1. Okay, I am convinced now. I now have proof that the Sixth Man Club is far from the best student section in the conference, let alone the nation. Consider some of Oregon's antics:
- A blow-up poster of American Idol Justin Guarini, with the caption "Robin's other twin." For all the Mustafa Shakur – Steve Urkel comparisons, Guarini really does look like the Lopez triplet, I have to admit. Judge for yourselves.
- Dry-erase boards instead of signs. Simple idea, but devastatingly effective.
- Students are packed from half-court to underneath one of the baskets – that is about three times the proportion of students at Maples. Plus, there are fewer (quiet) donors in between the noisemaking students and the action.
- All the stuff we think is so clever they take for granted, such as screaming at the opposing coach to sit down or going nuts on threes.
- My travel buddy tells me of watching an Arizona-Oregon game at the Pit on television. Late-game timeout, Lute Olson huddles up the Arizona players and is drawing up some play. Great, except then the Oregon cheerleaders take the floor for a routine, and the entire team starts watching them, instead of Lute, who flipped. Knowing what I know about Arizona, I will believe it, and suffice it to say Oregon's cheerleaders are easily the most attractive group I have seen in person.
2. Moving onto on-court analysis, Stanford's number one Achilles heal is guarding penetration. In Stanford's last home action, Derrick Low sliced and diced through the lane with relative impunity, and Thursday night, just about everyone on Oregon got in on the act. (For the record, the fouls were 90 percent fair, and nothing that these players are not used to, having played with super-sensitive Pac-10 officials their entire college careers.) The basic problem is no perimeter defender is quick enough to keep up with an Aaron Brooks. Mitch Johnson made this painfully obvious about three times in the first three minutes, and Anthony Goods got beat to the point of attack frequently against the Washington schools. Crazy idea, but how about putting Fred Washington on the opposing team's primary slasher? I would have liked to see if he could have slowed Brooks down.
3. On the other end of the court, the related problem is Stanford's second-most pressing offensively in my opinion – Fred Washington is the only guy in red who can beat an opponent off the dribble. (Okay, and Anthony Goods on rare occasion – usually when a teammate has already cleared the lane.) Sure, Lawrence Hill and Anthony Goods are strong enough shooters, and the Lopez twins strong enough scorers that this has not been fatal yet, but consider two points:
a) The Lopez twins should be options 1 and 1A offensively. Given Stanford's difficulties actually passing them the ball from the perimeter, driving and dishing is the only remaining way to get them the ball. Plus, the Lopez twins have better shots at rebounding missed 12-foot floaters (shorter rebounds) than they do missed 23-foot Anthony Goods bombs.
b) Given Stanford's difficulties defending the dribble-drive, opponents are going to be drawing a lot of fouls on Stanford. The Cardinal need to be able to reduce this disparity by driving effectively and picking up fouls on their opponents.
4. We have alluded to it, but the most dire offensive problem, to my eyes, is the inability to feed the ball to the posts. More specifically, I refer to the inability to get the ball in the hands of its two most potent weapons, weapons that just happened to have a five-plus inch advantage over much of Oregon's undersized lineup. Mitch Johnson is very much the exception to this complaint, but no other player can feed the posts with consistency. If you do not believe me, notice that the first 20 seconds of many Stanford possessions just consist of the ball getting passed back and forth around the three-point arc, with the team trying in vain to find an opening. From doing KZSU play-by-play, I have called "Anthony Goods… to Fred Washington… back to Goods… back to Washington…" so much that I am starting to count these swing passes, and not sheep, as I try to fall asleep. At least Fred Washington tried to find the twins Thursday night – though he fed them with sloppy lob passes that led to two of his three turnovers. I have my critiques of the Lopez twins, and I am sure they can do more to establish position and present themselves for passes, but Mitch Johnson has no problem finding them, so I think the fault lays at the hands of the would-be passers. Plus, they have six inches on many of their defenders – just throw it up there!
5. Mitch Johnson has learned to stop shooting. 1-of-1 for three points on Thursday – that would have been 1-of-5 last year, as Mitch would not have quit while ahead. (Of course, he can better afford not to shoot it this year given his teammates.) Couple that with his ability to find his teammates with beautiful entry passes (one to Hill and one to Robin Lopez, both leading to scores down the stretch, immediately jump to mind) and I am warming up to the thought of him seeing more minutes. Earlier this year, I honestly thought "no way, no how" figuring Stanford would essentially be playing 4-on-5 offensively with him in the lineup. (Plus, his lack of quickness is still a defensive liability.) And on any other Pac-10 roster, I think Landry Fields starts ahead of him, but on this particular team, his unique ability to find the Lopez twins means he effectively jump-starts the offense. Bottom line: I am still not warm on him seeing 30 minutes a game, but now, I am at least open to it.
