The first thing that comes to mind for Stanford playing against a Rick Pitino team has to be handling the ball against pressure. It is true that this Louisville team is young, and they do not have the experience to execute the full force of Pitino's full court press. This Stanford team, however, has turned the ball over in droves against far less threatening defenses this year. The #6-seeded Cardinals are a +2.3 turnover margin team, while the #11-seeded Cardinal are a -2.9 turnover margin team.
"One of the concerns for us is being able to handle their pressure because they're active. They pick you up three-quarter court and full court. They get back into multiple zone defenses," explains Stanford head coach Trent Johnson. "It's the same old drill for this basketball team. We have to defend, and I think we're capable of defending them if we play like we're capable of. I think we're capable of rebounding with them. My concern is can we take care of [the ball]."
Louisville's press is not often executed on the full court this year, and it often is a zone press rather than man-to-man pressure. The Cardinal have actually fared reasonably well against full court and three-quarter presses, but they have not handled ball pressure in the half court.
"There is no secret to our basketball team. The teams who have been able to generate turnovers on the full court or the half court have been able to have a lot of success against us," Johnson warns.
"The key will be Mitch Johnson and Anthony Goods," adds Scout.com national basketball writer Frank Burlison. "One, they have to handle full court pressure. Two, they have to not let Louisville pressure them out of their half court offense."
In those four of the past five games Stanford has lost, they averaged 15 turnovers per game. None of those opponents had the personnel, depth or strategy to attack Stanford's ballhandlers like Louisville. The Cardinals rotate their lineup and play intense basketball, with nine players averaging 14 or more minutes per games and only one player averages more than 25 minutes per game.
"Coach [Pitino] told us he wants this to be a ping-pong game," admits Louisville freshman guard Edgar Sosa. "They have tall guys who may get tired faster, so we want to make them run, rather than slow it down and play to their advantage. We have enough depth to run, and hopefully our stamina is higher than theirs if it comes down to the last couple minutes."
As Sosa points out, the pace and pressure Louisville wants to bring to the game is as much about neutralizing Stanford's size as it is exploiting their perimeter ballhandlers. The underdog Cardinal have better size on paper, but the Cardinals have better depth, consistency and versatility in their post players.
6'8" junior Juan Palacios is expected to play and give a big boost to Louisville in his return from back spasms that had sidelined him. Stanford saw him two years ago in the Maui Invitational, then a talented but young role player on a team with experienced and NBA-bound perimeter players. Now Palacios joins 6'11" redshirt junior David Padgett to provide a skilled and crafty pair of post threats. As has been seen several times this year, the experienced post player can outsmart the talented but green Lopez twins.
"Padgett and Palacios are both experienced and savvy offensive players who will pump or head fake the twins, try to drive them and keep them off-balance," says Burlison.
In Palacios' absence, 6'8" freshman forward Earl Clark has started in his stead. Though his minutes and statistics have been limited on the season, Clark delivered in a big way with the opportunity. He averaged 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds his last four games. 6'9" 265-pound classmate Derrick Caracter also finished the regular season strong, after missing most of the first two-thirds of the season due to a combination of NCAA suspension and team rules violations. In his triumphant return to the court on February 10, he logged a double-double. Caracter scored double figures in five of his first six games back. He is a load but in better shape than the high school version you may remember. He is still strong, though now more mobile and much craftier.
"This team, to me in the video tape I've watched, has bigs in Derrick Caracter, Padgett and Palacios that remind me of Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman in terms of their overall aggressiveness and ability to attack the rim," Johnson offers. "They play extremely hard and they have the capability to attack us much like Brockman and Spencer. I'm not talking necessarily about points, but about how Jon was so physical. We have been backed off the post maybe once or twice all year, and Washington did that. They really handled us up at Washington. Our bigs, much like our whole team, need to be ready for a very aggressive, physical game."
Louisville's backcourt starts a blend of youthful talent and veteran experience in freshman Edgar Sosa and senior Brandon Jenkins. Neither shoots the ball well, but they have proven dangerous in spurts this year - especially Sosa. The 6'1" freshman is a shade under 40 percent from the field, but he has numerous times this season exploded for 15 or 20 points in a game.
"He's not a pure point or a 'two'. He's more of a combo type who handles the ball okay," Burlison observes.
Not as frequently a starter, freshman Jerry Smith sees 20 minutes a game in the backcourt, adding a fourth frosh to the heavily-employed Louisville rotation. Like Stanford, the talent has emerged brilliantly at times from its youthful foundation, but they can also add a liability.
"Both of those guards who play a majority of the time, Sosa and Smith, are frosh and still make a lot of mistakes," Burlison says.
Trent Johnson agrees with the youthful characterization of the Cardinals and contrasts them with the veteran squad that handled Stanford two years ago in Maui, 82-67. Probably no player better exemplifies the hot/cold character of Louisville than sophomore forward Terrence Williams. A 6'6" 210-pound athlete from Seattle, he leads the Cardinal in scoring (12.7 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg), assists (3.9 apg) and minutes (33.1 mpg).
"Terrence is capable of playing the 'one,' 'two' or the 'three.' He is very, very explosive," Johnson says respectfully. "There is nothing he cannot do physically. There is nothing he can't do with a basketball. He's really talented. Terrence Williams is more talented and more explosive than Marcus Williams at Arizona."
