Two bodies were hoped to be added to this team's lineup soon, with Chris Hernandez returning to practices from his foot surgery and Teyo Johnson a week away from work after his knee sprain. But Johnson declared this week for the NFL draft, stopping out of school to train intensively for the combines, and Hernandez had something less than a perfect return on that foot.
Hernandez practiced Monday pretty hard for the first time since his early November foot surgery, but then found Tuesday morning when he woke up that he had a good deal of soreness. As a result, he held out of practice that afternoon, standing on the sideline and shooting some jumpers. For Wednesday's practice, Hernandez returned to action but less than he attempted on Monday, still with some soreness. The good timing news was that Thursday was a planned off day for the team, as players were given extra time to finish off their final exam responsibilities. Practice resumed Friday morning, with Hernandez able to do a little more work than Wednesday, but not as much as Monday.
Coming into this week, Mike Montgomery said that he wanted two solid straight practices from Hernandez to show him that he was ready to play in a game, at game pace and his pace. "Chris plays very hard," said Montgomery. "and that's one reason he gets hurt so often. He needs to get back to a point where he can play how he plays, unencumbered by the injury."
Hernandez did not show the progress Montgomery wanted, and he thus is questionable for tonight's game at Maples versus St. Mary's. The original plan was to play the sophomore point guard for eight minutes, but there is now even a chance that he might not dress out. If there is enough soreness today to give pause to the training staff, they will not risk anything. Stanford has five games in the next eight days to play, which will give more than enough opportunity for Hernandez to get some playing opportunities. If he can go tonight, expect him to be used "sparingly," according to the Stanford coaches.
The problem is not that Hernandez is unable to move around or perform on the floor in the wake of that foot surgery; instead it is the fear of damaging the soft tissue surrounding the fifth metatarsal bone. The bone itself is in perfect shape, according to Montgomery, but the muscles and tendons around it are not used to the stresses and strains that basketball places upon them. To aid in the recovery, an orthotic insert for his left shoe will be used for added support.
An open question is how the starting lineup may change when Hernandez is able to play extended minutes. Though the point guard has been given no promise and Montgomery is making no promises, all the talk from the players and coaches point to a starting backcourt of Hernandez and Julius Barnes. That would send Matt Lottich to the bench, though he has been a very valuable player at the shooting guard position through the Cardinal's first five games. Lottich says he anticipates an end to his starting spot, but is comfortable with that.
How would that change affect Stanford's offense on the floor? "I think it will be run better," says Montgomery. "Julius has made progress and now we're able to do some things. But this [change] will let Julius use his athleticism better, and Chris is a more natural point for us. I think this has helped Julius play the point, though. He has the experience. I think he'll be more effective at the two, knowing that all he has to do is score. I expect his averages and percentages to go up."
Just as Stanford has had a two week break to take care of business in the classroom, as well as heal, a slate of upcoming opponents have had a lot of time to look at game film of the much ballyhooed 1-1-3 zone. The conjecture by observers of the team is that the zone's effectiveness may be greatly mitigated without the benefit of surprise. But this team continues to work the zone as a primary or secondary defensive tool in practices. Montgomery explains his plans going forward when to use the zone and when to abandon it:
"It all depends on how opponents attack it. If they come out and show they can execute really well against it, we have to come out of it. In the past, if a team hit one or two three's against our zone, we came right out of it, but I think this is something we can stick with differently. The zone protects us foulwise with just four post guys."
On the offensive end, Montgomery is less pleased with his team's execution. This is where he says the youth of his team is showing, "unable to move from one thing to the next thing very well." In addition, the shooting performances of this team have been lackluster, absent one glimmering game against Rice. Montgomery elaborates, "The proof is in the pudding, and our shooting percentages are not where they need to be, individually or collectively. That will only improve through shot selection."
Though practices still can only simulate so much of what Stanford will see from opponents this year. "We are only as good as our practices," the coach explains. "We can't begin to put a team on the floor in practice like North Carolina. They were just so quick and long, and took us out of our game."
Another focus for improvement offensively is the inside game, where Rob Little and Justin Davis are combining for a meager average of 15 points and 16 rebounds per game. "That's got to improve," Montgomery charges. "It they are getting all the minutes, then we need more points inside. There aren't enough touches inside right now and we have to work on balance. If they get their feet in the paint, we'll get them the ball. But if they try to post up 12 feet from the basket, then I have no interest in that. We still have to get guys comfortable with everybody, and that will take time."
This upcoming stretch of games will be an interesting test for the freshmen, who are coming off their first set of finals at Stanford. And the wear they have endured is more than just from the exams themselves, as the notoriously misnamed "Dead Week" also handed them a load of work. Matt Haryasz had no less than five papers to write in less than a week, and indeed looked something like a zombie in this week's practices. He was heard saying to the coaches earlier in the week, "Boy will I be glad when this is done."
Montgomery had this to say this week on each of the three scholarship freshmen:
Dan Grunfeld: "He knows how to play, though he needs to get more explosive athletically. He knows how to take a charge and curls off screens probably better than anybody on this team.
Jason Haas: "He's real reluctant to shoo