Card in a Zone: down #11 Xavier

In a confluence of positive play for the Stanford Cardinal on offense and defense, the unranked men of Maples pulled off the upset of this young college basketball season beating Xavier 63-62. A collective effort on offense made up a month's worth of highlight reel, but it was a defensive scheme and execution that made it all possible. Read on for in-depth review, analysis and quotes.

Wednesday night, Stanford pulled out the unthinkable.  On the heels of a sluggish season opener that cast some deserved doubts about this team's ability to shoot, the Card hit the clutch shots and made the critical defensive stops to upset #11 Xavier at Maples Pavilion.  This Xavier squad is loaded with talent, including a strong preseason candidate for national player of the year in big man David West, as well as guards Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers.  There will be maybe two teams Stanford will play this year that will match the talent that the Musketeers brought in that trio (Arizona and Florida), and they did not play poorly in any fashion on this night.  West went for 19 points and Sato scored 15, while Chalmers threw up a game-high 20 points including 14 in an incredible second half.  The three players never really hit foul trouble or apparent fatigue, playing for 40, 39 and 35 minutes, respectively.  Yes, this was Xavier playing at their high level of basketball, yet Stanford led for all but a few minutes of the game and pulled out the final 63-62 victory.

"I'm not sure that was the same team you saw Monday night," said Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery about his squad after the victory.  "That was pretty good right there... There is no question that this kind of effort is what college basketball is supposed to be."

Stanford took its stake in the game with defensive pressure and execution throughout, though especially in the first half - plus big offensive plays coming from all spots of the floor from all manners of Cardinal players.  A 42-33 lead at the half would quickly be erased with a Xavier push to start the second half, and incredibly unranked Stanford held on for the win despite hitting just six field goals in the entire second half.

The first big surge for Stanford came around the 16-minute mark of the first half, when Xavier enjoyed their only lead of the stanza at 8-6.  Off a Romain Sato missed jumper, senior Julius Barnes skied for a beautiful rebound and started the push the ball down the floor at three-quarters speed.  After redshirt junior Justin Davis set a screen at the top of the arc for Barnes, Davis flashed down to the low post on the left side of the basket where his defender failed to follow.  Barnes shot the ball across the floor to Davis, who drew help from the Xavier defensive middle immediately.  Davis put the ball on the floor and then threw a reach-around bounce pass to sophomore Rob Little who was standing on the other side of the lane.  Perfect execution, resulting in an easy lay-in by Little.  The game was tied and Stanford was on the front end of an 8-0 run that gave them a lead they held for most of the remainder of the game.  Little grabbed a strong rebound on the next Xavier possession, again a Sato miss, to setup the Stanford offense, but a Matt Lottich miss from the top of the key was chased by Justin Davis for the rebound, which gave Davis his second foul in just the first five minutes of the game.  Davis was the rock in the interior for Stanford in the Boston University game Monday night, and he would have to sit on the bench for the remainder of the half.  Hard to believe Stanford was about to actually step up its play in a way that Xavier would not handle.

After the TV timeout, Montgomery unleashed this fall's secret weapon, a 1-1-3 pressure zone.  To those who did not watch the game or who do not study the defensive nuances of the roundball, this zone was not like the classic 2-3 zone that B.U. employed Monday night.  This zone is also different from the trapping presses that you saw USC use full-court or three-quarters court to stymie the Card last year.  This hybrid zone sits back in the half-court and applies moderate trapping pressure to the ball as it rotates around the perimeter.  Unlike a sit-back zone (e.g. the 2-3), this zone does not dare a team to shoot three-point shots because it does not give open looks when executed properly.

With Davis absent from the game, Stanford went "small" by bringing small forward Nick Robinson in the game, leaving Little in the middle and Robinson and Josh Childress in the game to man the forward spots.  The 1-1-3 one does not need more than one true big man, who is supposed to man the middle, and the mismatch actually hurt Xavier on the other end of the floor. David West was left to guard Robinson on Stanford's early possession after he entered the game, and twice in three possessions West failed to come out to the perimeter to guard the redshirt sophomore from Liberty, Missouri.  Both times, Robinson shot daggers through the Musketeers' collective heart with laserlike three-point baskets.  Those buckets helped to extend Stanford's lead from the offensive end, but it was the defensive play that made the Stanford run.

"Nick Robinson was just huge," beamed a proud Montgomery after the game.  "Nick was great - the best he's ever played.  He hit some early three's and tipped in some great boards."  Teammate Josh Childress was every bit as effervescent toward his fellow small forward, charging that Robinson emerged rather than surprised.  "With Casey [Jacobsen] and Curtis [Borchardt] leaving, that allows Nick to really expand his game and have the opportunities to show what he can do.  Nick has always been a great player, and now he has the chance to show it," explained Childress.