6. Lopez twins I – As much as we have discussed their offensive potential in the points above, right now, the Lopez twins are making more of an impact on defense. Against Oregon, Robin Lopez had the best defensive game of his college career. He was visibly altering shots of posts and guards driving the lane alike, and with block after block, Oregon players increasingly took notice. It grew to the point where Robin would actually allow Maarty Leunen to drive past him to two feet under the hoop because both players knew that Leunen would not dare go up with it from there. I have never seen a player's blocking ability so alter the fundamental calculus of the game.
Unfortunately, the defensive dominance of the twins actually limits their efficacy. Just as football teams will never throw against a top-notch cornerback, limiting his playmaking production, the Lopez twins' presence forces opponents into a lot more outside shots. The Lopez twins cannot easily block those, nor can they contend as effectively for the longer rebounds that result.
7. Lopez twins II – My major beef with the twins is that they need to become as aggressive on offense as they are on defense. I think all would agree that while they, Robin in particular, have established their presence as shotblockers, they have not established themselves offensively the same way. And sure, offense takes longer than defense to develop, but I also think it's a mentality thing. On defense, they have no choice but to play down low and throw their bodies into the mix – and look at the results. So when they have the ball on offense, go to the hoop for godsakes! Throw around your size to your advantage! The little six-foot hooks or turnaround jumpers look beautiful, but they should be used as a change of pace, not a primary move. Why? For one thing, it is easier to score from three feet out than from nine, all else being equal. For two, it is just psychological – you want to take it to your opponent, be the aggressor. Finally, Stanford is staring at a huge free throw deficit for reasons discussed in points above, and the Lopez twins need to attack the hoop and do their part to try to reduce this margin and get opposing posts in foul troubles. That, in turn, will keep these opposing posts from attacking the Lopez' as aggressively on the other end of the court, keeping the twins out of foul trouble and in the ballgame longer.
8. There is no way I can make it through 10 points without a rant, so here goes: stop compounding the Lopez twins out of laze! I have done it above (though I am consciously aware of it and try to resist when not appropriate), but so have the majority of Bay Area professional journalists I follow, often without critical awareness. It is not fair to either of them, both great players in their own right. In particular, it is not fair at all to Robin, who is playing at a much higher level than his brother right now. In fact, he is the team MVP at the halfway mark, no doubt in my mind. (My reasoning: on offense, it is essentially a tie between him, Washington, Hill and Goods, but on defense Lopez blows all three of those guys away). In fact, if the Pac-10 held a draft, call me crazy, but I think Robin Lopez would have a legitimate argument to be picked first. Hard to see posts in the conference competing with this guy for the next three (cross your fingers) years.
9. I had suspected coming into Thursday night that Stanford had a festering problem with putting an opponent away, but no one was talking about it because of the three straight dramatic wins. I wondered whether Stanford would have the mental discipline to win a game against a quality opponent by a wide margin. And sure enough, right after Stanford jumped up by eight in the second half, Oregon turned on the pressure. The Ducks were fighting for their lives, but Stanford knew this – would they be able to match Oregon's intensity? Instead, Oregon quickly buried an open three-pointer; then the Cardinal promptly coughed over a turnover. It is a small sample size to be sure, but Washington State made the same run the game previous. At the end of the day, this team needs to learn to motivate itself, independent of the time or score flashing on the Jumbotron. If my hunch is correct, this falls first and foremost on Trent Johnson's shoulders.
10. I think the narrow loss at No. 9 Oregon shows that this team can play with anyone and is only going to get better. Consider, the three games previous (at Virginia, vs. the Washington schools) were probably their three best to-date. I was at each of those games and I was at the Pit Thursday night – the Card's performance at the Pit was better yet, and significantly so. Stanford has to have the confidence when they head to UCLA or Washington later this season that they can play with anyone, anywhere. If the sparks light up in the Pac-10 (or, knock on wood, NCAA) Tournament, this team could beat all but 10 teams in the country. Perhaps the scariest part is that next year, I would have to think the Card would be Pac-10 co-favorites at worst, returning a lineup of Lopez, Lopez, Fields, Goods and Hill. If Fred Washington returns, I think Stanford can think about preseason Top 10 in the nation. The year after, if everyone returns and progresses, imagine a lineup of Lopez (junior), Lopez (junior), Fields (junior), Goods (senior) and Hill (senior). I honestly think that could be preseason Top Five.
I do not always agree with Trent Johnson's gameday decisions, but whether through luck, hard work, or, most likely, a combination of the two, he is bringing some of the best recruits to Stanford in years. (For evidence, just consider how young the players seeing significant minutes this year are.) Bottom line: I think the glory years are coming back. All right now!
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