10 Takeaways: MBB vs. UCLA

This is not the same Stanford team you knew a month ago. The road trip in Los Angeles, and Saturday's game at UCLA in particular, helped to reveal new trends and realities for the Cardinal - defense, Brook Lopez, Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods and more. We present a series of 10 insightful observations, opinions and statistical notes from the Stanford defeat.

Injury Report – Trent Johnson is not showing his hand, but if I had to bet, sophomore Anthony Goods will play a couple of minutes Thursday to prepare him for an increased (though not his usual) load on Saturday.  I do not think he starts either game, and I actually think my projection is pretty optimistic – I would not be surprised if he did not play this weekend at all.

After the UCLA game, Johnson emphasized how hard the adjustment has been for Goods mentally:

"Physically, Anthony feels good.  I think he struggles because he realizes – and I know the kid pretty well; he's emotional – what he could do and what he could mean for his team in games like this.  And it's hard for him.  But again, regardless of how he feels about it or what the doctors say, I've got to make sure personally.  I'm not going to put any kid out there at this time of year and let him reinjure himself.  So we've got to take a look, but for the most part, he looks good and I was encouraged by what he looked like the other day."

While the Goods situation is largely speculation at this point, in part due to Trent Johnson's reluctance to talk in specifics about injuries, we do have some other updates.  First the good news: after taking a hard fall late at USC, senior Fred Washington practiced Friday and was 100 percent on Saturday.  Meanwhile, sophomore Mitch Johnson has been suffering through plantar fasciitis for nearly a month, and freshman Brook Lopez suffered a contusion to the back of the knee at USC.  Both players were held out of Friday's practice but were ready to start Saturday.

Coach's Corner – I am not a budding psychologist, but I do not need to be to read the difference in Trent Johnson's demeanor between Thursday and Saturday.  Night and day.  On the attractiveness scale, Janet Reno and Jessica Biel.  Any which way you want to slice it, he was utterly disappointed in his team after USC and strangely ebullient, considering the loss, after UCLA.

Post-USC, Johnson said all the right things, but largely avoided eye contact, shifted his weight back and forth and kept his answers curt.  Post-UCLA, he held court with three reporters for nearly 10 minutes and was joking around with us.  I have never seen that from him after a loss.

The reason why?  Thursday, he felt his team played poorly and really squandered an opportunity.  Saturday, I think in his mind, Stanford wins that game in the other 16 of 18 Pac-10 situations (any home game, any road game versus another opponent, save for Washington State) with a healthy Anthony Goods.

Mitch Johnson – While it might have cost Stanford the USC game, Goods' injury has really a blessing in disguise for Mitch Johnson.  Maybe it is just coincidental timing, but ever since Goods went down, Johnson has been playing with more confidence and more authority.  Watching the warm-ups Saturday, you did not recognize the kid: he was hot, easily hitting more threes than he missed.  In games, he has not been shooting a ton, but those lean-in threes, usually from the right side of the arc, are starting to fall for him.  No one is looking for him to score 15 a game, just to be able to hit an open shot to keep the defenses honest, and Johnson has taken a huge step toward that goal these past few weeks.  If this were the Mitch Johnson on the team from the start of the season, Stanford would have beaten Gonzaga and California, and quite possibly Oregon in Eugene.  This team would be in the Top 25, and on pace for a five seed.  For Johnson, the opportunity to shoot more has given him confidence, as he told my Stanford Daily colleague Alex Gyr: "I think the biggest thing for me, people probably won't believe it, but it is all about confidence.  There is so much in your mind that needs to happen to get ready to shoot, especially if you don't do it that often.  [Against the Oregon schools] I took the mentality that I was going to have my feet set and my hands ready.  If it was open, I was going to let it go."

And, as he told Gyr, his unconventional release is here to stay.

"My shot is something that I've always had.  It has the basics: keep the ball up, follow through and all that.  If I had come in and made 50 percent from the three-point line starting last year, people wouldn't have talked about how it looked.  Guys like Reggie Miller, even Lawrence [Hill], have different shots.  Plenty of guys in the NBA have different shots, but when it goes in, people don't question it."

Home versus road – With fans chanting "one more year, one more year" to Arron Afflalo after the game and 97-year old John Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar honored at halftime, UCLA pushed it to 20 straight at home on what would have been Senior Day.  (Again, I don't have to be a budding psychologist to read through the lines: Afflalo is gone.)  The day just highlighted what a huge edge homecourt is.  For Stanford, the last three weeks have been perfect in this regard: 0-4 on the road, 2-0 at home.  Let us hope the trend continues this weekend.

In the Pac-10, the only home loss has been Cal, where no students were in attendance.  (The other home losses have been to Gonzaga, Santa Clara and Air Force.  Stanford is 11-4 at home, 12-4 counting the Texas Tech game.)  On the road, meanwhile, the Cardinal have now dipped under .500 to just 5-6.  Seems to me that as this team gets older, they will keep winning the home games, but will more importantly have the opportunity to improve on the road.

Brook Lopez' defense – Jon Brockman with his pure strength created problems for the Lopez twins, Brook in particular.  Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, meanwhile, used their speed to come wide-open for easy looks.  Brook Lopez has had three games in a row with over 20 points, but also two recent elite match-ups where he has given up nearly as many as he created.  I think a major problem is that he simply loses guys that move around a lot down low.  There were many times he simply did not know where UCLA's posts were.  His defense, nor Robin's offense, is close to an NBA level now, though the other half of the respective equations obviously are.