The Card showed the zone immediately after that 15-minute mark timeout, when Robinson replaced Davis, and Xavier missed two field goal attempts in their first possession.  Junior Matt Lottich grabbed the rebound, and passed out to a racing Julius Barnes.  Barnes took the ball the distance, slicing through the retreating Xavier defense and tossing up a leaping underhanded lay-in while fouled mid-air.  He completed the three-point play, and then the defense really took over the game.  Xavier could not penetrate the zone or get an open look on the next possession, forced to pass the ball around in futility.  Lottich broke on one of the passes and grabbed the steal, which was parlayed into the first Robinson trey.  The very next possession, a little more ball pressure was applied on the perimeter, and Xavier was forced to throw the ball out of bounds for another turnover.  All told, Stanford forced eight Xavier turnovers in the half, with seven of those recorded as Stanford steals.  The Card scored 12 points off turnovers in the half, as compared to Xavier's meager four points in the same category, which largely explained the 42-33 lead Stanford held at halftime.

The 1-1-3 zone is not a junk defense that Montgomery just threw out there because of Xavier or because of David West.  This has been a premeditated defensive strategy that Stanford has been working on since the very beginning of practices in mid-October.  While spending much of early practices installing the offense and rehearsing fundamentals, there would be a portion of the practice allocated at the end to working on the zone.  Chris Hernandez was particularly adept at applying pressure while rotating and staying in position, which boded very well.  Then Hernandez developed a stress fracture that has taken him out of the lineup until mid-December.  The good news to follow was that Lottich excelled as perhaps the best player in this zone, with the energy, athleticism and opportunistic instincts to force turnovers.  Lotty recorded a team-high and career-high three steals in the game, unsurprisingly.

This zone is one of the most innovative strategies or schemes Mike Montgomery has implemented in his Stanford career.  Though it was installed and fully prepared over a week ago, ready for its first go in the exhibition game against the Olympic Club.  But the coaching staff made a late decision to hold it back, lest word of it leak out from Maples Pavilion.  The intent was to use it in the B.U. game Monday night, even though it was on national TV and would give Xavier some warning of what was to come.  Even though Booties might think this weapon was held in wait just for Xavier, the B.U. game went so badly in the first half that the zone would never have been comfortable to put in.  You want to make baskets to give you the best chance to set up a defense like this, and made baskets were as rare as   No reporter, nor any observer on The Bootleg's message boards, noted that for just one possession in that opening game against Boston, the zone did come out.  Then the Terriers called a timeout and it vanished as quickly as it arrived.  So this Xavier game was the first smart opportunity to use the zone, and when Davis had to leave with foul trouble, Montgomery really felt no choice but to use it.

"We had hoped we could steal a game or two in November or December with this, and I feel like we got a big one tonight," Montgomery related.  "We didn't know that we could have guarded [David] West with who we have.  We just looked at our personnel and felt like we needed an edge.  We anticipated playing small, and we did have to.  These kids really hustle on defense, and that's why it worked."

Xavier coach Thad Motta said after the game that his Musketeers had prepared for some zone, but did not expect this flavor at all.  "We didn't play well tonight, but they had everything to do with it," said the dejected Xavier head man.  "The zone slowed us down - we were standing around too much."

Offensively, Childress led the way in the first half with 13 points, but he scored just one point in the second half in what became a necessarily balanced scoring effort.  Though when Stanford made its big scoring statement in the first half, Childress was the big weapon.  He displayed the full versatility of his game, scoring twice from outside the experimental three-point line, on an offensive rebound tip-back, on a Sportscenter-quality 360° spinning driving finger roll and on a pull-up midrange jumper off the glass.  Julius Barnes had a tough shooting second half, but drove for three big scoring buckets in the first.  Freshman Dan Grunfeld could not hit any of his perimeter shots for the second straight game, but he recorded a three-point play when he drove the basket and drew a foul-and-finish with a little shoulder fake in the paint.  Maybe the big surprise of the first half was the seven-point output from sophomore Rob Little, who played at the high level he displayed in the off-season and hit all three of his field goal attempts.  He scored down low, as expected, but also ran the floor for a transition score and hit a sweet turnaround baseline jumper from about eight feet.  Throw in an early low score from Justin Davis, a late 20-foot jumper by Matt Lottich and a transition dunk by Matt Haryasz, and you saw no less than eight different Stanford players score in the first half.  Amazing.