Marcus Williams is a friend and former AAU teammate, but no relation to Terrence Williams. The former led the Pac-10 in scoring this year, as a reference point in examining Trent Johnson's praise.
"You need to get him back to his left hand because if he goes right, he will remind you of a poor man's Clyde Drexler," the coach adds.
Can anybody on Stanford contain Williams? The answer on paper would appear to be senior Fred Washington, the team's best perimeter defender. But there is also a dark side to Williams' game. He can neutralize himself in any given day better than any defender.
"Terrence Williams is erratic and takes bad shots. Check his percentages. They're pretty low," Burlison offers. "He's more athletic than Marcus Williams - it's not even close. But he's not quite as solid offensively."
The Louisville Williams is shooting 37.0 percent from the field and has taken more than twice as many attempts as every one of his teammates, save Sosa. Worse still, he leads the Cardinals by a long shot with 180 three-point attempts, yet he has hit at a mere 26.1 percent. That is more three-pointers launched than Anthony goods this year, with a shooting percentage well below of Mitch Johnson. For Fred Washington, or any Stanford defender who draws Williams on Thursday, it will be an interesting charge. Williams can help the Cardinal if he takes wild/contested shots, but Stanford needs to keep him from driving to the basket.
There is one more factor that the underdog likely needs to work for them in this game. Stanford will undoubtedly give in to the pace that Louisville wants to assert in this game, and play at a high pace up and down the floor. The Cardinal will have to work hard on defense and run the floor, while also tiring handling the ball against the Cardinals' pressure. Though coaches can be tempted to tighten their bench in the do-or-die postseason, Trent Johnson will have to go to his reserves on Thursday. His depth has to match Louisville's depth.
The first Cardinal reserve to come to mind who could provide a spark is redshirt sophomore guard Kenny Brown, who two games ago exploded for 22 points in a narrow overtime loss to Arizona. He is fearless shooting the basketball, but the 6'1" wing has also surprised with his energy on defense and in his rebounding. The concern could be his ability to handle the ball against pressure, which has not be asked of him and is not his strength.
Two other bench players could be key wild cards for the Cardinal in this game. 6'9" junior power forward Taj Finger is the next man in the post rotation who will need to spell Brook Lopez and/or Lawrence Hill against Louisville's excellent frontcourt rotation. Finger has languished at times this year while the younger post players have logged starts and minutes, but he has found some greater success in his spots the last few games, sometimes scoring and sometimes rebounding the basketball. Finger actually is a rare player on this team with NCAA experience, and he could be called upon to play a significant role in this first round game.
"Taj is starting to make shots that he usually doesn't make. He's starting to feel more comfortable, I think, offensively," Johnson offers. "You look at his free throw percentage and his field goal percentage, and he's improved in almost every area. That's good. That's what you expect from him... You know what you get out of Taj: effort, effort, effort and defend, defend, defend. He's a team guy in every sense of the word."
Another long and lanky player off the bench is 6'6" wing Landry Fields, who is making an even sharper upturn of late. Since Goods' injury in mid-February, Fields has played four of his eight games this season of 20-plus minutes. The freshman logged his only two games of 25-plus minutes the last two times on the court: 30 vs. Arizona and 26 vs. USC. Excepting his seven-minute limited role in the Arizona State game, Fields has shot the ball and played with the most confidence the past two weeks Stanford has seen almost all season. In those three games, he has averaged 10.3 points per game and shot 54.5% from three-point range.
"For whatever reason, I think he relaxed here the last week or two. Like most guys who have the ability to shoot the ball and score the ball like he does, at a young age they base a lot of how they play on the ball going down," Johnson says. "Landry is his own worst enemy. Just getting him to relax and play has been hard because he wants to do so well... Quite frankly, he doesn't have a lot of confidence at the defensive end. He shouldn't because he's not as big, as strong or as quick as a lot of guys. You see that. He's a young freshman. That has a tendency to wear on you a little bit."
"I'm not going to let you beat yourself up. You have to enjoy this thing. You have to try and enjoy it," the coach charges. "He's no different than anybody else on this team, who has been inconsistent at times. You see Brook, and he looks like a world-beater for two or three games. Then you see him and don't know that he's out there. Landry is going through a lot of that. It's just the new experiences and the expectations and pressure - that has sort of affected them down the stretch."
Therein lies the key for not only Fields, but also the young players that dominate this team. Stanford has three freshmen and three sophomores who are stepping into big and unfamiliar roles on this team - none of whom have any NCAA Tournament experience. Anybody who has watched this young team this year knows the high highs and low lows they can produce. Trent Johnson opines that the pressure may have weighed them down in recent weeks, and you could see that in their faces. The abject depression was as clear as day on their faces after the loss in the Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinal.
But there is the chance that the young Cardinal can play care free on Thursday. They survived and made it over the end-season hump when they received this seed and bid to the Big Dance. They could play tight as a drum, but they also have the chance to play free now that they are where they wanted to be. The losing streak and "bubble" talk are all in the past. Expectations are low again, as the #11 seed takes on a National Champion coach and a team who played in the Final Four just two years ago. Just maybe, a carefree Cardinal can emerge and give the running Rick Pitino's a few surprises in Lexington.
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