10 Takeaways: MBB vs. USC

Before the nationally televised tilt with UCLA on Sunday evening, we take a look at the highlights and lessons from Stanford's big win and record-breaking performance against USC. It was a big night for not only Brook Lopez, but also Robin Lopez, Mitch Johnson, team defense and more. We present a series of 10 insightful observations, opinions and statistical notes from the 65-50 Stanford victory.

*  One of the quiet early developments in this game came when Brook Lopez blocked his first shot.  The first of a dozen victim was Abdoulaye N'diaye, on USC's second possession and first shot attempt in the second minute of the game.  N'diaye immediately afterward was seen slapping away at the hands of Lopez in visible frustration.  USC head coach Tim Floyd pulled N'diaye to the bench seconds later, only allowing him to return for token action for less than two minutes later in the half and then the final garbage minute at the end of regulation.  The Trojans play upperclassmen at 30 minutes each of the guard and wing positions, but they rest heavily upon freshmen and sophomores in the post.  The one significant exception is N'diaye, a 6'11" senior center who had started 12 of 20 games and brings athleticism and experience in the paint.  He is USC's second best rebounder and shotblocker on a per-minute basis, while also shooting 60% from the field on the offensive end.  Lopez got into his head, and Floyd would not continue with him.  Playing instead was 6'9" sophomore forward Keith Wilkinson, who to these eyes could not rebound, defend or approach anything offensively threatening.  Stanford played with the Lopez twins possessing size advantages in the paint all night, which was a contributing factor to the defensive, rebounding and shotblocking domination.

*  Brook Lopez is an emotional creature.  (Brother Robin Lopez is as well, though in a somewhat more explosive manner I saw during off-season intrasquad pickup games.  It earned him the nickname "Beast" from teammates, coming when he would erupt during some rebounding battles.  I thought it could prove a liability for the freshman center, though it has been a pleasant surprise to not see that during the season.)  What can happen and has happened with Brook Lopez this season is a frustration that arises from either fouls or failures scoring the basketball.  He then steps outside of the gameplan on both ends of the floor and tries to force things, taking a bad shot on offense or reaching from a bad position on defense.  You have seen him pulled to the bench when his emotions get the best of him.  That is the dark side.  The good side of this curious creature is the great confidence he has in his abilities when he is "feeling it."  Lopez can spiral into magnificence and become the top playmaker on the floor.  You could see that from him right off the bat Thursday night, attempting a long perimeter jumper on Stanford's first possession.  On the second possession, he leapt for an offensive rebound and went right to the basket to score.  On the other end, he blocked N'diaye.  Lopez was right out of the gates "feeling it," and he scored Stanford's first three baskets and six points.  What is less obvious is how he played in control on the defensive end, blocking 10 shots while picking up just two personal fouls (one of which was an offensive foul).  Lopez played until the 35th minute of the game before his third foul hit.  He came into the game with a reputation and repeated behavior of swinging away on block attempts and frequently drawing whistles.  Lopez had a ratio of more than 2-to-1 on fouls-to-blocks before his breakthrough performance.

*  For the sake of both an entertaining recap and archival purposes, let's catalog the school-record 12 blocked shots by Brook Lopez (shattering the previous mark of six blocks).  Abdoulaye N'diaye (1), Lodrick Stewart (2), Gabriel Pruitt (2), Nick Young (3), Taj Gibson (3) and Dwight Lewis (1).  Stanford head coach Trent Johnson said afterward that Brook Lopez benefited from a favorable match-up in his record-setting block party, but the truth is that Lopez notched many of his swats on guards and wings, offering help on weakside defense and against driving perimeter players.  Lopez was an equal-opportunity abuser on this evening.

*  Take stock for a moment of the development of both of the Lopez twins.  At the time they verbally committed to Stanford two years ago, Robin was clearly the center with talents focused on the defensive end of the floor, and Brook was the offensive specialist.  What Chris Jaenike and I saw last spring when we watched the twin towers practicing in San Diego the week of the McDonald's All-American Game was a convergence of the brothers' talents.  Robin was attempting and converting some post moves and face-up jumpshots which were new and improved, while Brook was doing a surprising job defending against the best big men in the nation.  This season at Stanford, both brothers are continuing their respective paths to a more complete arsenal of offensive and defensive talents.  The labels we had once given to Robin and Brook, pigeon-holing their abilities and roles, are being radically revised.  Both are dangerous scorers in the low and high posts, and both can be scary game-changers on defense.

