10 Takeaways: MBB vs. Cal

After failing to reach 80 points during the first half of Pac-10 play, Stanford went on the road Saturday for a rematch against a Cal team that upset them at Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal came away with a 90-71 win at Berkeley that was one of its most complete performances of the year. We present a series of 10 insightful observations, opinions and statistical notes from the Stanford win.

* This was a tremendous bounce-back game for senior Fred Washington, who had been mired in a mini-funk the last few weeks. Whether the defenses had taken it away from him, or if he had gotten away from it himself, those drives to the basket that keyed his scoring and creating/assists had dissipated. Washington instead had picked up more offensive charges of late, while his assist-to-turnover ratio was plummeting. That "point forward" label he earned when he led the team and was near the top of the conference with a 2.03 A/TO ratio had eroded with his 10 assists versus 16 turnovers the following five Pac-10 games. Washington was starting to look like his pre-senior self again. This game against Cal was a triumphant return to the Fred Washington we had seen through mid-January, and he started off on the right foot on Stanford's opening possession. Defended by Omar Wilkes (his recruiting nemesis of four-plus years ago, when the Cardinal favored Wilkes until he committed to Kansas), Washington took him off the dribble and slashed for a lay-in. Washington had that working all night, scoring 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and 7-of-9 from the free throw line. I thought only one shot all night from Washington was outside his abilities and the offense, throwing up a 12-foot hook. His passing was equally commendable, finding teammates in the paint and on the wing when defenses collapsed on his drives. Washington also assisted on the break and fed the post with the lob pass. All totaled, he had eight assists versus just one turnover. Throw in six rebounds (three offensive, which gave him putback scoring) and just one foul, and this was the best all-around game of Washington's season - maybe his college career. How did he pull out of his slump and deliver this caliber of a performance? It's hard to say, but it was noticeable in the opening minutes of the game how energized and focused Washington was playing - assisting, rebounding, driving and scoring. He kept that up throughout both halves. The style and quality of Cal's defense also played a role, but Washington made great decisions on the floor, which is what is encouraging.

* I also thought this was one of the most complete offensive games from Lawrence Hill this year. Some observers may think that the sophomore forward lost his shooting rhythm in the Gonzaga game Wednesday night after he sat on the bench with two fouls, but Hill shot the ball well when he started that second half, hitting two of his first three jumpers. He instead hit a wall when he moved from small forward to power forward late in the second half. Hill was an offensive mess, stumbling to the ground and turning the ball over his first touch when he attempted to post up. Hill missed his remaining four jumpshots spanning the end of regulation and both overtime periods. Saturday night at Cal, Hill once again shot the three-pointer well early from the wing. He has done that with such frequency this year that it no longer surprises. What caught my attention was his play in the second half when Stanford went to a smaller lineup and employed him at the 'four'. Hill had immediate success, backing down Theo Robertson and then turning to hit a nice six-footer off the glass. His next attempt was an eight-footer, which he also hit. Then a turnaround jumper in the high post, pulling Taylor Harrison away from the basket. Then the Cal defense lost him on an in-bounds play, and Hill drained a three-pointer. Cal lost him again a little later in their fullcourt trapping defense, allowing Hill an uncontested dunk. That was 11 of his 24 points in the final 10 minutes of the game playing power forward, and each of those shots was critical in keeping Cal from making a run. It is a coach's dream to have a player who can score in as versatile a fashion as Hill did at two different positions in this game. 10-of-13 overall shooting (4-of-6 from deep) for a forward is sensational. Hill impressed the heck out of me.

* He was lauded for his double-double performance on Wednesday, with career highs of 20 points and 12 rebounds versus Gonzaga. But I thought it was a much less successful game for him than many might say. Lopez indeed looked like a star with his play at the basket, highlighted by several athletic and skilled reverse lay-ins. But his shot selection facing the basket was largely reprehensible. Beyond the 8-of-18 field goal statistic, the seven-foot forward/center forced and missed many of his shots badly - including an airball or two. Fast forward to the Cal game, and Lopez looked immensely better in his face-up game. This 19-point, seven-rebound game was a superior performance to my eyes because he took higher percentage shots within the offense. His seven first-half field goals (and two misses) all were moves made against a single defender (Theo Robertson, Ryan Anderson or Taylor Harrison) or no defender. The only time in the entire game Lopez tried to score the basketball against a double-team came in the paint, and it was actually a good move. He split the double-team and was able to lay the ball in at point blank. Against the suffocating and collapsing zone defense Gonzaga played, Lopez was double- and triple-teamed whenever he touched the ball. Those jumpshots were bad offense. Lopez loves scoring the basketball and wants to shoot the ball when he touches it, but until he learns good shot selection, he will continue to oscillate between ecstasy and agony for the Cardinal.

* Why does a team like Gonzaga play a two hours of zone defense against Stanford (and do so with wild success), yet a team like Cal follows by playing nearly every possession with man defense? The Bears were blown out in this game, and they watched Stanford shoot north of 50 percent from the field in both halves. Is it so obvious that Cal is so stupid? Granted, Ben Braun has never been accused of being one of the Pac-10's mental giants, but there are some factors to consider. First, Stanford did shoot its open jumpers very well in this game in both halves, which never suggested a good reason or time for Cal to go to a zone defense. Second, Cal is not a good defensive team, ranking last in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense in conference games - on average Pac-10 teams have shot better than 50 percent against them. Third, Cal is not a particularly good zone team. Not all teams can play decent zone defense - Gonzaga can; Cal can't. Stanford may look bad against a good zone defense, but they could reasonably sodomize a bad zone defense. In case you missed it, Cal did attempt zone defense coming out of the first media timeout of the first half. Stanford missed a jumpshot on the first possession, and Cal collected a rebound out of bounds. Stanford scored the next three possessions with relative ease, however. First it was Brook Lopez laying the ball in on a lob pass. Then Washington sliced throught the defense, drawing a foul and hitting both free throws. Next, sophomore point guard Mitch Johnson canned an open 19-foot jumper. Stanford led 20-4, and the Bears backed away from their zone foray, playing man defense thereafter.