Forgetting to have fun – UCLA arrived 1:45 before the game, well before Ben Howland required they be there and the earliest they have arrived for a game this season.  For a five-minute stretch in those warm-ups, the team basically had a dunk contest, throwing alley-oops and watching each other throw it down.  They were smiling broadly, and it was obvious how much fun they were having.  I guess that is what happens when you are always winning and expect to win every game.

The point of all of this is that you rarely see Stanford interacting like a bunch of guys just having fun – the atmosphere is much more workmanlike.  To be sure, our guys are joking around and talking but they would not start a pre-game dunk contest in Maples in a million years.  Again, the team does not have the leeway UCLA does, and maybe they will start to enjoy it more as they age.  Still, this was one of the first times I have seen a team that looked like they were having fun with hoops.  Do only the Top Five teams get to experience that and everyone else has to sweat out the bubble?  Seems to me like a little fun would not hurt any team, though.  Trent Johnson agrees; he is always talking about the need to relax and enjoy the game.

Speed Kills – The biggest difference between the two teams was across-the-board speed.  It was unmistakable in person.  UCLA used their speed edge to force turnover after turnover, scoring 14 fast-break points and forcing 16 on the evening, three on their key 10-0 spurt.  Many came at the hands of Darren Collison, the best on-ball defender in the game right now, as far as I am concerned.  In additon to shadowing Johnson, he was switching off to harass the twins on the perimeter.

More troubling than the presumably correctable fast-break and turnover woes, though, UCLA used their speed to score bucket after bucket in the halfcourt.  Obviously, I am simplifying for effect here, but it really did seem like their entire playbook consisted of one play: run Arron Afflalo from the right corner across the baseline to the left corner.  One of the bigs sets a pick in the paint, and Afflalo was consistently open for looks in the corner.  He shot seven threes – many of them uncontested – and Lawrence Hill (the defender) consistently a step behind fouled him on two three-point attempts, trying to catch up.  The four-point play Afflalo pulled off toward the end of the first half was really a killer: pushing UCLA's margin from two to six, killing much of Stanford's momentum.

Defending Speed – So then, Stanford is a little slow.  No team is perfect, and the Cardinal often make up for getting beat off the dribble with generally stellar post defense.  The question then, becomes, what to do to minimize the speed gap?  After all, seems likely Stanford to finish in the #4/#5 slot in the conference, which means a potential rematch with UCLA a week from Friday.

One option is obviously a zone defense, but that makes it harder to find a man to box out – this team's Achilles heel against USC – and allows a bevy of open looks.  Still, I was surprised the Cardinal did not zone more against UCLA.

The other aspect of the equation is to match up your best defenders on opponents' best scoring threats.  It really confounded me then, why Fred Washington was not matched up with Afflalo, or at least switched over as Hill struggled.  (To be fair, Washington played so few minutes that this would not have been a viable option Saturday.)  Against USC, Washington generally shut down his defender better than Hill or especially Johnson, and generally, it seems to me like Trent Johnson should make sure to match him up against the top dog.

Return of Goods – As much as we celebrate his offense (fans tend to remember the clutch makes more than the misses – Goods' number of attempts is much higher than his actual percentage), I think his defense is where his impact will most be felt.  He is not an elite defender, to be sure, but he is a lot quicker than his replacement, Mitch Johnson, which allows him to take an opponents' second-biggest threat (after Washington), and switches Hill to an easier match-up. The only thing is, if his mobility is limited, even if it does not affect his stroke, all bets are off in terms of defense.

Whenever Goods does return, you have to wonder about his mental state.  I know no one likes to get injured, but Trent Johnson's words Saturday really set off warning bells in my head:  "Physically, Anthony feels good. I think he struggles because he realizes – and I know the kid pretty well; he's emotional – what he could do and what he could mean for his team in games like this.  And it's hard for him."  I guess the nightmare scenario would be Goods returning at 85 percent, but with a chip on his shoulder that makes him try to play like he is at 120 percent to make up for lost time.  That has 3-of-14 with five turnovers written all over it – and that could really sink the Cardinal down the stretch.

Looking Ahead – Stanford makes the NCAA Tournament this year, bows out the first weekend, as some two-seed finds a match-up to their liking and exploits it time after time after time.  Hardly revolutionary, I know.  But next year will be just over six months away, and the prospect already has me salivating.

As strong as the Pac-10 is this year, this conference is going to be out-of-this-world good next year.  There are only eight starting seniors in the entire conference.  Ivory Clark, Lodrick Stewart, Aaron Brooks, Ivan Radenovic, Mustafa Shakur, Ayinde Ubaka, Kyle Jeffers and Serge Angounou).  Top teams like UCLA, Stanford and Washington have no seniors on the roster.  While the NBA will undoubtedly take its toll, it might not have as big of an effect as expected.  Players know that this year's NBA Draft class is stacked, and they can earn additional millions simply by staying put for another year.

What it all means is that the Pac-10 is going to be that much more experienced next year.  That experience, if history is any guide, will best serve the conference in the early-going and come Tournament time – the two times when the league will be playing out-of-conference foes.  Watch out.

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