Card Inside Game Swamps Gators

Just when you thought Stanford would evolve into a three-point team, on the heels of Sunday's explosion against Rice, the Card received two huge efforts in its frontcourt to pull off unthinkable upset #2 of this young season. Rob Little scored (18) and rebounded (9) career highs, while Justin Davis added 14 points and 10 boards in the 69-65 giant slaying.

Florida came out in the game with their full regiment of trapping pressure, both full-court after made baskets and also on the perimeter in half-court sets. But it was Stanford who set the tone by scoring two of its first three baskets by throwing the ball over the defense to an open Justin Davis for the easy finishes in the paint. In the first three minutes of the game, the Gator press had yielded no turnovers versus two easy baskets. Stanford's preparation was quite evident, and effective.

On the other end of the floor, Stanford employed its 1-1-3 zone, to the surprise of nobody, and also found the opposition exploiting openings for scores. By the fourth minute, Florida had also put down two very open shots against holes in the zone that came not by design, but rather as a result of Stanford lapses in execution. The first was an open three out on the perimeter corner, while the second came as Matt Bonner dribbled into the middle of the paint and found a soft spot to take an open jumper. The game was tied at seven, and would be a tight battle throughout the half as the two teams sought to leverage the opportunities they could against these tough defensive fronts.

Both teams did the early damage inside, with Bonner and David Lee scoring for Florida, while Davis and Rob Little put down the points for the Cardinal. When the game was again tied at 11 each, each team had eight points from their froncourt in the paint. But a fundamental difference as the game progressed was that Florida moved away from these inside seams in the zone, with most scoring attempts and makes on the perimeter, while Stanford continued to work the backside of Florida's defenses throughout. Lee would score just two more points in the game, and Bonner would do more damage outside than inside. In contrast, Little and Davis would add another 24 points down low in the game. Stanford would take 43 of its 60 shots in the game inside the three-point arc, while Florida would take just 33 of its 61 shots inside.

Florida did have enough success with their three-point shooting because of some executions against Stanford's zone. Just as Rice fared better against Stanford's zone schematically than Xavier, so too with preparation did Florida create and take advantage of opportunities. The one great enemy of a good 1-1-3 zone is rapid ball reversal, particularly when you can skip it over the defense to the other 'naked' side of the floor. Credit Florida and Billy Donnovan for making those passes and getting the open looks. Also in the first half, Florida rotated the ball patiently, to which Stanford did not always make its assignments. At least twice, the baseline 'back three' of the 1-1-3 zone did not come out to the baseline corner to meet the ball, and that gave open looks that this zone should not allow.

The other set of mistakes that just killed Stanford in the first half came on loose balls, when Cardinal players too often collided on rebounds or in grabbing at a free ball. Those balls either took a bee-line out of bounds, or found their way to Gator arms. Two of those effective turnovers resulted in two easy Florida buckets for a total of five points. Another thing that helped UF's cause in the first half was their offensive rebounding (which mysteriously disappeared in the second half). Though the 1-1-3 zone contributed to a low Gator shooting percentage, they picked up a few buckets on putbacks after offensive boards.

The Card picked up their rebounding as the half progressed, including a pivotal pair of offensive boards by Justin Davis in back-to-back possessions. The first came off a Josh Childress miss while Stanford was staring down its worst deficit of the game at seven points. Davis regained his balance, took one step toward the basket and layed it in. Florida turned the ball over out of bounds on the ensuing possession, and Barnes would attempt a driving lay-in that rimmed out. Davis went up and grabbed the ball, dunking it in the same motion. Rob Little next got in the action, rebounding a missed Matt Lottich lay-in, which Little put back with a nifty four-foot jump hook.

Throughout the half Stanford continued to execute on offense, penetrating and attacking the Florida defense. Donnovan switched out of the trap and went to a man-to-man defense for stretches, but part of that also came from an inability to hit enough shots on their offense. The game remained tight, with Florida holding the lead through halftime (except for a 26-26 tie), never leading by more than seven points and enterring the locker room holding a four-point lead.

Starting out the second half, it was again the inside game that provided the scoring. Little hit a couple of shots in the paint, laying it in and hitting the little hook shot to keep Stanford just a few points off the Florida pace. Justin Davis grabbed a ball outside the lane and made a strong move with his big and quick strides to finish while being fouled. But it was a Josh Childress three-pointer (his only of the game), that finally tied the game at 43.

