While the public will tonight get their first look at the 2006-07 Stanford Men's Basketball team, the Cardinal have already competed in one exhibition this preseason. Stanford loaded up the team bus and drove to Reno on Friday for an evening scrimmage against #24 ranked Nevada. It was a closed competition, with no reported stats or results, but we have been able to piece together some of the lessons and events that took place.
Stanford is not only inexperienced, relative to a Wolfpack squad that returns four starters and a preseason All-American talent in Nick Fazekas, but the Cardinal also are undersized with a current rash of injuries in the post. Junior center Peter Prowitt, junior power forward Taj Finger, and freshman phenom forward/center Brook Lopez all sat out the scrimmage with various injuries. The holes in Stanford's squad were severe enough that the intended schedule of three 16-minute periods and two 10-minute periods were cut back to one 10-minute and two 16-minute sessions.
Despite these factors stacked squarely against Stanford, and a number of jumpshots that did not fall Friday night, head coach Trent Johnson was pleased with how hard his young squad played in Reno.
"Considering the fact that we had school, we left at 1 o'clock, got off the bus and ran up and down against a team that is probably one of the top 25 teams in the country, and we didn't have Brook, Peter and Taj - I thought that we competed pretty hard," Johnson judges. "What you have to understand is that we don't have all of our pieces in place, and we could be getting pieces in place here week-to-week. We do have some deficiencies on this basketball team, which you would expect from a young team. But from the standpoint of playing on the road with a young group, I was pleased with the way they got out and competed against a veteran and established basketball team."
Those missing pieces left freshman Robin Lopez to man the middle for Stanford without any other true center on the roster. That will continue to be the case for at least the next two to three weeks, with Peter and brother Brook not ready to return to action. For the healthy Lopez to have his first intercollegiate contest against Fazekas was quite an introduction. The Stanford freshman unsurprisingly picked up fouls, which we have seen in pickup games this fall as well as intrasquad scrimmages.
"Naturally he wants to go after him," Johnson reports on his seven-foot frosh versus Fazekas. "There was a period there where we had to say, 'Easy, Robin. Stay on the ground. Make him shoot over you and challenge his shot.' It takes time, though. It takes time. With his ability and his size and strength, if it happened overnight, he wouldn't be here."
Whether he has his brother and Prowitt healthy or not, the defensive aggression of Robin Lopez will be something to watch this year. His approach to defense and blocking shots is exhilarating to his teammates and coaches. The players nicknamed him "Beast" right away during the summer. But he will become caged if he is not careful in his decisions to apply and execute with his physical abilities and stature.
"Strength, rebounding, very coachable," Johnson says of Lopez' assets. "In the scrimmage, he had foul trouble against a guy who is probably going to play at the next level. He's going to have to bring us a post presence on the offensive end. It's early, and I think that he is going to do nothing but get better as the season progresses."
"I haven't played a college basketball game before, so I'm trying to learn what is a foul and what isn't a foul," Lopez admits. "It's different on different levels. I'm hearing, 'Oh, Pac-10 refs call these kinds of fouls.'"
The greater revelation for Lopez came in playing against a crafty, experienced and skilled college big man. Fazekas is a senior with abilities that can both stretch and confound a wide-eyed seven-footer, and Lopez took those lessons to heart.
"I learned that in college basketball, sure, there are people with physical gifts, but there is a lot of the mind that has to go with it," the freshman offers. "There were certain plays where he outsmarted me. Personally, I don't think he was any stronger than me, but he knew how to use his weight as leverage so that he could force me out of the key at times. He just played really smart."
"You have to play smart," Lopez continues. "I'm trying to learn to play smart on the college level, whereas I was playing smart on the high school level before. Hopefully I will be able to limit my fouls."
That being said, the battle of the big men did several times go Stanford's way. Lopez was able to block and redirect a number of shots, while also scoring on offense.
"He is my brother, but I think he did really well," beams Brook Lopez . "He had a couple good blocks and good offensive moves, for the time that he was in. I think he did really well."
"I think I did okay," the healthy brother allows. "He's a great player, and I just looked to limit his scoring ability because he's a very good scorer. He's very talented and crafty with the ball."
The visiting Thunderbirds of the University of British Columbia do not bring a Fazekas to the floor, but they have a handful of big forwards who will provide another tune-up test for Lopez.
"They have big guys who can step out and shoot it," the freshman shares from the UBC scouting report. "Their big guys are really strong, and they crash the boards a lot. They're really big on offensive rebounding."
While it is most immediately obvious that Lopez must control his foul trouble, he also is a developing offensive weapon. The consensus scouting report at the time that the Lopez twins committed to Stanford in January 2005 was that Robin is the defensive talent and Brook is superior offensively. Those distinctions have become blurry since, with Brook increasingly asserting himself as a shotblocker and Robin developing his face-up game and jumpshot.