*  With my eyes, I only noticed USC playing zone defense on a single possession in this game.  It came around the 11-minute mark of the first half, with the Trojans in a 2-3 zone.  Mitch Johnson brought the ball up and passed to Fred Washington on the left wing, and the top of the Trojans defense moved.  Washington gave it back to Johnson up top, who quickly whipped a pass to the right wing to Anthony Goods.  Goods was left with a wide-open three-pointer, and he canned it.  Crisp ball movement by the Cardinal, and not the best job by USC in that defense, which is probably why Tim Floyd stayed away from it the rest of the game.  It is a wise strategy to defend Stanford with a zone when Johnson, Washington and the Lopez twins are all on the floor together, as was the case on that possession.  It will go a long way toward helping the Stanford season if the Cardinal can continue to move the ball and find an open shot for a shooter like Goods, Lawrence Hill or Landry Fields as happened here.

*  Sophomore combo guard Anthony Goods drained just one perimeter jumper in the entire game (he banked home another), with his shot off by a good margin on his misses.  Stanford during this season has many times lived or died with Goods' jumpshooting, and with only two players on the entire roster (including sophomore forward Lawrence Hill) who shoot 30% or higher from three-point range, the Cardinal offense can have disastrous problems when Goods is bad.  This game proved that the team is evolving past that necessity.  Goods scored just eight points in the game until he was fouled and hit two free throws in the final garbage minute, yet Stanford led almost the entire game by double digits.  He was neither a significant nor productive part of the offense, playing just eight minutes of point guard and making more turnovers than field goals, yet the Cardinal cruised.  For certain, Stanford will be better when Goods fills it up on offense, but this game was an encouraging indication that Stanford is becoming a healthier ballclub that does not rest much of its fate on one player's shoulders.  Good defenses will find ways to take away one weapon, but a more balanced arsenal stands a better chance of weathering opponents' tactics and individual players' poor outings.

*  I said it a few weeks ago and still believe it to be true.  The upside of this Stanford team and season is on defense.  Young players will have up-and-down offensive performances, and there are serious liabilities in this team's perimeter offense.  But they have the size, length, athleticism and chemistry to be one of the better defensive teams in a very tough Pac-10.  USC came into the game the #3 field goal percentage team in the league at 48.5%, yet they were held to 23.3% shooting in the first half and 28.4% shooting for the game.  In their last four games, the Cardinal have held opponents to 40.6% (Washington State), 29.4% (Oregon), 37.7% (Oregon State) and 28.4% (USC).  That is the surge and strength of this team, and it is more promising than any individual offensive outbursts that more prominently play in the headlines.  Looking more closely at the job against USC, consider the Trojan's top three scorers.  Nick Young was their leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, while also the Pac-10's #4 scorer and #5 field goal percentage (54.1%).  Primarily defended by Stanford sophomore Lawrence Hill, Young was held to 5-of-19 shooting.  Hill physically outplayed his small forward counterpart, running him as ragged as any player I can remember seeing.  Taj Gibson was being touted as perhaps the Freshman of the Year in the most talented ever freshman class in the conference, scoring 13.0 points per game and leading the Pac-10 in field goal percentage (63.2%).  Though more attention was paid to Brook Lopez' shotblocking, but brother Robin had most of the defensive match-up and stymied the USC center.  Gibson was just 5-of-13 in the game with four turnovers.  Lodrick Stewart came in averaging 13.9 points per game and was red-hot shooting the basketball from three-point range (44.2%, #5 in the conference).  He was 1-of-8 in the game and just 1-of-4 from deep.  Against a very good offensive team with some very talented offensive players, this has to stack up as Stanford's best defensive game of the year.

