Unraveling the Riddle

This is no longer a fluke. We now have a full-blown "Sphinx" situation for Stanford Men's Hoops. Why do the Cardinal, a young team, play their best games away from home while dropping bad losses at Maples Pavilion? The trend continued today with a marvelous win before a crowd of nearly 14,000 at Virginia, previously unbeaten at home. Trent Johnson offers us answers and insight to the curious Card.

We knew one thing coming into this season.  With the abundance of youth not only on the Stanford Basketball roster but playing major minutes and roles for the Cardinal, there would be a Maalox procession of rollercoaster performances this season.  What we did not foresee was the strength of these youngsters playing their best games on the road, while dropping their worst performances at home.  Stanford has three of its four losses at home, while its best RPI wins and arguably its best five overall performances (including the loss at Arizona) have come away from Maples Pavilion.

Between two perfect examples of this confounding Cardinal season, a stinker of an offensive night losing at home to Cal and a gem of a gutty road win at Virginia, we spoke with Stanford head coach Trent Johnson for insight into this team.  Some critics have charged that lineups, rotations and substitution patterns have been the difference between wins and losses, but Johnson says that he has handled his roster consistently throughout this season.  There are not different rules for lineups, point guard play or utilization of the Lopez twins when he is at home versus on the road.

"Our substitution pattern since Brook Lopez came back has been pretty much the same," the coach explains.  "We come right away with him or Taj Finger.  Then we come with Landry [Fields].  Then if we think Carlton [Weatherby] matches up, we put Carlton in.  Will Paul was in the rotation until he got hurt.  As of late, and we're talking about league games, we have had Anthony [Goods] on the floor with Fred [Washington], Lawrence [Hill], Brook and Robin [Lopez].  We did that against Arizona, and we were able to be effective against a good team."

"The chemistry on this team right now is fine.  I think the main thing for us right now is getting guys on the floor who can knock down shots," Johnson says.  "The bottom line for us right now is if we sustain our effort and consistency on defense and rebounding, which have been good, and taking care of the ball, where we have been average - we have to get guys on the floor who can knock down shots."

This is the surprising part.  Shooters can be streaky and unpredictable, but most of them are better at home than on the road.  The basket may be the same height, and the three-point line may be the same distance, but the feel of the home floor and that familiar backdrop behind the basket where you have shot tens of thousands of jumpers in the past year make a difference.  The comfort that comes mentally and emotionally when in front of a home crowd can also be a significant factor.

Stanford has been quite the opposite.  In their home losses, the Cardinal have had tremendous struggles offensively.  The Air Force and Santa Clara games were two of the most awful offensive shooting performances - not just jumpshooting, but also finishing around the basket - in recent memory for this program.  Is the team running a bad offense only in home games, which cannot create good shots for players?  Common sense, our visual experience at those games and some statistics from the coaching staff's charting of these home losses tells us otherwise.

"In our three home losses at the half, against Air Force we are 9-for-28, against Santa Clara we are 4-for-27 and against Cal we are 8-for-31.  That is a combined 21-for-86, which is roughly 24 percent," Johnson rattles off.  "From the three, we are 1-for-7, 2-for-9 and 1-for-6 for a combined 4-for-22, which is 18 percent.  What is the alarming fact to me is that out of those 86 shots, 56 are uncontested or where you didn't finish, so to speak.  Therein lies the issue.  Our substitution pattern wants to get guys on the floor who can knock down shots and to where they also remain confident and aggressive."

"Anthony and Landry are better shooters than their percentage.  They are better basketball shooters than their percentages - no question about it," the coach continues.  "Brook is better than what he is shooting 44 percent from the field.  Landry and Anthony are basically shooting 33%.  And it's not like they are being guarded.  The defenses that we have been seeing are nothing like ones we are going to see.  It has nothing to do with chemistry.  It has to do with knocking down shots."

One theory put forth by some observers, after watching Goods take a number of shots well behind the three-point line Wednesday against Cal, is that the sophomore shooting guard should be more aggressive about taking shots closer to the arc.

"Nobody on our basketball team is taking shots in games that they do not take in practice and make at a high clip," Johnson retorts.  "Yeah, Landry and Anthony may take a bad shot here and there, but when Anthony shoots those deep threes, he has made those.  A majority of Anthony's misses are right on the line, or when he gets into the lane and has trouble.  But he has that range.  He shoots the NBA three just as well as the regular three."

When you chart the players and see that they are missing high-percentage offensive opportunities, and you know that they are better shooters than they are showing, then there is something going on.  Young kids should play loose at home and tight on the road.  As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman would ask, what is their major malfunction?

"This is not a good group of kids, this is a great group of kids," Johnson begins.  "I know in the back of my mind that the reason we are struggling at home is because they are trying too hard.  They want to please everybody.  Then when you go on the road, it's them against the world and everyone is booing them.  At home in front of their school and the student body, they are embarrassed when they don't play well.  With this group, it is very evident that it is very important to them.  I went after the [Cal] game to ask Taj how his shoulder was, and Taj was as emotional as ever.  He said, 'Coach, I don't care about my shoulder.'"

The challenge for Trent Johnson and his coaching staff is thus not playcalling or Xs and Os.  Instead, it is a management issue of how to ease these kids who are too self-conscious and too tightly wound, particularly at home.  Part of that effort is educating shooters on how to handle shots not going down.

"You want to keep Mitch [Johnson] and Anthony, who is a shooter, in rhythm," Johnson says.  "Anthony and Landry are shooters and guys who rely so much on jumpshots, so they are the ones who need to be in a rhythm.  Right now, the biggest problem with Anthony is that it's all in his head.  He's letting missed shots and his percentages define his ability to help this basketball team.  Most shooters do that.  Landry is like that.  That's what the coaches and I talk with Landry and Anthony constantly about.  Lawrence is not a shooter so much as he is a scorer because he can go inside and outside.  When you talk about Brook and his rhythm, it's a different animal just because he hasn't played; now he is getting into a situation where he is starting to feel his rhythm and starting to feel comfortable."

"The thing I have to make a decision is to sit Mitch or Anthony to get them to relax," the coach confesses.  "I think what we are going to do from here going forward is to rotate guys for the rhythm of our basketball team during the course of the game."

Which move did Johnson make with his two top guards?  He sat both, actually.  Mitch Johnson sat to start the first half, while Goods sat to start the second half.  Brook Lopez moved into the starting lineup in their stead for both halves.  The result?  An upset 76-75 win in front of nearly 14,000 fans at Virginia, winning at the new $130 million house where the Cavaliers clipped Arizona, spanked Gonzaga and were undefeated this season.

Trent Johnson told us that this would be a "gametime" decision, influenced by study of the opponent and match-ups.  Engendering rhythm is a pretty nebulous challenge that could very well present different answers in different games - in how the starting lineup looks, what rotations are employed and who plays down the stretch.  What we saw in Charlottesville at the John Paul Jones Arena today may not necessarily be repeated Thursday against Washington or Saturday against Washington State.  We don't know what to expect, but we do know what the Cardinal coaches are trying to do and can better understand their actions and what we are witnessing going forward.


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