UCLA comes to town tomorrow to start the conference season. I can't think of a better way to start the conference season off than to bring in the Bruins. Lets get the basketball barometer out right now on this iteration of the Cardinal. The Bruins are probably thinking the same thing we are - how good are we, really? We shall see. Win or lose, it is game one of a challenging 18-game conference season. I think the game is going to be won in the paint, not the perimeter, because these two teams can flat-out play defense. To summarize quickly - last year we won at Maples with less favorable guard matchups than we have this year (I'll explain that below") because "The Law" took over for us offensively and our interior defense and rebounding resulted in our not giving them good looks - plus they missed a lot of looks in the paint in the second half. Lets hope they do again.
I think our guards look ready to play conference ball now, with the caveat that from Fresno State to tomorrow tip-off, I expect Fred Washington to be light years better physically than he was against the Bulldogs. Mitch Johnson has played a number of games this preseason against quick, athletic point guards and statistically speaking he has improved tremendously over last year to this point. But let's toss aside the statistics, in large part because of the mediocre competition, and talk about how he "looks" right now compared to last year. He got his act back together fundamentally against Fresno State, which is what I wanted to see. 5'9" Kevin Bell is a Pac-10-caliber point guard and is very good off the dribble. Mitch got the infamous Crystal Gale on a number of occasions from Bell, but I thought Mitch did a good job defensively, particularly in being inconsistent about where he was picking up defensively and when he was trying to take something specific away from Bell. This led to Bell doing a lot more dribbling around than Coach Cleveland's system really can handle and it led to Fresno State's shooters ending up being standing shooters instead of coming off screens out of motion. In other words, Mitch did a better job of realizing he is going to get beat and dictating a bit as to when and where it will happen. He also provided some nice opportunistic defense as well with two very nice steals getting into the passing lanes. Offensively, Mitch finished the preseason effort with 8 assists and 1 turnover and 6 points. 8 to 1 against a very quick and crafty point guard - let's take that and go to conference now! Mitch should have had 12 assists, but his shooters were tossing empty cans in a dumpster. His butt was down when he was dribbling, his entry passes into offense were sharper, his vision was excellent. His passing was the best it has been in his career - which is what I am most pleased about. He had excellent timing and touch on his over-the-top entry passes. Brook Lopez in particular did a great job of presenting himself and keeping his feet moving and butt down when receiving the passes, but Mitch was putting the ball on the money. On one steal, Mitch showed some nice control putting the one away with a right-handed lay-in with Bell in his pocket. That is a tough play, guys, because Bell was playing for the strip on that and if Mitch had gone up off of one leg, either leg, the ball would have been exposed. Again, it is not going to blow anyone away with sheer athleticism, but it is finishing a tough play with skill and more athleticism than most think is required. Mitch is not going to be Art Lee, but he seems now to be stronger, quicker, more fundamentally sound and smarter than he was last year. Now a junior, he should continue this level of play into conference.
Anthony Goods balled up in the second half against the Bulldogs, and showed me again that he is recognizing now when his team needs him to step up. Oh, and more importantly, he is stepping up. He isn't firing on all cylinders, but his defensive consistency and his timing are impressive. Was that Anthony Goods turning the corner and going all Julius Barnes on Hector Hernandez or was that Julius Barnes? Another example of how good solid footwork prior to the catch, a solid pump fake, and reputation as a shooter, opens up the defense easier than…(sorry, I can't think of anything right now to finish that off with that won't get edited by "Emeritus", so use your own). Goods' passing fundamentals into the post continue to improve, he was rock solid again even if the assists didn't happen. We will see tangible results from Anthony's defense in conference. Last year there were times where he simply was not a typical Stanford two guard defensively, which is north of merely being good. He isn't Aaron Afflalo defensively now, but he is going to make things much more difficult for opposing two's in conference this year. It's that all-around game now that I think makes us a legitimate conference contender, he can now guard a Bryce Taylor, a Derek Low, a Josh Shipp and an O.J. Mayo. I am not talking about shutting them down, I am talking about the difference between 8-15 nights and 7-17 nights - it's the type of shots they get or don't get. And when you combine that with his offensive improvement, his improved handle and passing, his ability to put it on the floor and attack the rim more, we start to look less like a two guard that might get you 30 or just six on a given night, and more like a guy that wears on you night in and night out on both ends of the floor.
I think we are going to see some Fred at the two and the one starting this weekend. Fred's defense is going to be necessary against the one guards in this conference. I just haven't seen it from Shiller that he can handle the one at the conference level. Shiller can shoot, but he looked horrible against Tech and the Bulldogs - in fact his three minutes against Fresno State were gasoline on a moshpit fire. I have never seen Trent have a faster hook that one against the Bulldogs - he practically gaffed poor Drew. But, this means Drew is a spot shooter for us and he can do that effectively because the kid can indeed shoot. Fred on the other hand, shooting - not so much. But, when he is marginally healthy, he is one of the conference's best defenders and offensive rebounders. And when it gets physical, like it will this weekend, Fred is a fifth-year senior and a guy that loves to wade in to a good bump and grind. I expect that against UCLA and USC, Fred's minutes will be critical. His energy and his leadership and his "quick strike" ability will be needed. He always seems to be particularly effective against the Trojans, who tend to overplay too much and open up the court.
I also think we will see Kenny Brown (not to be confused with Kenny Fields-the former UCLA All-American back when "Poly81" was a freshman) at the one a bit. Another spot-up shooter, Kenny, I think, has learned to keep it simple and get the ball up the floor. He already played tough conference minutes last year and has proven he is capable of getting the job done at the one. Plus, he is a much better defender than Shiller at this point. Plus, we get the benefit of UCLA and USC having seen him before--they know he will stick a jumper when it counts, they know he is not afraid - which should keep them honest. It means he won't get some opportunities he did last year, but it means his teammates shouldn't see anything skewed either.
Conference play stands in the doorway now, jersey all sweaty and gross, armpits all hairy and stanky from preseason play, nostrils flaring with anticipation, flooding us with memories of whipping UCLA's butt last season in Maples and the breakout of Brook against USC. More than anything we have seen this year so far, those two games scream at us what can happen this weekend. In those two games last season, for the most part, we shot well, defended very well, and took care of the ball (all right, we actually took care of the ball for one whole game and kicked it around a bit for the other whole game). Our recipe for success is the same this time around. Two close games in a row in which we didn't shoot the ball well cause some tribulation. But the bottom line is that we finished the pre-season 11-1, we got some close wins under belt, and our defense is right where it needs to be. And it's the defense that triggers this team, that is where we are going to make our mark in conference anyway.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!