*  Did you feel a lump in your throat when Stanford substituted both Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez to the bench and brought in juniors Peter Prowitt and Taj Finger at the 13-minute mark of the first half?  When they are playing as well as they were against USC, the Lopez twins are tough to take out of the game.  You may have looked at the scoreboard at that moment and noted Stanford's nine-point lead.  How did the subs fare?  When Prowitt and Finger returned to the bench the Lopez twins came back into the game, Stanford led by 11 points.  Sometimes the scoreboard does not tell the whole tale, but Prowitt in particular made very positive contributions in those two and a half minutes.  He worked a two-man game with Mitch Johnson on a nice screen-and roll that ended with a nice lay-in.  Prowitt on the other end helped on a screen, flashing up top and then returning to his man to force USC to reset their offense.  He also grabbed a pair of rebounds.  Just because you are in love with the Lopez twins, don't snooze on what Prowitt can still bring this team.  Though he logged just three minutes, this was his best game since recently returning from his second injury of the year, and a sign of better yet to come.

*  He has had a rough stretch in recent weeks, but let's hear it for the game by sophomore point guard Mitch Johnson.  His minutes, role and productivity had all dwindled in the past month, along with his confidence.  It was a sad downward spiral.  We cannot be sure that this one game will turn him around, but it was a resoundingly positive performance.  With Goods not the best option against USC's defensive ball pressure, Johnson logged minutes early and often in this game.  When Stanford stormed ahead of the #25-ranked Trojans in the first half, Johnson dished six assists.  USC had four assists, by comparison.  Johnson also found a way to score, hitting two baskets.  One was a 22-foot three-pointer he hoisted when Dwight Lewis sagged six feet off him at the top of circle.  Another came in transition, hitting a 16-foot baseline jumper after a steal he snared on the other end.  Johnson's two steals were representative of a quiet talent he possesses - his quick hands on defense.  He isn't Brevin Knight, but Johnson has the fastest hands since at swiping the ball from unsuspecting opponents, particularly as they collect for a jumpshot.  Johnson's positive playmaking gave him visible confidence, manifesting in everything from his entry passes to five leaping rebounds.

*  Landry Fields has gone through cold, hot and now cold again streaks shooting the basketball.  That might be reason to sit the 6'6" freshman, yet he is averaging 14-plus minutes per game and logged an important 11 minutes against USC.  Fields did not shoot well, and in fact he did not attempt any three-pointers.  What is keeping Fields on the floor, when a cold-shooting freshman wing otherwise ought to ride the pine, is the breadth of his abilities and contributions.  Most role-playing freshmen at Stanford have had one thing they can offer, while the rest of their game is developmental.  This is not to say that Fields is anywhere close today to being a so-called complete player, but he has other things he can do well beyond jumpshooting.  You may remember my labeling him as a "springy athlete" when I reported on his recruitment, and you could see that Thursday night with his pair of impressive offensive rebounds, leaping high over the crowd to pull down the ball.  Fields one the first of those offensive boards, without hesitation, went back up into the air and hit an eight-foot jumper.  Probably his headiest and most impressive play came early in the second half, when he substituted for Brook Lopez after his seven-foot classmate was frustrated on an offensive foul.  USC was applying trapping pressure and trying to climb back into the game, cutting a 19-point deficit to 10.  The Trojans at the 16-minute mark extended two guards to defend at three-quarters court and left their other three defenders back.  Fields helped to break the initial press and then from halfcourt attacked the remaining USC defense.  He drove the lane and drew defenders, then dropped off a nice dime to Robin Lopez for an uncontested dunk.  That ended the USC run and their extended defensive pressure.  That play also started a 12-0 run for the Cardinal that built their lead to 22 points.

Bonus:  Sunday's game against #2-ranked UCLA now looms large, with the chance to pull within a game of first place in the Pac-10, the consensus top conference in the nation this season.  The teams' respective games on Thursday were both impressive and set the table for the only Pac-10 game to be played on this day.  The 5pm (PST) battle at Maples Pavilion will be broadcast nationally on Fox Sports Net, and you can expect the largest audience of the season to tune in.  The Bruins' ranking combined with the burgeoning hype surrounding the Lopez twins would be enough, but also remember that this Sunday game has little with which to compete for the national sports fan.  This Sunday is the break in the NFL season between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.  No other Top 25 action in college basketball will be played at that hour in the evening, as well.  All eyes will be watching.

Bonus:  Stanford has now recorded three straight wins at home versus ranked opponents:  Washington, Washington State and USC.  It seems like forever ago that the Cardinal could not hit the broad side of the barn at Maples Pavilion and had three disappointing losses.  These wins and losses will be best judged at the end of the season, but it is interesting to note that the Cardinal's three home losses all came against (at the time) unranked teams.


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