The Hard(en) Way

This week's column from standout 6th Man and Stanford Daily writer Patrick Fitzgerald offers up a series of thoughts and views on players, strategies, and the refs' whistles used during this past weekend versus the Arizona schools, the current state of the Cardinal in the media polls, and this coming Sunday's tilt at Maples versus the California Golden Bears.

Editor's Note: The following blog/commentary offers the writer's views of the on-court performances and decisions of our men's basketball team. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our team's obvious desire and commitment.

In recent years, I'd look back at the newspaper, see that Stanford split the road series in Arizona, and feel pretty good about things. The Wildcats were the perennial conference powerhouse and the Sun Devils were often the wily upstart, who would make things difficult every now and then (after a couple years of therapy, I think I've been able to successfully block out all memories of the destructive force that was Ike Diogu).

Things have changed. Lute Olsen is gone, and something just isn't the same in Tucson. Stanford, meanwhile, has cracked the top-10 nationally and finds itself neck and neck with UCLA for conference dominance. Which means a split on the road, unfortunately, doesn't always sit as well as it once did.

For some reason, Saturday's win at Arizona doesn't make up for Thursday's loss at Arizona State. I guess the main reason is that Saturday was so close, and Stanford didn't seem to learn its lessons from the prior game: sloppy entry passes, defensive breakdowns and an inability to pull away. After most games this season, I've said to myself, "We played well, that one felt good." Saturday, it was mostly relief.

Earlier this season, I devoted space in this column to two of the Pac-10's promising freshman, Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo. It's only fair, now, to take a look at a largely underrated performer so far, ASU's James Harden.

Following Thursday's loss, Stanford fans know Harden all too well. His 23 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 5 assists were mostly quiet, but his late game heroics were hard to miss. Stanford simply had no answer for him; Harden went around Lawrence Hill and Taj Finger, and defensive stopper Fred Washington was inexplicably glued to the bench. Officially, the word was Washington had aggravated a hip flexor. Unofficially? I think Washington wanted to play.

Fred didn't seem all that jazzed after the buzzer sounded for the win in Arizona. I think the contrast was even more blatant after Brook Lopez started yelling at the fans. But you know what? I wasn't all that jazzed either. A win is a win, and we got the split. But why does it seem like Stanford always does things the hard way?

Schiller Time?

One of my good buddies, venting about the game Thursday night, said it best. Drew Schiller gets a Stanford scholarship to do essentially two things: shoot the ball, and make free throws. Yet in key situations against Arizona State, when the Sun Devils were showing zone, then intentionally fouling at the end, Schiller was nowhere to be seen. To have your best free throw shooter on the bench when the other team is intentionally fouling is mind-boggling to say the least.

Kenny Brown time, on the other hand, should be limited to certain spots. Don't get me wrong. I love the guy, and he is going to be a mighty fine dentist one day. But he's a self-admitted gunner, and sometimes that just doesn't fit in what the offense is trying to do. He's great at making miracles happen when the clock is ticking down. That is Kenny Brown time. But when your team is struggling to hold a lead while the opponent is intentionally fouling? That's Schiller time.

Getting Technical

I won't fault Johnson, however, for getting, T-ed up against Arizona State. Sometimes coaches will take a technical if they really need to make a point with the refs, or if they're looking to get the team fired up. I will admit, though, that Johnson's technical was during a play, not after a call, so that may not have been the case.

In any matter, you can't just look at the box score, see that Stanford lost in overtime, and blame Johnson's technical, and the subsequent two points for Arizona State, for the loss. Basketball is a game of runs and momentum. It's ludicrous to claim that certain events would have transpired one way or another at any given point.

Quotables, sour grapes edition

"We are on our homecourt, and it seemed like we could not get a call. It seemed like everything was going their way." – Jerryd Bayless

I'll agree with Bayless that the officiating was brutal at times on Saturday, but I wouldn't say it favored either team in particular. Stanford got a couple crucial breaks toward the end – there was an out of bounds play that could have been off Brook that was Stanford's ball, and that last play was really close to a goaltend by Robin. But Bayless shouldn't be one to complain; the refs bailed him on nearly every drive toward the hoop in the second half.

The freshman phenom put it slightly differently. "At the end of the game, I started making plays," he said.

No doubt about it, the guy is good. His stretch run for the Wildcats was impressive, demonstrating his ability to create and penetrate. Bayless knocked down all 16 of his free throws, but does he really believe he deserved to get to the line that often?

Sunday during the UCLA-USC game, the announcers said Pac-10 refs would be calling games tighter. Not sure what that's all about, but apparently the refs in Tucson got the memo at halftime on Saturday. The discrepancy between the halves was pretty ridiculous, but credit the Cardinal for adjusting – or at least attempting to adjust.

Jump around

One last note about the refs, and then I'm done, I promise. What was up with the jump balls? I thought there had to be at least a couple seconds where both guys could lay a claim to having possession, but the other night all it took was two guys from opposite teams touching the ball at the same time and – jump ball! Aggravating…

Speaking of aggravating, isn't it about time for Brent Musburger to hang it up now? The guy made no sense at all during that second half. Watching the game on our couch, my dad turned to me at one point and asked, "Didn't Musburger get fired for being too old in 1990?" Turns out that was for other reasons, but maybe CBS was on to something then...

Looking ahead

Next week is Sunday's home game against Cal. The Bears fell to Arizona but found a way to win in Tempe while the Card couldn't.

Let's not forget last year, when Stanford won 90-71 on the road but fell 67-63 to the Golden Bears at home, ending the Cardinal's 13-game home winning streak over Cal that had begun in 1993. Earlier this season, the Lopez twins gave the Bears fits inside and the Cardinal held on to win 82-77 at Berkeley. Ryan Anderson continues to shine (averaging 23.5 and 13 against the Arizona schools) and sophomore guard Patrick Christopher has given Cal a boost as well (20.5 points).

It was Christopher's 16 points and four assists that kept Cal in the game last month; stopping him will be key for the Cardinal. Stanford also excelled last time by getting Cal's big men in foul trouble, and Jordan Hill's fifth and final foul was critical juncture in the Arizona game, as well. The inside play has been a constant for the Cardinal, it's getting something, anything, from the perimeter players that seems to push Stanford over the top. Last time against Cal, it was Mitch Johnson's 16-point, seven assist and five rebound performance. Who will it be this time? (paging Hill, Lawrence, and Goods, Anthony…)

Poll progress

Luckily, Stanford's loss at Arizona State on Thursday cost the Cardinal only two spots in the national polls. At this point, potential tournament seeding starts to matter more than national ranking. I've seen sites rank the Cardinal between a two and four seed. Two may be a bit generous right now, but it's what Stanford fans should be hoping for. Winning out at home, a split at SoCal and a win or two in the Pac-10 tournament would make that goal a reality. Or, there's always the hard way…

Patrick Fitzgerald covers men's basketball as well as the occasional news story for The Stanford Daily. Have some dirt on an opposing player or a good idea for a 6th Man chant? Email him at patfitz@stanford.edu.


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