#3 - Stanford

The Cardinal asre a somewhat enigmatic team.  On paper they have the look of a team that should seriously challenge for the conference crown and a Top-10 ranking all season long, and they probably will, but they are not without some serious blemishes.  For starters, they have two future lottery picks in their front court including a possible top-three pick in Robin and Brook Lopez respectively. 

Brook is the more polished offensive threat, while Robin is probably the superior defensive player at this point, although both are very capable at both ends of the floor.  They are both legitimate 7-footers, and they aren't your typical slug in the middle, both have excellent quickness and overall athleticism for players their size.  And, at the same time neither has that beanpole frame you typically expect to see in an athletic freshman 7-footer. 

Bottom line – every team in college basketball would kill to have just one of them, and the Cardinal have two – truly an embarrassment of riches.  One thing they both need to improve on is their rebounding numbers. Brook and Robin averaged 6.0 and 5.5 RPG respectively in just 25 and 24 minutes per game.  Those numbers are nothing to scoff at especially considering neither played even close to 30 minutes per game, but even if one extrapolates those numbers over 33 MPG (about what a typical starter plays) they would "only" be averaging about eight RPG each.  Again, those numbers are fine and perhaps there is something to the notion that because there are two of them they take rebounds away from one another, but still one would expect at least one of them to average double digit rebounds per game given their combination of size, strength and athleticism.  (NOTE – it is unclear at this point how Brook Lopez's academic ineligibility will affect the Cardinal, until recently it appeared that the would be back for conference play, but it now looks as if he is going to be suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, so the situation will need monitoring.  As of now, it's probably safe to assume he will be back by second semester in time for conference play).

One confusing coaching decision by Trent Johnson is why the Lopez twins only played in the range of 25 MPG each?  Perhaps as freshmen they couldn't handle more than that physically, but it's not as if other talented freshmen haven't shouldered heavy loads in the past.  So one has to question Trent Johnson here a bit.  If you have two future lottery picks in your front court, you play them both 30 minutes per game.  If you don't, you are selling your team short.  Why give Fred Washington 30 minutes per game when he is really just an undersized power forward with mediocre athleticism?  Sure he's a veteran, and it would simply be wrong to say that he isn't a quality player, he is, evidenced by the fact that he lead the team in assists, but it still seems insane to take minutes away from talents like the Lopez Twins just because Washington is more experienced.  On the other hand it's completely bizarre that Trent Johnson would want Washington's play making ability in there considering Mitch Johnson is probably the worst starting point guard in the conference (more on this later). That said, expect to see Washington move to the bench and average closer to 22-25 minutes per game with the Lopez brothers seeing a concomitant increase in playing time.   

At the small forward position is another very underrated player, perhaps number-two on the all-Pac-10 underrated team behind Kyle Weaver.  While Lawrence Hill isn't nearly the defender that Weaver is and can't handle the rock like Weaver, he is an outstanding offensive threat.  Hill is a true inside-outside player.  He is really more of a combo small/power forward.  He can score on the block with power moves, he can put the ball on the floor, has nice touch on his mid range jumper, especially from the wings and is a very proficient 3-point shooter (41% on 50 attempts in 2007).  He is the Cardinal's top scorer and their top rebounder (tied with Brook Lopez at 6.0 per game). 

In the back court is where the Cardinal's fortunes will be decided though.  Starting shooting guard Anthony Goods is a good athlete and is a heady player.  He showed signs last season of developing into an excellent scorer, but he needs to work on his shooting (.369 from the field, .364 from 3-point territory), where last season he was streaky and inconsistent.  He is a combo guard and has the ability to man the point guard slot when necessary, which may actually prove necessary in order to alleviate some of the pressure from point guard Mitch Johnson. 

  Unless something changes drastically from last year's performance, Mitch Johnson will again be the worst starting point guard in the conference.  Bad point guard play is absolutely fatal to any hopes of being a great team.  Stanford has too much talent not to be a good team, but unless they can find a way to improve their point guard production, they are going to find it very difficult to challenge for the conference title.  Johnson isn't bad at everything; he takes care of the ball pretty well and is a very good free-throw shooter when he manages to get to the line.  Other than those two areas, there are a litany ways in which he hurts the Cardinal. He is not very big (about 6-feet), which isn't necessarily terrible (UCLA's Collison is only about 6-feet and Cal's Jerome Randle is 5-foot-8) but he is not nearly the athlete either of those players are.  He lacks lateral quickness in a major way for a guy his size and isn't a creative playmaker by any stretch of the imagination.  As a consequence of his physical limitations, he doesn't take the ball strong to the hoop and is a mediocre defender. He is also just an ok shooter, although he can make a few threes here and there. 

The biggest indictment of him as a player though is the fact that because of his inability to be a playmaker, the Cardinal's undersized 4 man Fred Washington actually lead the team in assists.  That is just brutal.  There is no way to sugar coat the fact that - Luke Walton notwithstanding - if your power forward has more assists than your point guard you probably have serious backcourt issues.  Perhaps sharp shooting USF transfer point guard Drew Schiller can provide stability and on the optimistic side maybe even play well enough to take the job away from Mitch Johnson, but don't bet on it.  No matter how you slice it, the Cardinal are going to be somewhat weak in the backcourt. At this point we are really only talking about shades of grey.   

Another question mark for the Cardinal is, just how good a coach is Trent Johnson really?  He had some very successful Nevada teams and his Stanford teams have been good, but not anywhere near as successful as they were under Mike Montgomery.  Now, there is nothing wrong with not being as good a coach as Montgomery, and while the Cardinal have been a good team under Johnson, they haven't even sniffed a Pac-10 title under his watch.  The aspect of Johnson's teams that has to be most concerning for Cardinal fans is the fact that the defensive intensity has dropped off significantly.  Stanford has gone from annually competing for the top spot in the conference defensive rankings to just average.  They don't pressure the ball very well and while they have great shot blockers, they still don't own the paint like they should given their talent.  Their offense has also taken a step back, not having that crisp decisive feel it once had. That is reflected in a decrease in offensive production (5-6 PPG over the past two seasons).  Some of those problems are certainly attributable to their mediocre guard play, but at some point production has to fall on the coach's shoulders.  Johnson is a Monty disciple so they are likely running the same basic schemes, but they simply aren't executing they way they used to.  

Basically, if the Cardinal can conjure up some miraculous way to get production from the point guard spot, and step up their defensive intensity on a consistent basis they could definitely put a scare into the Bruins by contending for the conference crown until late in the season.  If they can't, third place is probably as good as it gets for this talented and fairly experienced squad. 

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