NIT Scouting Report: Stanford

The Vanderbilt Commodores could not have shot the ball much better than they did in the second half of Friday night's win over South Dakota State. As we've said before, every team would love to shoot the lights out every night, but one shouldn't expect as much. Effort is what must remain constant. Figuring out solutions from game to game? The answers will differ in their most granular details.


It was as good a stretch of basketball as anything Vanderbilt had produced in the 2014-205 season. In a span of just under three minutes on Friday night against South Dakota State, the Commodores maxed out. Eight straight trips down the floor. Eight scoring trips. Five three-pointers. All in all, Vanderbilt rang up 18 points in 2:51, from the 8:58 mark of the second half to the 6:07 mark. An already-enthusiastic Memorial Gym crowd – knowing this would be the final home game of the season – was able to roar its heart out and celebrate one more victory before the most unique coaching box in college basketball is revised for the fall of 2015.

Every coach would love to see his team perform the way Vanderbilt performed in that sequence of 2:51, but every competitor knows that “the zone” exists for brief periods of time. It might be accessed once in a great while, but it’s not an everyday event or even an every-other-day occurrence. Will Vanderbilt beat Stanford and advance to the NIT semifinals in New York if it can shoot 12-of-21 from three-point range? Of course it will. Can VU depend on that happening in Palo Alto, California? No.

This is, of course, not a new theme over the full duration of the season. Teams must be able to carry habits and mindsets and fresh legs from one game to another. Qualities such as resolve and specific tools such as crisp defensive rotations must regularly be in evidence in order for a basketball team to accomplish something each and every night, especially in an elimination tournament. Those qualities and tools usually manifest themselves on defense and in the larger overall realm of “hustle plays.” Offense, though, is a little more of a chess match.

On offense, the simple possibility attached to each and every trip down the floor is that the defense might take away your first option. It might double-team the post. It might use a box and one or some other kind of junk defense. It might go to a zone. It might overplay certain passing lanes or areas of the court. If any of these things happen, well-schooled offensive players need to know how to pry open an opportunity for a good shot against the defensive maneuver. One night’s display of strength will make an opposing coach attempt to counter that strength in the next game. Not every player might be in position to bust loose on each game night, but every player has to be ready to respond to the needs of the given situation.

This is what Vanderbilt has done in the first two games of the NIT.

In the opening round, Damian Jones was ready to go against Brad Waldow. Saint Mary’s was confident that its big man could take on Vanderbilt’s big man, but Jones was up for the challenge and won that matchup convincingly, enabling the Dores to get a win in California. On Friday, the outside shot is what was available against South Dakota State, and when Kevin Stallings called plays for Matthew Fisher-Davis, the rest of the team performed the screens and other actions that set Fisher-Davis free. Fisher-Davis took care of the shooting part of the process, and the rest – like South Dakota State itself – was history.

In this game, then, the reality of a 12-of-21 three-point-shooting performance against South Dakota State will make Stanford attentive to VU’s shooting prowess. The Commodores will need to see how the Cardinal react on defense and develop a sense of where they can attack. Friday’s performance could be a big weapon for Vanderbilt, but only if the Dores allow it to be. If VU hoists long shots before probing every part of Stanford’s defense, that will only play into the Cardinal’s hands. If, however, VU moves both the ball and bodies to give Stanford’s defense a lot of things to think about, Friday’s performance could cause Stanford defenders to overextend on the perimeter and leave wide driving lanes available.

Can Vanderbilt shoot the cover off the ball again? Sure it can. The key, though, is for this team to work intelligently, getting Stanford’s defense off balance so that subsequent shot attempts are clean ones. Reading the defense and executing are the hard parts of this game against Stanford. The shots will take care of themselves… if VU properly determines its line of attack first.

STANFORD AT-A-GLANCE

The Cardinal have been a huge disappointment this season under head coach Johnny Dawkins. This is a team that made the Sweet 16 a year ago, and with leading scorer Chasson Randle back for another season, Stanford was supposed to have the production and the talent needed to make another run in March. Instead, this team has regressed. You’ll read more about this shortly, but the basic summary of the 2015 Cardinal is that not enough players have developed their skill sets to the point where this team is tough to defend at all five positions on the floor. This has been a two-man team, maybe a two-and-a-half-player team if you want to be charitable.

Basketball coaches will often talk about the game – in general or to players they instruct – with an emphasis on “making yourself harder to guard” or “making yourself easier to guard.” Doing the right things on offense makes you harder to guard; failure to do so makes you easier to guard. Stanford’s players – even the team’s best scorer – have made themselves easier to guard this season. That’s why the team is ninth in the Pac-12 in overall shooting percentage and 11th in two-point percentage. The really unfortunate part for Stanford – a reason why Vanderbilt has a much brighter future than the Cardinal – is that the Bay Area program loses its top three scorers this season. It’s going to be hard to see how Dawkins is going to have enough quality pieces to work with next season. This disadvantage, though, might point the way to a strong Stanford performance on Tuesday. None of the Cardinal’s foremost seniors will want to let this season end – not before going to New York, at least.

