10 Takeaways: MBB vs. USC

Thursday night in Los Angeles was a demonstration of how the box score can lie. Stanford handily won the rebounding battle, yet that is a key area where the Cardinal lost the game. Other stories like the building, the bus, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and perimeter defense, are worth discussing. We present a series of 10 insightful observations, opinions and statistical notes from the Galen Center.

1. Early Bird Gets the Worm

The team bus was caught in L.A. traffic and arrived at approximately 6:45pm, 45 minutes before tip.  Predictably, Trent Johnson and players alike deflected attention away from the issue in post-game interviews.  Still, you have to wonder if the outcome wouldn't have been different had Stanford had another hour of shootaround.  That goes double when you consider that Brook Lopez missed quite a few inside shots.  Plus, USC shot 56 percent on the first half, with an arguably still-cold Stanford leaving them wide-open for jumpers.  In the second, the Cardinal held USC to just 41 percent shooting.

Considering the Galen Center, I think the L.A. traffic might be USC's most formidable home-court advantage...

2. The Galen Center

I think the word that best describes USC's new arena is sterile.  Perhaps I am biased, because the media handlers and security folks were not nearly as nice as those I have had the pleasure of working with over the past few years, but the arena just seemed lifeless to me.  To be fair, it is beautiful, with traditional brick architecture and huge glass windows letting in natural light.  Still, they cram all the students behind one basket to open up the prime seats to quieter, wealthier paying customers (and cram much of the working press behind the other basket to open up even more expensive seats).  I just hope that Stanford marketing does not get any ideas.

Few fans arrived before tip-off, and while the place filled up decently, there were still plenty of empty seats for a battle of two likely NCAA teams.  The crowd also seemed more enthused by the Jumbotron spotting Denzel Washington than any actual on-the-floor action.  Speaking of the Jumbotron, no one bothered to put up any statistics (the players on the floor, their points and their fouls would have been nice), leaving 50 percent of a million-dollar piece of equipment unused.  At least the Song Girls live up to their reputation.

3. Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds

The statistics lie.  Sure, Stanford outrebounded USC 42-27, and 18-8 on the offensive glass, but make no mistake – every important rebound ended up in a Trojan's hands.  Stanford leads the Pac-10 in rebounding margin, so last night's inability to grab a key board bewilders.

On a lot of the key rebounds in halfcourt play (as opposed to missed free throws), the Lopez twins did what they were supposed to do: successfully seal their defenders.  However, whether due to coaching, lack of awareness, lack of physical ability or some other factor I cannot identify, the twins would not actually grab the rebound.  Oftentimes, it would bounce to the floor unclaimed, at which point USC wings consistently beat Stanford wings to the ball.

So the Lopez twins have the equation half-solved: they are boxing out their men (USC's posts had only 14 rebounds versus 23 for Stanford, by my count), but they are oftentimes not actually pulling down the board.  (To be fair, they did combine for 15 boards, six of them offensive.)  Stanford's guards need to realize that there will be loose balls for the claiming and beat their opponents to them.  Of course, being a step behind could really hurt here.

4. Free throws, free throws, free throws

The most excruciating part of this game though was watching USC go drawn foul, missed front end of a one-and-one, offensive rebound, drawn foul, missed front end of a one-and-one, offensive rebound, drawn foul, made free throw, missed free throw late in the second half.  All of this, mind you, was one offensive possession for USC – and a key one at that, up four with a minute to go.

Fred Washington said that part of the problem lay at the feet of the Lopez twins, who got pushed underneath the basket by USC's posts: "We can't get pushed under off free throws – we're bigger and stronger than everybody else."

Personally, I think Brook and Robin Lopez are strong enough (they are boxing out their men in halfcourt situations, after all).  I think the problem is more one of reaction time and reflexes.  I do not know whether it is a (presumably correctable) matter of timing, or just the fact that it takes awhile to get seven feet and 255 pounds of mass up in the air, but look at the struggles that Brook Lopez has on opening tip-offs.  Same type of situation as we saw at the free throw line last night: he is much taller and stronger than most of his opponents, but comes down with the ball infrequently.

5. Damaged Goods

Most people tend to look at offense first, but I think Stanford really missed Anthony Goods most on the defensive end.  Consider that, for most of the game, USC threw out Nick Young, Lodrick Stewart and Gabriel Pruitt – if not the best backcourt trio in the Pac-10, arguably the best-scoring group in the conference with UCLA and Oregon also in contention.  To my eyes, of Stanford's perimeter defenders, you probably want Fred Washington – the team's best on-ball defender – on the toughest assignment, Lawrence Hill – who seems to make occasional mental lapses but has good speed and great length – on the next-toughest guy, and Mitch Johnson – who lacks the necessary athleticism – on the easiest assignment.  But if you throw in Goods, you can replace Johnson with a defender who, while not in Washington's league, has quietly grown into the next-best option Stanford has (Carlton Weatherby excepted).  So, last night, that means that instead of Johnson getting abused off the dribble by Pruitt, which happened several times, Stanford probably has Goods or Hill on him.  I like those odds a lot better.  Not to mention the additional offense Goods brings to the table.