Points were hard to come by in the second half, as Stanford shot just 23% from the field.  The Card recorded just 21 points on six field goals.  Two of those makes were three-point shots by Julius Barnes and Matt Lottich, and Lottich chipped in a big baseline driving lay-up early in the half that ended a 11-1 Xavier run.  The other three baskets of the half all came at the hands of Justin Davis, who delivered a huge performance on both ends of the floor in the second stanza.  He was limited to just five minutes of play in the first half with the quick foul trouble, but stayed out of the zebras' bad graces in the second half and was able to go all 20 minutes.  His first bucket was a six-foot turnaround fadeaway jumper right after Lottich's lay-up.  His second basket was a tip-in after a Childress missed acrobatic shot high off the glass.  The third and most spectacular shot came when Davis caught the ball on the high block, just outside the lane, with facing the basket.  He put the ball on the floor and then took a huge leaping stride to the middle of the paint with a spin-move that ended in a stop-jump fadeaway shot from about seven feet.  That was an NBA-caliber play that can not be defended, and it also extended a 58-55 lead to five points with just four minutes to go in the game.  Probably even more important that Davis' six second half points was his rebounding.  In a second half where Stanford struggled mightily to score, the Card held off Xavier largely because of the 25-15 advantage on the glass.  Davis pulled down eight rebounds in that second half alone, including four big boards on the offensive end.

Childress explained the defensive and rebounding intensity in the second half:  "At halftime, Coach [Montgomery] stressed that no matter how many shots you hit, you have to get back on the other end.  Our defensive intensity is way up this year."

The one great bugaboo of this game was the Cardinal's free throw shooting, which almost cost them the game.  Stanford shot just 11-for-21 from the charity stripe on the game, and just 7-for-15 in the second half.  The most egregious offenders were the Cardinal big men, with Childress and Little each hitting just 2-for-6 from the free throw line.  Stanford played a really good game across a lot of players and in a lot of areas, but this whole thing was almost deep-sixed on free throws alone.  Had the Card hit a respectable rate on those freebies, Stanford might have been protecting a six-to-eight point lead through much of the second half instead of battling with a one-to-three point margin.  The only bright light came with Julius Barnes, who hit 5-of-5 on the night to keep the team and game together.  "I have thought free throws could kill us," admitted Montgomery, "but we had the right guy on the line at the end."  It was Barnes who hit two free throws with 29 seconds left in the game to extend a one-point lead to three, which was what preserved the win.

I hold this up as one of the biggest wins in the last decade of Stanford men's basketball.  For the first time since the post-Keefe depression of 1992-93, Stanford hoops has been faced dramatically lowered expectations and a dim outlook.  This is a Cardinal team that even many Bootleg homers have questioned to be capable of reaching the NCAA tournament come March, or to finish in the top half of the Pac-10 standings.  This for a team that has enjoyed long strings of #1 national rankings, two post-season #1 seeds, eight straight NCAA appearances and six straight finishes in the top two of the Pac-10.  For the first time, Stanford lost not just one elite player before completing four years on The Farm, but two in Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt.  The cupboard was thought to be barren, with only the faintest of glowing ember hopes for the future.  To top all that off, this young and inexperienced team was asked to play one of the best teams in the country right off the bat in just their second game of the year.  This was a game Stanford by all rights should have lost, and maybe lost badly.  In light of all that, and with the clutch plays, execution and coaching we saw against a really outstanding Xavier squad, this was a win for the ages.  Montgomery delivered one of his best coaching performances, in both planning and execution, since the upset of Wake Forest in the 1997 NCAA tournament, and his players all chipped in some big plays in an incredibly balanced effort.  There will still be rocky times remaining this year, when the Card play young and make mistakes.  But this shot over the bow has told the Pac-10 and the rest of the nation that Stanford is not in rebuild mode.  They are a different beast, but an incredibly capable one.  Rumors of the demise of Stanford basketball may indeed have been great exaggerated. 

Now if only this momentum can be upheld throughout Stanford sports... if the football team can end a rocky season on a high note with an improbable Big Game upset... if women's soccer can advance in the NCAA tournament...

Some et cetera notes:

