A Long Story

Thursday evening was a long night for Arizona State at Maples Pavilion. You could say the same for Stanford's opponents all year. Facing the Cardinal means matching up against a young but "long" team. What does that mean and why is it important in basketball? The Court Jester explains.

Long.

Basketball fans hear Jay Bilas use the word to describe seemingly every player.  After a particularly excessive "attack of the longs" during the NBA Draft, I had Inigo Montoya's voice in my head.  "You keep using that word.  I do no think it means what you think it means."  Other announcers are on the long bandwagon as well, and the term is now a standard part of the vernacular.

So what is "long" and why is it different than "tall"?  I'd describe long as a combination of height and wingspan that is exceptional for a player's position, with a small dose of jumping ability thrown in for close calls.  One reason that Bilas uses the word so often is that he naturally only talks about star players.  Since the moment Dr. Naismith decided to nail the peach basket 10 feet above the court, being long has been a helpful asset.  The fact is many of the best players are in fact long.  You don't have to be long to be a great player, but it certainly helps, particularly when talking about big men.

Charles Barkley certainly didn't look long, but his arms and explosive leaping ability meant that he was, in fact, long despite being short.  Kevins tend to be long, be they of the McHale, Garnett, Martin or Durrant variety.  Young superstars Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire are long.  Stanford's Josh Childress and David Moseley were long; Teyo Johnson and his T Rex arms were not (T Rex the dinosaur, not the band, for you musically inclined but paleontologically ignorant).

Defensive length is why Bill Russell won so many championships, why Dikembe Mutombo is still playing in the NBA at 40, and why Bobby Jones and Scottie Pippen were each First Team All-Defensive eight years in a row.

Long is also what Arizona State ran into at Maples Pavilion Thursday night.  The Sun Devils came into the game as an oxymoronic "hot losing team."  A three-game home stand against some of the conference heavyweights resulted in a six-point loss to UCLA, a three-point loss to Arizona and a 10-point victory over USC.  In fact, their last six losses were by a combined 23 points.  So how could a dangerous team playing with confidence suddenly look so bad? How could they score just 2 points in the first 9 minutes of the game and trail offensively challenged Stanford by 14 at halftime?

Length baby!

Starting with the obvious, the Lopez twins completely change whatever offense teams try to run.  Since George Mikan ruled the paint, the first option on offense has been "feed the post."  Not against Stanford.  Jeff Pendergraph is a 6'10" future pro who was 18-of-28 in ASU's previous three games and usually draws double teams.  The Lopi limited him to 3-of-8 in the deciding first half and 5-of-12 for the game without the need for double teams.  Blocked shots make for great highlights, yet this game saw Stanford amass a mere three (one of those by Carlton Weatherby!).  What doesn't show up in the box score are shots altered or shots never attempted.  In fact, only once in the last five games has a Lopez blocked three shots in a game, as teams have basically stopped challenging them inside.

The first half saw a steady stream of long possessions by ASU, as they consistently found themselves taking poor shots late in the shot clock after failing to get anything better for 30 seconds.  Length will do that.

Length rules the perimeter as well as the paint.  Somewhat shockingly to the casual observer Stanford leads the conference in three-point defense.  Length disrupts jump shots as much as it does inside moves.  Fred Washington is a ferocious defender at the 'two', while Lawrence Hill is exceptionally long for a 'three'.  Taj Finger and Landry Fields come off the bench with still more length for their positions.  At the half ASU was 2-of-8 from beyond the arc and a mere 6-of-24 overall.  The up and down pace of the second half led to more open looks for both teams, as ASU managed a very deceptive 41% shooting for the game.  But the fact is the game was over at halftime, and Stanford's lead was 19 with under four minutes to play.

On the offensive end, it's length once again.  The twins can simply shoot over the vast majority of individual defenders, so they are instantly doubled every time they get the ball in the post.  Stanford's perimeter players reap the benefits with quality looks.  Mitch Johnson and Lawrence Hill were both 3-of-6 from the arc, with most of Johnson's shots uncontested.  Meanwhile Hill's length at shooting forward allows him to get his jump shot off almost at will.

In 17 conference games, only four opponents have managed 70 points against the Cardinal.  For all of the turnovers and youthful mistakes, there is still one factor that has never wavered for this squad.  They are LONG.  In fact they are as long as any team in the country, including the defending champion Florida Gators.  Mike Montgomery used to complain that it was very hard to prepare for Arizona because there was no way to replicate their quickness in practice.  Guess what folks, the same thing applies to length.  Until a team actually faces this year's version of the Stanford Trees, they simply don't know what they are in for.

"Quick guys get tired, tall guys don't shrink" – Frank Layden.


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