* It does not show up in the box score, but Stanford did a radically better job at handling the high screens Cal employed to give Ayinde Ubaka the pick-and-roll. That play was the number one reason Cal beat Stanford a month ago, but it was much better defended Saturday. On Cal's first offensive possession, the familiar Ryan Anderson screen was set at 20 feet for Ubaka, but Robin Lopez hedged and retreated perfectly. Ubaka was slowed, and sophomore guard Anthony Goods was able to seamlessly follow. Ubaka had to reset the offense and ultimately tried to drive to the basket, throwing up a terrible floater that missed the rim by a feet. Ubaka finished the game 5-of-13 from the field and never had a fraction of the success with the Anderson/Harrison screens he enjoyed at Maples Pavilion. Kudos to Stanford's big men for the improvement, and to the Cardinal coaches for their teaching and preparation the preceding days in practice.

* In that vein, I have to tip my cap to Trent Johnson's focus following the Gonzaga game. While I and other observers analyzed ad infinitum the difficulty for Stanford to score against the 2-3 zone defense of Gonzaga, Johnson talked about the turnovers and defense that he felt more germane in the Cardinal loss. Cal is not a good zone team, so spending attention on Stanford's zone offense would have been ill-advised. Instead, the Cardinal buckled down on their defensive deficiencies, including the Ubaka pick-and-roll and Anderson's face-up offensive game. The latter was fabulously frustrated by Stanford's perimeter defense by its posts - Robin Lopez in particular. Anderson finished the evening 4-of-11 from the field and missed all of his jumpshots until a three-pointer in the final four minutes of the game, when Stanford already led by 15. His other three scores came on offensive putbacks under the basket. The other great focus Johnson emphasized between Wednesday and Saturday was ball security. Stanford came into the game (and still owns) with the worst turnover margin in the conference, including an average of 17 turnovers their previous four games. Gonzaga scored 17 points off Stanford turnovers. In this Cal game, the Cardinal did suffer eight first-half turnovers, which led to 10 points. But in the second half, Stanford turned the ball a single time (which did not result in Cal points). That statistic pretty well tracked the results on the scoreboard in the two halves. Stanford's nine turnovers in the game tied a season best, previously achieved in the Denver game.

* I have to go back and watch the tape, but I believe that freshman center Robin Lopez missed all but one of his face-up field goal attempts against Cal well short. Everyone and anyone can have bad nights, but missing that badly in that consistent a location says something. Either Robin Lopez had no legs, or he was tentative. I discount the former because it was not consistent with the leaping found in his rebounding and shotblocking. I next consider the latter. Robin Lopez just a few weeks ago was averaging 11.2 points per game for the Cardinal and had scored in double figures five of his last six games. Today, he has averaged five points per game the last five times he has taken the floor, with a ceiling of eight points (coming in a double-overtime game) during that stretch. The big man has not made it to the free throw line in three of his last five games. His confidence as a scorer is crumbling, to my eyes. Stanford will be a healthier team if and when that is remedied.

* After losing to Cal at home in early January, the first ever Stanford loss to Ben Braun at Maples Pavilion and first home loss to Cal since 1992-93, the local beat writers tried to elicit some quotes from Stanford players on Friday about the importance of revenge against their "rivals." Nobody took the bait. Not one player uttered any emotion about Cal as their upcoming opponent, despite the media's best efforts. Instead, the words we heard were how this was Stanford's first chance this season to play against a team to whom they had lost. Stanford dropped three games in the first half of conference play, each of which they should have won but let get away through bad mistakes. Stanford is hungry to right those wrongs, knowing that they can and should beat those teams when playing up to their abilities. The approach to the Cal rematch was surprisingly steady for a young team playing an opponent who is known athletically (mostly due to football) on campus as a rival. After watching the Cardinal dismantle Cal away from home, the focus and its results were evident.

* Three cheers for Stanford's free throw shooting. After choking away the first meeting between these two teams by leaving 11 points at the charity stripe, Stanford sizzled with 22-of-24 shooting on Saturday. That's shockingly good for this team, which averaged 65% coming into the game. I felt like I was in a time warp to the mid-to-late 1990s, when Stanford was consistently at or near the top of the conference with Dion Cross, Brevin Knight, Tim Young and Arthur Lee. The free throws in this game were concentrated upon three players: Washington, Goods and junior forward Taj Finger. Goods (78%) and Finger (77%) were not terrible surprises to combine for 14-of-14 work at the stripe, though Goods did surprisingly miss several critical free throws the previous two games on a combined 8-of-14. The uplifting work was Washington's, hitting a career-high seven free throws on 7-of-9 (78%) shooting. Washington came into the game with a 56% average at the line, though he leads Stanford in free throw attempts.

* Stanford's three Pac-10 road wins have all come by double-digit margins: 19 points at Cal, 11 points at Oregon State and 11 points at Arizona State. Of course, Berkeley is a second home to the Cardinal. Stanford has won three of its last four and seven of its last 10 at Cal. These three opponents may also finish eighth, ninth and 10th in the conference when the regular season finishes in a few weeks.

Bonus: Unless these two teams meet in the Pac-10 Tournament, which has not happened since the event was resurrected five years ago, the season series is concluded between Stanford and Cal. Stanford has swept or split the season series against the Bears the last 14 years, with a record of 22-6 during that time. This is why nobody in the Stanford program uses the word "rivalry" in describing the series.

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