  • OK, so now the 1-1-3 is out there for complete public consumption, which includes every Stanford opponent who subscribes to cable.  The surprise factor is gone, but does that mean the advantage is lost?  Not likely.  A better coached team can better scheme how to beat this zone, but this is not an idea Montgomery hatched just for surprise.  This is a good zone that fits this personnel, and the kids play it pretty well.  Chances are they will get better at it, without the gambling mistakes, the more they play it.  So now when Stanford uses this 1-1-3 zone in games, it becomes purely a defensive stance.  Its future effectiveness will be predicated on execution without the surprise...
  • That zone has been visible in practices for the last month, but the coaching staff asked me early on to please keep it off the Internet.  I refrained from any description of it, and asked a few posters who saw it at practice to do the same.  So in this world where coaches in football and basketball are closing practices and fearing the Internet like some modern day Bubonic plague, it just goes to show that you can still keep a secret in today's information-filled age...
  • Notice how Stanford moved the ball around in its possessions this game?  One failing in the Boston game was a tendency to jack up some shots early in the possession.  But this offense was patient, and it paid off.  In the first game, Stanford recorded just nine assists versus 15 turnovers, while in the second game the Card logged 12 assists versus 10 turnovers.  Julius Barnes in particular improved, finishing with five assists and just two turnovers versus Xavier, as opposed to his three-assist, five-turnover game against Boston...
  • The patient offense also found better looks closer to the basket, taking just 26% of their shots from three-point land.  In contrast, the Card took 51% of their shots from outside the arc in the B.U. game...
  • Barnes has started off the year shooting 6-for-30 from the field, and 3-for-14 from deep.  Not a good start.  But the good news is that his shots in the Xavier game were good shots.  A lot of them almost went down.  He didn't make bad decisions to shoot, and it should just be a matter of time before they go down.  Though I still think his move back to the shooting guard when Hernandez returns to health will be a big help...
  • The experimental rule that should have had a big effect in these two games, but hasn't, has been the widened lane.  Stanford's big men like to sit in the paint in this offense, and the international lane makes it nearly impossible to setup with strong low post position.  Yet incredibly, there has not been a single three-second count called in these first two regular season games.  That has the Cardinal players as surprised as anyone, especially after the refs called it in the exhibition game last week...
  • The Cardinal big men are also enjoying what they believe to be pretty fair officiating in these early games.  Though Justin Davis was a bit miffed at the calls in the first half that sent him to the bench, both Joe Kirchofer and Josh Childress said after Wednesday night's game that the team feels that physical play is being allowed.  They grinned and noted this is the joy of playing early games without Pac-10 officials on the floor...
  • Chemistry is a huge part of why this team did what they did in this game.  Montgomery keeps talking about how fun this group is to coach because of their unanimous genuine excitement, and how well they work together.  The players keep talking about how different they all feel this year.  Well it showed last night because so many players played big, which never happened last year.  You at most got one big game out of someone outside of Jacobsen and Borchardt.  Childress expounded after the game, "We know we're all in this together.  "Last year, there were times I just stood there on the floor because I knew it was going to be either Casey or Curtis to make the play.  This year, it can be any of us at any time."
  • For the record, I didn't think this team could play at this level.  I knew how good Xavier was, and did not think this early in the year the Card could match them.  That first half of play, on both ends of the floor, is about the peak performance I can imagine for these guys.  In no practice or scrimmage in this fall or during the off-season have I seen so many guys make so many plays.  Either this means we saw the best that Stanford can play right now, or they are improving as a unit far faster than I grasped...
  • Sophomore Josh Childress on the question of whether playing this 1-1-3 zone is fun:  "It's fun because it worked!"
  • Up next is Rice at home on Sunday, but after that comes New York City for the NIT final four.  Stanford will face the winner of the Florida/Eastern Illinois game there, with a likely final four of Stanford, Florida, Kansas and North Carolina.  Win or lose in that first game, Stanford will get a second game, which means a lot of exposure and a huge boost in strength of schedule.  All of the players are hyped to travel to the Big Apple, and many of their families were making travel arrangements at the final buzzer last night.  Note that Dan Grunfeld grew up in New Jersey and has a lot of family in the NY/NJ area.  He has already garnered the nickname of Dan Soprano by some teammates...
  • All three scholarship freshmen saw important minutes in both halves, with at least two minutes of play for each in each half.  They combined for just five points, but did their jobs.  Haas provided some key minutes to spell Lottich and Barnes, and held his own defensively.  Grunfeld and Haryasz scored their points as noted above, but once again Matt Haryasz is having a tough early go with the officials.  It may just take time for them to adjust to him in rebounding and shotblocking situations, as they come to learn what he can do with his natural abilities rather.  The transition dunk for Haryasz recorded the first points of his Stanford career...
  • Some faces in the crowd including a pair of seven-footers in Curtis Borchardt and elite junior recruit Robert Rothbart. Several members of the women's hoops team were there in support (as they were for the B.U. game).  All-American Nicole Powell was seen holding a sign asking, "ESPN: where are Jay and Dickie V?"  Good question, Nicole...
  • When you evaluate this game, consider the final score.  Stanford won by just one point, which is the smallest of margins that could have gone the other way with one bounce on either rim.  Had the Card lost by one point, how differently would you have viewed the game?  Since it comes so early in the year, it is taken as an important harbinger for what is in store with this season, but hopefully this can instead serve as a reminder that when you analyze what went right and wrong in a game, the final score should not always be one of your first filters...


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