Then the Gators started a 10-2 run when they again skipped the ball over the Stanford zone for an open trey. Their next made basket would be the mirror image, but again crossing over the defense to find an elusive open look by Matt Walsh. The run was interrupted only by a Dan Grunfeld driving lay-up, but the offense took a breather from hitting shots or grabbing rebounds that would seem to be the beginning of the end.

Things looked bleak when Stanford trailed by its largest margin of the game, 53-45, under the nine minute mark. But with 8:46 left in the game, Matt Lottich squared up for a trey at the top of the key after Julius Barnes drove from the corner to draw the defense, then dishing to the open junior. That shot ended a three-minute scoring drought and pulled Stanford emotionally back into the game, and started a 14-4 run over the next 4:10 of the game that would give the Cardinal their first lead (59-57) since early in the game. The big shots during this run included a Little turnaround baseline jump hook, a Barnes strike from the top of the three-point arc (set up when Little screened two defenders), a Barnes running floating jumper from eight feet, and finally a turnaround Childress jumper from 11 feet.

Florida twice matched Stanford to tie the game, and then took a one point lead at 63-62 on free throws, but Lottich would fire right back on the next possession. Florida had switched out of its pressure defense and played a good deal of man-to-man in the second half, but at this time employed a 2-3 zone to limit the Cardinal's inside scoring. Stanford dribbled and moved the ball around, but had no good look heading into the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. The two top Gator defenders traced Barnes with the ball at the top, but then Childress crossed underneath to the left side of the court while Lottich showed on the right side. Barnes swung the ball to Lottich, who got off this shot before Florida could rotate over. The ball went straight down to again give Stanford the lead at 65-63.

Childress would miss two free throws that could have extended the lead, and that looked potentially fatal when the Gators bit back on a tough Matt Bonner one-handed off-balance shot from eight feet just inside the final minute. Tied at 65, Florida stayed again in the 2-3 zone and again Stanford struggled to get the ball moved around for that good look at the basket. Barnes attempted to dribble-drive through the middle of the paint but lost the ball at 16 feet. He recovered with just six seconds on the shot clock and just 23 left in the game. Lottich was the nearest man in cardinal and white, but the junior from Winnetka, IL could only heave up a 26 foot prayer that rimmed out. Rob Little was sitting just outside the expanded lane and rotated into the middle of the paint when that shot went up, and that rebounding position is what won the game. No Gator, nor any other Cardinal, was even close to the ball, and Little took one step toward the basket before laying it in.

The game was sealed in perhaps the most improbable of circumstances - at the free throw line... by Rob Little and Justin Davis. The starting frontcourt for the Cardinal unfortunately carried the tags as Stanford's two worst free throw shooters last year, with a combined success of just 47%. Davis has shown a revamped stroke at the line this year, and his early 4-for-6 showing is encouraging even if premature. But Little has been the king clankmeister, with just 2-for-9 shooting from the charity stripe through the first three games of the season. Little hit all four of his free throws in the game in the final eight minutes of regulation, and then Davis hit two of two strokes in the final seconds to extend the two point lead to four. Little's shooting was the most improbable, and statistically speaking if you take his prior record at the line this year to be his free throw capability, then you would calculate the probability of his hitting four of four at just 0.2%.

To heighten the irony, consider that other Cardinal shooters had their chances to ice the game late, but Josh Childress and Julius Barnes combined for just 1-for-4 at the stripe in the late going. For the game, Stanford players other than Little and Davis shot just 3-for-10 at the line. Yes, this is a game Stanford almost lost at the free throw line if not for the late standstill heroics of the big redwoods.

The numbers overall don't look like the kind of otherworldly production you would expect to be necessary to pull off such a putative David v. Goliath affair. Stanford shot just 45% from the field and 35% from three-point range, plus the very forgettable aforementioned free throw follies. The rebounding was clutch, but actually trailed the Gators by one board over the course of the game.

One subtle detail of this game was the fact that Stanford never saw anyone in any real foul trouble, which seems almost unheard of. But in a game where the starting five for the Card scored 63 of the 69 points, the loss of any starter could have taken crucial points off the board. When you further consider that the two most foul-prone players on this roster are Davis and Little, who combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds, the foul-free flow of this game was nothing less than heaven-sent.

On that theme, this was a very disciplined game for Stanford by the numbers. Though they have played some good athletes in this young season, and even seen some surprising quickness on the perimeter in Rice's three-guard lineup and Xavier's Lionel Chalmers, nothing was to prepare them for the pace and pressure of the Gators. Florida had been forcing 20 turnovers per game through their first three games this season, yet the Card only lost the ball 10 times in this game. In a surprising yet unsurprising role-reversal, it was Stanford's 1-1-3 zone defense that put Florida out of sorts and helped to spur 15 turnovers. The Card also stayed very patient throughout this game on offense, occasionally chucking up a shot early in the shot clock, but mostly moving the ball crisply around the perimeter. When Florida brought trapping pressure out to the top corners, Julius Barnes and Matt Lottich made several beautiful cross-court passes to find the open man down low. The starting backcourt duo logged 10 assists on these and other plays, while turning the ball over a mere three times.

