10 Takeaways: MBB vs. Cal

Two things stuck in the craw of Cardinal fans when Stanford dropped their meeting Wednesday night at Maples to Cal. These Bears are not very good, and the loss ended a 13-year home winning streak against them. Neither fact gives us much insight into this Stanford team and what the game taught us. For that, we take the plunge with 10 Takeaways.

*  Just when you thought the tides were shifting toward sophomore Anthony Goods taking over the backup point guard duties, fifth-year senior Carlton Weatherby substituted for sophomore Mitch Johnson at the 15:51 mark of the first half.  Weatherby played six minutes in the first half, coming not just in the early substitution but also three of the final minutes before halftime after Johnson picked up his second foul.  Weatherby showed in a brief stint last week at Arizona the defensive spark he can provide in the right situation off the bench, but it was ironically his defense against California that was a liability.  The point guard made two costly decisions of his aggression against Cal senior Ayinde Ubaka that allowed wide-open scores.  The first came when Weatherby decided to get into Ubaka's chest 35 feet away from the basket, after which Ubaka drove past him and pulled up for an uncontested jumper.  Later Weatherby gambled for a steal on a pass for Ubaka after a Cal defensive rebound, which let Ubaka run across halfcourt to lead a three-on-one break that ended with his tossing an easy alley-oop to Patrick Christopher.  Weatherby did make a positive play on offense immediately following that second gaffe, coming out of a timeout and driving to draw the defense, then dishing to freshman Robin Lopez for a dunk.  For the breadth of his minutes, though, Weatherby played outside of the gameplan in the phase of the game where he has a chance to contribute.  Unsurprisingly, the fifth-year senior did not come off the bench in the second half.  This game will be a learning tool for him.  Remember that Weatherby is young in game experience with just token minutes and few meaningful game situations the previous four years.

*  What went wrong with Stanford's offense after their early 8-2 lead in the first half?  There were two thematic problems that characterized the drought of eight-plus minutes in which the Cardinal scored only two points and a total of 12 and a half minutes with just two field goals.  First, Cal double- or triple-teamed either Robin Lopez or Brook Lopez when they touched the ball inside 10 feet.  There was at least one very nifty move to split or spin around the defense by each of them, but the end result of the play remained a shutout.  When did Brook Lopez finally score a bucket at 11:34 for the first Lopez field goal of the game (and his only make of the half)?  On a pivot on the low block when he had just a single Cal defender (Taylor Harrison) on him.  Robin Lopez did not get into the scoring until  The other failing for Stanford during its prolonged offensive agony came with its ballhandling, entry passes and decision-making.  Mitch Johnson had two errant entry passes attempted for Taj Finger that never touched the junior's hands and trickled out of bounds (one of which mysteriously does not appear in the official box score), plus another turnover on a bad charging foul when Johnson made a great dish to Lawrence Hill.  Brook Lopez turned the ball over twice within moments of entering the game - both times against a double-team.  Once came shuffling his feet and another came on a pass he rifled out of bounds.  The Lopez twins combined for five first-half turnovers.  Stanford had an uncharacteristic 11 turnovers (10 of them recorded officially) in the opening 20 minutes against just eight field goals.  The team looked completely different from some of the confident editions we have seen in other games.  This was a visible failure of composure by young players, ironically coming at the supposedly comfy confines of their home court.  Can Stanford as a team shoot very well?  Maybe, maybe not.  But the 25.8% from the field in the first half tracked with the turnovers and overall uncomposed play in my view.  Not coincidentally, the Cardinal improved to 43.3% in the second half, playing with fewer jitters and turning the ball over only twice.

*  Observers looked at the match-ups in this game and figured a strength remaining on this thin Cal roster was the scoring of 6'10" freshman Ryan Anderson, and in particular his outside shooting.  Wouldn't it be prudent for the Bears to play him on the perimeter, where the likely seven-footers to defend him in either Lopez would be less effective?  Well, Anderson stunningly attempted only two jumpshots in the first half that I could remember, both missed three-pointer.  His scoring in the game instead came almost completely from the low post, and it totaled just 12 points.  Anderson did finally hit one attempt outside the arc midway through the second half, and it was a Cardinal killer... even though it bricked off the back iron and backboard before flukishly falling through the net.  A couple thoughts to remember for the next match-up in Berkeley:  1) Anderson is much more skilled and crafty around the basket than people give him credit.  He is not just a long-distance bomber.  2) He probably will have and hit more jumpshots the next time these teams face.  Cal won this game despite that absent from the offense.