Looking ahead, the good news is that Anthony Goods does not have a career-threatening injury and will eventually come back.  The bad news is the Stanford faces Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison on Saturday.  Who do you want Mitch Johnson guarding?

6. Rockin' Robin

Great song, not so great on the court.  Trent Johnson downplayed Robin Lopez picking up the technical foul versus Oregon in his weekly press conference last Monday, but I have to think Coach Johnson is singing a different tune now.  For the second straight game, his freshman center lost his composure – throwing an opponent to the ground and lucking out by avoiding anything more than a technical for an unquestionably blatant foul.  In practices, I am told that Robin often practices too aggressively and loses his cool, while Brook often does not seem to go hard enough.  Robin obviously has the physical attributes necessary for college (and quite likely, NBA) success, but, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's not just 100 percent physical, it's 100 percent mental, too.

7. Shot distribution

USC played a pretty darn good game.  A 20-win team at home shot 48 percent on the game with only 10 turnovers.  And all three of their starting guards played some of their best games of the season.  (Though RouSean Cromwell did his best Casper the Ghost impression for much of the night.)

How then did Stanford keep it close?  They did outrebound USC (except when it mattered most) and cut down on the turnovers (ditto).  But I think a huge, understated reason for this team's success is nearly optimal shot distribution.  Given that Stanford shot 59 times on the evening, the ratio of 22 attempts for Brook Lopez, 13 for Lawrence Hill, eight for Fred Washington, five for Robin Lopez and Mitch Johnson and six for the bench is about as close to ideal as you will see in a game.  (Okay, maybe I would have preferred one or two more shots for Lawrence at Brook's expense, but that is really nitpicking.)  Anthony Goods tended to throw off the distribution with a lot of 3-of-11 nights (I do not think the casual fan realizes how many shots he takes to make all those memorable bombs versus Gonzaga), and now that he is out of the lineup, Stanford is really maximizing the offensive personnel they have.  Everyone seems to understand their role on the offense – we saw a similar distribution in the Oregon game – and that is the mark of a really well-coached team.

8. Forcing turnovers

For all the (rightful) focus on Stanford turnovers, Stanford backers have not focused nearly as much on how few turnovers Stanford has forced.  The 10 forced against USC (many of them unforced errors) continues a disturbing trend.  I think, generally, this team is one of the least athletic in the conference, so one would not expect the Cardinal to force a bevy of turnovers.  More specifically, with Landry Fields one exception that jumps to my mind, many of Stanford's guards lack one of the length, quickness or defensive instincts needed to poke out loose balls.

9. NCAA prospects

A heads-up to any Booties as obsessive as I am about this type of stuff on a couple of great resources out there on the Internet.  First off, this site: http://www.bracketproject.atspace.com/comparison.htm is down from time to time, but when it is up, it creates composite seeds using the projections of 26 major mock brackets (basically every bracket you have ever heard of and plenty you have not).  The aggregate of 26 views has to be more accurate than any one view, right?  For what it is worth, Stanford was pretty consistently a #5, 6 or 7 seed heading into the USC tilt.

Second, http://www.warrennolan.com/basketball/2007/rpi tabulates and updates the RPI daily.  Stanford ranks 42nd after the USC loss.  The nitty-gritty report is also really useful – it shows each team's performance in the key categories (like record in last 10 games, record versus top-50 opponents, away record) that the selection committee takes an extra-hard look at.

My take: Stanford has a lot more room for mistakes than fans appreciate.  A win versus Arizona State should just about do it – especially considering that the remaining matchups (at UCLA, Arizona, vs. Oregon/Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament) are all top-notch.

10. Brook Lopez

Ending on a positive note, Brook Lopez' performance against the double-team took a quantum leap forward against the Trojans on Thursday.  He twice, by my count, spliced two defenders for buckets – though he has done that from time to time this season.  What was more impressive (and what the four turnovers and one assist do not begin to do justice to, in a game in which the statistics generally bare strikingly little resemblance to reality) was how well he handled the ball.  One play in particular jumps out: double-teamed in the right low-post, Brook took a step toward the baseline and rocketed an impossible pass to his brother, unguarded on the weakside post, three feet away from the hoop.  Robin dropped the ball out of bounds, but Brook's improved ability to receive a pass and pass out of the double team should not only increase his teammates' scoring, but also his own, as opponents might now think twice about doubling down.

Indeed, Fred Washington had no shortage of praise for the freshman center: "I thought [the twins] handled the double team really well. And they haven't been doing that a lot lately—well they've been doing that a lot, but they weren't as good at the beginning of the season. Like I thought Brook was amazing. I don't think he made one bad play in the double team."

UCLA's guards certainly have the athleticism (and the inclination, given their less than overpowering posts) to sag off the perimeter and double Brook Lopez.  How well he can handle the pressure and find the open man will go a long way toward determining the outcome in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.

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