Barnes was particularly laudable with his six dimes versus just one turnover, playing very much within himself against the UF pressure. Note that his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved in each game in this young season, and this six-assist performance was a career high. He looked first to facilitate the offense for his teammates, and specifically recognized that this Florida defense was going to give the best scoring chances to his big men in the paint. While the preceding game versus Rice was won (and blown open) by a barrage of perimeter shooting, that came because the defense gave it to Stanford by packing in its zone so tightly. When the Gators overextended their defense, mostly in the first half, Barnes did not force outside shots and instead moved the ball around. His 11 points ranks as one of his middling performances, but with how he ran this team on this night, it ranks as one of his best career performances. How fitting that he shines so brightly in his senior year on the same MSG stage where he three years ago in his first Stanford game upstaged then fellow freshman Jason Williams in an overtime win against Duke.

Though Justin Davis was discussed at length for his rebounding, first half scores and clinching free throws, it was Rob Little who was the hero of this game. He scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half, in a game with very un-Littlesque 7-for-11 shooting. He nailed his short-range jumpers and hooks, and converted in workmanlike fashion his opportunities under the basket. This was the type of performance I saw last spring and summer in pick-up games, that gave me the optimism to believe Little could be an important player for this team. I specifically remember when the 7'2" former Oregon Duck Chris Christoffersen came off the floor at the conclusion of one such game, which Little had totally dominated. And it wasn't the first time, either. He was shaking his head and barked to Little, "If you don't average 15 points in the Pac-10 next year, I'm going to be pissed." Don't expect that average, or a lot of these 18-point 9-rebound nights, but the potential really is there.

Little also picked up two big blocks on the night, which was yet another clutch category for the Card. Though Florida had been employing its aggressive and swarming defense to block seven shots per game this year, they only mustered one swat against Stanford. The Cardinal in contrast blasted six Gator attempts, including the two by Little, two by Childress and two (in just two minutes) for freshman Matt Haryasz.

One holistic note on Little's big night, as opposed to the standout scoring by Barnes and Lottich last Sunday: in both games, the Stanford offense ran where it best could run. Rice gave the perimeter and basically dared Stanford to shoot from outside, after they saw the horrific first half in the Boston University game. Florida brought the defense way away from the basket many times in this game, which gave Stanford its best shots deep in the paint. Not to take anything away from any of these big performances, but it is helpful to remember that players don't always 'show up' in the games when they score... so much as they are given chances to succeed relative to other games.

As Montgomery pointed out after the game, this young Stanford team has logged three of its four wins over teams who appear destined for the NCAA tournament, and who in fact are likely favorites to win their respective conferences. With games against teams likely to rack up winning percentages like these, plus an upcoming matchup against North Carolina and later this winter against Gonzaga and Pepperdine, the strength of schedule looks very strong. Then you figure big wins against Xavier and Florida in the bag, for a team without its starting point guard, and this looks like a team that once again belongs in the NCAA tournament. It is officially time to stop the talk about the post-season NIT for this Stanford team, given that the Cardinal would have to underachieve to fall to that spot. There will come times that this team plays below its potential because of its youth and its thin numbers, but it is outright disrespect to talk about this team as a future bubble team.

Speaking of Montgomery's comments, he might ought to not be so profusive in his team-effacing comments that give the 1-1-3 zone so much credit for these two big wins. True, the zone was a difference maker that gave several turnovers and buckets in the first half of the Xavier game that easily was the difference, but the kids on this team by all rights should not have even been in shouting distance in these two games for the zone to put them over the top. The fact is that this team has matured far faster than I realized, with a wide cast of characters showing the confidence and ability to step up and make plays. They are hustling their butts off, which gets them that extra rebound or loose ball that may have been the winning ball in these tight games. These kids worked pretty hard to run this zone well, and to run their offense well enough to win these games. They deserve a helluva lot of credit. They are putting Stanford basketball back in the middle of the map, just as fast as most pundits were writing them off...

Up next is North Carolina in the preseason NIT final on Friday night. Stanford is 0-8 all-time against the Tarheels, including a crushing defeat that Barnes, Davis and Joe Kirchofer remember from the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.

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