*  Anderson did have an impact on the game aside from his flukish triple falling.  Without touching the ball, Anderson along with fellow frosh Harrison enabled Ubaka to take over the game with the high screens they set from the opening tip through the final buzzer.  Cal's first field goal came when Anderson stepped out and set a screen against Johnson, which allowed Ubaka to drive for an eight-foot teardrop jumper.  Ubaka scored 15 points in the first half and 26 in the game, and nearly all of them came on plays that started with the high screen.  Two of his three-pointers in the first half were wide-open off these screens, and they didn't come against Johnson.  The first saw Goods defending the Cal senior while Johnson was defending Cal freshman Jerome Randle, and an Anderson screen caught Goods.  Later in the half it was Weatherby on the floor while Johnson was on the bench with two fouls, and a screen at the three-point line on the wing (again by Anderson) caught the Stanford point guard.  Cal ran the play over and over in the second half.  As I watched, I asked myself when I have ever seen one play called by one team so repeatedly.  My own answer: the Air Force game in November.

*  How do you defend against this?  The first thing to examine is how the Stanford players are coached in that particular game to handle the screens.  Against Arizona, we saw switches and hedges that worked with the exception of some mistakes by Brook Lopez.  Against Cal, I only noticed one instance where a Stanford player switched on the screen, and that was junior Taj Finger leaving home to follow Ubaka after being screened by Theo Robertson.  It was a glaring mistake, upon which Ubaka quickly capitalized by dishing to the undefended Robertson for an open jumper to finish the first half and extend the Cal lead to nine points.  Otherwise, Stanford's posts strictly stayed with their defender, while the guards were asked to run around the screen.  That was designed to foremost limit release opportunities for Anderson, Cal's leading scorer and offensive weapon.  That worked, but Ubaka erupted in his stead.  There was additionally a more subtle change at halftime in the defensive strategy against the screen.  The Stanford posts squeezed their man (usually Anderson) while the Stanford guards ran under the screen in the first half.  In the second half the posts hedged in a more normal Stanford fashion, and the guards ran over the top.  Ubaka beat Stanford both halves against both strategies.  At some point in the second half I was thinking that Stanford needed to try something else different.  My thought was that Stanford could try a possession here or there of zone defense, which can still be killed by a driving player or an open shooter but not by way of a screen.  What was the downside in trying some zone defense?  Stanford was killing Cal on the boards, and you can lose that when you don't have man-to-man responsibilities to box out.  Given the ultimate result of the game, it might have been worth a try regardless.  The change that finally was employed came at the 2:57 mark with Stanford down three points.  The Cardinal coaches put senior Fred Washington on Ubaka, hounding him away from the ball and denying the ball.  It succeeded in denying Ubaka the ball for that entire possession, with Cal having to create a desperation drive and shot that airballed in the final five seconds of the shot clock.  Cal was lucky enough for the errant ball to land in Anderson's hands, and he laid it off the glass with two seconds left.  In looking ahead to the rematch, Washington may or may not be an answer against Ubaka if he starts to get hot.  Washington fouled the Cal senior the very next possession away from the ball and sent him to the free throw line for two points.  He also fouled Ubaka in the one possession he defended him in the first half.

*  This was a perplexing game for the Lopez twins.  In just the previous Stanford outing against Arizona, we saw the synergies that came rebounding and with second-chance scoring when they played together on the floor.  When Brook and Robin Lopez played together in the first half against Cal, though, it was a surprisingly unsuccessful combination.  Cal defensively clogged the paint, double- or triple-teaming either Lopez on almost every touch.  The pair of seven-footers shot a combined 3-of-13 from the field and turned the ball over five times, while the team shot 25.8% and turned it over 11 times.  Neither Lopez could shoot the ball well on that night in that traffic, and they had glaring problems handling the ball and receiving passes.  In the second half, the Stanford staff made a marked change by playing one and only one Lopez on the floor at a time.  Robin started the half, and Brook spelled him, then cycling back and forth.  Not for one second did they play together.  On paper, as well as citing the experience seen in Tucson, one would expect that move to hurt Stanford's rebounding and curtail those great putbacks and second-chance points.  Surprisingly, Stanford pulled down more offensive rebounds in the second half off fewer missed field goals and scored 16 second-chance points versus the six of the first half.  Overall, the offense cleared up and cleaned up, shooting at a higher percentage with a better flow and fewer turnovers.  The Arizona game showed that is not necessarily always going to be the case, which teaches that the decision of how to employ the Lopez twins can be a situational and game-by-game decision.

