clichéd, it will take a broad-based defensive effort at all positions.

Chris Hernandez and Mitch Johnson will initially defend Ahearn and Thompson, and those match-ups will be difficult for Stanford.  Thompson is quick, has a tight handle and is an aggressive player who take take the ball to the basket or pull-up and stick the mid-range jumper.  Ahearn will hit jumpers off screens while also draining shots despite solid on-ball defense and make his defender work hard.  This is likely another game where Johnson starts for Stanford to help set the tone on the offensive end, but sit plenty on the bench while a better defender in Tim Morris and/or Anthony Goods comes into the game to help on Ahearn and Thompson.  The eighth best scorer (3.8 ppg) for Missouri State, Laurie is a pure catch-and-shoot guy, which could be a rare favorable match-up for Dan Grunfeld - a suspect defender at the point of attack throughout this year.  Additionally, Laurie at 6'2" will have some problems defending and rebounding against Grunfeld at 6'6".

The bench player to watch at that "three" position for Missouri State is 6'5" 215-pound wing forward Dale Lamberth, who has perimeter skills to shoot or dribble-drive but also can post up smaller defenders.  He would match up much better for the Bears against Grunfeld on both ends of the floor.  His 55.0% shooting from the field and 50.0% shooting from three-point range beg the question as to why he has not started a game this year, though he certainly gives Missouri State a great boost off the bench.

The Bears' frontcourt consists of 6'6" 195-pound junior forward Nathan Bilyeu and 6'10" 255-pound sophomore center Sky Frazier.  Bilyeu is not physically imposing, but he is an aggressive player who scores, rebounds and defends with a lot of energy and toughness.  Frazier is the enforcer.  Off the bench they bring 6'7" 190-pound senior power forward Kellen Easley, who is active, athletic and wreaks havoc with his long arms.

"They look very skilled, very talented.  The thing that most impresses me is that they are so balanced," summarizes Trent Johnson.  "They really put it on the floor and really attack you."

"From their second guy to their eighth guy, they are very balanced," he adds.  "It's going to take total team defense.  We will need to be as good as we were [Tuesday] night.  Are they as physically talented as Virginia?  No, but they are a much better basketball team."

Missouri State has the depth and balance to play a lot of man defense, which means Stanford will not likely have the opportunities to feast on a tired zone like they faced Tuesday.  The Bears will occasionally throw a zone onto the court out of time outs to disrupt set plays from their opponent, and they have a 1-2-2 press they can employ off free throws in the full-court.

The 20-8 Bears are a very balanced, skilled basketball team.  They execute well on both ends of the floor, with a balance of senior and experienced players unlike the hot-and-cold Cavaliers we saw in the NIT opener.  They are much better at taking care of the ball, and they have more players capable of hitting shots than perhaps any Stanford opponent this year.  Though they are small on paper, Missouri State is physical and will wear you down.  Keep that in mind if Stanford gets out to a quick start or holds leads at points in the game.  Stanford had the brutal travel on Thursday and do not possess the depth or home court advantage.  Keeping afloat in the final 10 minutes will be key.

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