Starting Lineup

Center – Stefan Nastic –
Senior, 6-11, 245; 2014-15: 13.4 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game

Nastic is one of Stanford’s three top scorers and the team’s primary interior scorer. He will draw Damian Jones in a very compelling matchup. Nastic is taller and longer than Brad Waldow of Saint Mary’s. He might not be as crafty as Waldow is, but he will be harder to shoot over. Jones needs to realize that at the outset. On offense, Nastic has failed to polish his game, even though his numbers look solid on the surface. Nastic has made himself easier to guard (there’s that turn of phrase again) because he hasn’t been able to take and make the 15-foot jumper that’s so essential to opening up the floor. When a big man can hit a medium-range shot, he can draw an opposing big man away from the rim and open up driving lanes. Nastic’s inability to incorporate this shot into his game is something that has really hurt Stanford’s offense.

Forward – Reid Travis – Freshman, 6-, 240; 2014-15: 6.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg

Travis is a raw player who could certainly become Stanford’s next prime low-post force, but at the end of his first season, he looks like he’s not about to have a breakthrough in the 2015-2016 season. He’s not an instinctive offensive player. He exists on the periphery of this offense and what it does – not in an actual spatial sense, but relative to Stanford’s plans. It could be argued that Travis is a more developed offensive player than what he’s shown, only because so much of the offense runs through three other players. Yet, this late in the season, an offensive player generally knows what to do… or he needs time to cultivate skills. Travis is firmly in the latter camp. With Damian Jones, as a point of comparison, it’s more the former, though skill development is obviously a part of the equation.

Guard – Marcus Allen – Sophomore, 6-3, 190; 2014-15: 6.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.2 apg

Allen is in much the same position Travis is… only he’s a guard and not at Travis’ power forward spot on the floor. A lot will be asked of Allen next season… and then we’ll get a better understanding of where he truly is in his progression as a player.

Guard – Anthony Brown – Senior, 6-6, 215; 2014-15: 14.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.6 apg

This is Stanford’s second-leading scorer, part of a dynamic backcourt with Chasson Randle. Brown might be the most effective scorer on this team – he’s not the most prolific, but he might take the best shots out of anyone on the team. He hits 43 percent of his threes, which is very impressive. He defers to Randle at times out of necessity because Randle is the leader of this team not just in numbers, but in terms of its emotional heartbeat. This is in one sense admirable and a sign of maturity, but there are times in just about every Stanford game when the thought occurs to onlookers: “Brown is 6-6 and can shoot over the top of some of the defenders who play against him. Why isn’t he shooting more?”

Guard – Chasson Randle – Senior, 6-2, 185; 2014-15: 19.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg

Randle, who in his spare time mentors troubled youths and engages in public speaking as a way to perform outreach, is a terrific ambassador for Stanford and college sports. He’s a citizen-athlete, the kind of person we want our youth to become. This season, he’s certainly scored a lot of points for Stanford, but his 36-percent three-point rate is the product of too many shots and not enough quality shots. Randle has been bothered by shot selection, partly the product of a felt need to do everything on this team. (This gets back to the point that Brown should be taking more shots on the team.) Randle has very deep range, a great handle, and above-average quickness. He just needs to be better at recognizing when he needs to take matters into his own hands, and when he should get his teammates involved. He errs too much on the side of going into takeover mode. He needs to be less assertive and more choosy, if anything.

Bench

Forward Rosco Allen and guard Robert Cartwright were the only two players who got more than token minutes in the second round against Rhode Island on Sunday. Allen averages 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds, fourth on the team in both categories. Cartwright averages 2 points per game.

Keys to the Game

1) Defend without fouling.
Stanford hit only 18 field goals and two threes against Rhode Island in the NIT second round on Sunday. How did the Cardinal score 74 points and win comfortably? They earned 49 foul shots, making 36. Randle went to the line 19 times, Brown and Travis 10 apiece. You have been warned, Commodores.

2) Play the game inside-out. Getting another solid offensive performance needs to start by going inside – maybe not a post feed to Damian Jones, but certainly drives to the paint to make Stanford aware of the need to guard the drive. Enough incisions into the paint could soften up the Cardinal for the second half, which is when VU can attack with more of a perimeter game. Getting into the paint and involving Jones will probably need to be done in the first half if VU is going to shape this game in the way it wants.

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