Everything for Stanford starts and ends with twin sophomore centers No. 11 Brook Lopez (7-0, 260 lbs, 19 points, eight boards per game, 1st Team All-Pac-10) and No. 42 Robin Lopez (7-0, 255 lbs, 10.3 points), the projected No. 3 and No. 20 picks in next year's NBA Draft. (Brook can't wait to go pro – not a huge surprise for a player academically ineligible fall quarter, but I've heard Robin is leaning toward staying.) Scout.com ranked them the No. 2 and No. 4 centers in their high school class, and Brook's offense and Robin's defense have lived up to the hype. They've respectively lit up and shut down plenty of Pac-10 guys who will too be cashing NBA checks.
This season, Brook (buzz cut) has really improved his defense, Robin (long, curly hair) elevated his offense (though he's still just a 65-percent free throw shooter to his brother's 78 percent), and both players have become much better handling the ball and passing out of double teams. That makes opponents think twice about doubling. So does the fact that a double team usually comes from the middle, and thus has no effect on Brook's patented move, posting up on the right block, then fading baseline for an eight-foot hook, bank or fade-away over his left shoulder.
Brook scored 30 against Marquette, but 28 of those were after halftime, and he scored all but three of Stanford's points in overtime. So whenever the Cardinal desperately need to score, they're going to him on the right block and he's fading away.
Senior forward No. 31 Taj Finger (6-8, 200 lbs, six points, four rebounds per game) is the only other option in the post. He is a better defender of quicker posts, but is known for his scrappy hustle and basketball fundamentals. He'll crash the offensive boards hard to clean up the twins' misses, he'll hit open 18-foot jumpers and he's a great cutter without the ball – allowing a double-teamed Brook to find up wide-open for a layup.
As for the rest of the team, let's just say Stanford would be happy to trade backcourts. If you put Tennessee's or UCLA's backcourt with the Lopez twins, you'd have the odds-on favorite to win the national title, instead of a three-seed predicted to lose their Sweet 16 match-up.
The one consistent guard is junior Mitch Johnson (6-1, 190, 6.7 points, 5.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds). Like his co-captain Finger, he uses heady play and court vision (he's an incredible passer, posting a school-record 16 assists and just one turnover against Marquette) to make up for his physical limitations. He'll knock down the open three (40 percent deep, but only 78 attempts this season) to keep opponents from sagging too badly, but his main job is to get it to the twins where they can score with it. He's been quietly doing that devastatingly well.
Because of his on-court leadership and entry passing, he'll play virtually the entire game despite his lack of defensive speed. Pac-10 point guards like Nic Wise (Arizona), Tajuan Porter (Oregon) and Darren Collison (UCLA) drove the lane with impunity against Johnson, which forces the twins (usually Robin) to shift out of position to help, leaving their guy (usually the four, weakside) wide open for dishes, offensive boards and put-backs. This inability to defend the point of attack breaks down Stanford's defense, and is the primary reason for most of their losses this year, which leads me to my key match-up for Friday. D.J. Augustin is a great player, but he's longer than he is quick. Johnson surprisingly stayed with speedy Dominic James of Marquette – if he can stick with Augustin, I like Stanford's chances.
Junior shooting guard Anthony Goods (10.3 points) and junior forward Law Hill (8.7 points, 4.9 rebounds) get clumped into the same category. They're both good defenders, Goods especially with his quickness, but Hill too with his long wingspan (might see a lot of him at the three against a taller UT backcourt). However, they've both been wildly inconsistent offensively, failing to live up to their offensive expectations. Goods has a shooter's stroke and mentality (he'll take his 10 attempts, whether he's having a 20-percent or 50-percent night) and has scored 30 in a game, while Hill was First Team All-Pac-10 last year, so they both have the potential. But all Stanford fans have enjoyed this season is on-and-off flashes.
Judging from Marquette, I'd expect Johnson, Goods and the twins to each play virtually the vast majority of the game, with Finger, Hill, Fred Washington and Kenny Brown rotating through the fifth slot to give the main four breathers and allow Trent Johnson to adjust to match-ups and go bigger or smaller. The senior forward Washington (6-5, 215 lbs, 4.5 points) is the fifth starter, easily the team's best on-ball defender and the guy who often switches onto whoever scares Stanford most (I'd presume Augustin, given his size too). Injuries look to have bothered him on defense throughout the season, though he's played well recently, and he is easily the worst jump-shooter on the team, making just 53 percent of his free throws. His offense is therefore limited to driving, dishing and getting to the line, so his defender will likely permanently double the twins. That's a cost Stanford has to accept if an opponent's backcourt is penetrating at will.
The senior guard Brown, a former walk-on from Southlake, (Dallas area) Tex. is Washington's diametric opposite: all offense and little D. "Downtown" Kenny Brown is a fan favorite for his fearlessness beyond the arc (60 three-point attempts this season, despite playing just 10.4 minutes per game), where he'll shoot from NBA range or with two guys in his face. If UT's zoning and collapsing in the paint, or if the ‘Horns go on a quick run, he's the guy who'll check in to try to force Texas into man defense or stymie their momentum. The only problem is his defense – as a walk-on, he doesn't have the athleticism to keep up with top-level Division I guards.
Vegas opened with the line at Texas -1.5, which I honestly think is a little low, because Texas is probably a 55/45 favorite to win the game, and if you're going to win, you're covering the 1.5 97 percent of the time. But, at the end of the day, the teams are matched closely enough that it should come down to the last five minutes. And as Stanford fans know well after their second-round overtime thriller, guessing what happens down the stretch in the Tournament is as futile as trying to predict coin flips.
I thought Austin was a beautiful city when I visited it years ago, and I also think Bob Stoops is a sleazy you-know-what, so it's with a clear conscience that I can wish Texas good luck on Friday. (Just, you know, not in the last five minutes.)