*  This was another high energy game from Washington, who similar to some of the other challenged offensive outings by this team was a big spark.  His offensive rebounds (including four in the second half), not just in number by also in their timing, were huge.  His drives and distributing (five second-half assists) of the basketball keyed a troubled offense.  It is not an accident that a senior is playing more composed and more consistently in his fearless performances relative to the fearful youngsters.  What this team needs is for some of that to rub off...  Washington's 18-foot jumper he attempted was a rare but painful reminder of that liability, and he had a couple bad turnovers.  But none of this was glaring relative to the team performance in this game.  Moreover, his decision making is improved this year.  Where Washington can improve from this game was his fouls.  He took himself off the floor for the last seven minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul.  His fouls in the second half came late enough that he did not need to go to the bench, though Washington has now picked up four fouls in each of Stanford's three Pac-10 games

*  The silent killer for Stanford in this game was free throw shooting.  They left 11 points at the charity stripe on 18-of-29 shooting, while Cal hit 11-of-13.  That is the ballgame.  In particular, Stanford had the advantage in the foul ledger and in the number of trips to the free throw line during the meat of the second half while this game was being decided.  After shooting 8-of-11 in the first half, the Cardinal choked at the line with 10-of-19 in the second half.  Two of those misses came from each of Hill and Brook Lopez, while Robin Lopez missed three times.  The latter Lopez shot the ball well at the stripe to start the season, 89% through his first four games, but he has slumped and in Pac-10 games is now 43% on free throws.  The fact that these two teams experience such disparate percentages at the free throw line is not surprising.  Cal came into the game #1 in the nation at 78.6%, while Stanford was just 64.3%.

*   This really isn't about Stanford, but it was mind-numbing enough to merit mention.  Leading in a four-point game with 67 seconds to go, Cal tries to push a two-on-four break rather than dribble out even five seconds of clock.  Freshman Patrick Christopher is at fault for taking the ball to the hole, but the senior Ubaka for running the break and throwing the pass that led him into the paint instead of dribbling clock.  It would have been a horrible decision even if Christopher garnered free throws because that would have put another possession into a game that was about to end.  Robin Lopez had a tremendous block instead, which sent Stanford running the other way and put Hill on the free throw line with chances to shave the game down to two points.  You almost believed at that point that Stanford just might win simply because Cal could make a play like that.

*  Stanford certainly had a crack at this game in the final minute.  Though Hill missed one of two free throws, the Cardinal made a defensive stop and called a timeout across halfcourt with 17.8 seconds to go.  That was time to take a three-point shot to tie; it was also time to shoot a two-pointer, foul and have another offensive possession.  Why was it defensible for Stanford to immediately take the shot from downtown, rather than work it inside for an easier deuce?  Remember that Cal is the best free throw shooting team in the country, and it would have been a near-lock for them to knock down both free throws.  Thus, Stanford would have again trailed by three points and had fewer ticks left in the game.

Bonus:  Despite the offensive, defensive and free throw failings of the evening, the game probably turned near the 15-minute mark of the second half on a pair of possessions.  Goods ran his defender around Brook Lopez up top, while taking the hand-off and driving to the basket.  Goods pulled up and hit a floater that was waved off with official Michael Irving calling a charging foul.  Not only was Eric Vierneisel not in position and slid his feet to try and meet Goods, but the shot was released well before the contact.  The basket should have counted, and the foul should probably have been against Vierneisel for sliding underneath the shooter.  That's a three-point swing at a time when it was a six-point game.  It took Stanford nearly seven more minutes before they could cut the gap to three points.  Moreover, on the other end on the ensuing Cal possession, Ubaka twice on the same drive extended his arm and pushed Johnson off.  No call; Ubaka misses; Cal puts in the offensive rebound.  Eight-point game.


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