The man who developed Stanford's post players for most of the last decade was Eric Reveno, but he was hired as the head coach of the University of Portland this past spring. Replacing him is the former Cardinal assistant who taught Reveno when he played in the late 1980s. Doug Oliver is now Trent Johnson's righthand man, after the last eight years as head coach at Idaho State. Oliver worked hand-in-hand to build the "Stanford offense" with Mike Montgomery from 1986-1998, and now he is back in that role with Johnson.
"[Reveno] is a great big man coach, though we still have Coach Oliver," Robin Lopez comments. "He's really big on ducking strong, having big hands and having a big, wide stance."
Under Oliver's tutelage, there are already visible and tangible improvements in Lopez' offensive arsenal. Brother Brook says that you can say a greater intensity and confidence in Robin's post moves, just in the past two months since he arrived at Stanford.
"For all the people that have said he's a defender-only and that I'm the better offensive player, it can be seen that he's just as good an offensive player that I am," Brook observes. "He's just in the post the whole time."
Another important cog who had his minutes somewhat limited in Reno, although not due to foul trouble, was point guard Mitch Johnson. The sophomore is Stanford's lone captain for the 2006-07 season, as voted by the players. He also returns after starting 20 games and averaging 22.5 minutes last year as a freshman. Johnson grabbed the reins of this young team during the off-season, orchestrating (and at times enforcing) their schedule of workouts in the weight room and on the basketball court. He is the team leader on and off the court and will run the show on offense.
Much rests on the shoulders of Johnson. How efficiently can he assist a talented albeit horribly inexperienced surrounding cast? Can his decision-making mirror that of an upperclassman? Will he hit open jumpshots, and in particular three-pointers beyond last year's 28.3%?
Despite those questions, the captain sat a good deal on Friday while Trent Johnson instead played fifth-year senior Carlton Weatherby and freshman Da'Veed Dildy, who are both poor on college experience.
"Carlton is a kid who walked on and earned a scholarship and hasn't played at this level," the Cardinal coach explains. "I wanted Carlton and Da'Veed Dildy to get as many minutes as possible against an experienced team."
Trent Johnson has continually declared his confidence in Mitch Johnson (no relation) as his point guard. The third-year Stanford head coach points out that the 6'1" floor general suffered a knee injury the summer before his freshman year, which indeed derailed his conditioning and timing. After a healthy spring and summer this off-season, Johnson is clearly in superior physical condition. There are still some improvements his head coach would like to see this fall, however.
"Some of his decision-making, in the short time that we have gone up and down against each other, hasn't been what I would have liked," Trent Johnson says. "He worked extremely hard on his outside shot. And he's played better. Last year, he was injured. Now he's healthy and stronger."
Mitch Johnson is one of the three players the Cardinal head coach feels are known quantities, alongside Prowitt and Finger.
"I pretty much know what I'm going to get from Peter when he's healthy: left-shoulder jump hook, rebounding and being physical," says Trent Johnson. "Taj is going to defend and going to rebound. There isn't going to be any drastic changes in terms of what Taj does offensively. Taj is who he is. Mitch Johnson is going to run our team. He is going to make decisions; he's going to have to defend at the point-of-attack; and he's going to have to knock down the open jumpshot consistently."
Those would have been three of Stanford's five starters at the beginning of this season, if not for Prowitt's broken bone in his knee suffered during the Cardinal's first full practice in mid-October. Finger went down with back spasms 11 days ago, and only yesterday did he return to practice for the first time. Finger is expected to play limited minutes off the bench this evening against British Columbia, provided that his back did not respond poorly to Monday's practice. Johnson says that Prowitt is "maybe two weeks out, maybe a little more."
With those two juniors missing, the starting five will including a freshman in Lopez and three sophomores (Johnson, Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill). The lone upperclassman in the starting lineup is senior Fred Washington, who has battled inconsistency and injuries the last three years at Stanford. A reshuffled coaching staff has breathed new life into the 6'5" athlete. Washington has been tasked with the difficulty of playing both forward positions. He is naturally a small forward, but he has shown real contributions in certain match-up situations at power forward.
Most importantly, Washington is showing thus far in the preseason better discipline and intensity on defense, along with an offensive identity that matches what the coaches are instructing. Trent Johnson has his fingers crossed that the fourth-year forward is finally turning the corner for the Cardinal.
"I want Fred to do what exactly he is been doing this year," the head coach declares. "Stay healthy, be one of our best perimeter defenders, bring a lot of energy and understand his role offensively. Make good decisions in the open court. That's it."
The injuries greatly complicate the Cardinal picture in this most uncertain of seasons, which makes tonight's exhibition more interesting than usual. No player on the roster earned so much as Honorable Mention All Pac-10 honors last year. Stanford has not been without that returning to its roster since 1995. There are questions a-plenty to be answered this evening, with the Siena Saints and the regular season opener just four days away. This amalgam of parts has to quickly come together as a team.
"Exhibitions are exhibitions, and we have to find out as much we can about our basketball team before Saturday," Trent Johnson says. "The bottom line is to get out there and understand our substitution patterns and rotations defensively and offensively."
"The practices have been working toward the goal of developing us as a team," adds Robin Lopez. "We just want to make strides individually and as a team. We want to come together, and by league [play] we want to be clicking."
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