Team Personality: This is a YOUNG team. Very young. Stanford starts one senior and then relies almost exclusively on freshmen and sophomores. The Cardinal likes to slow the pace down, at least to the point where they feel as if they are in control. The problem is that they can beat Virginia at UVA one night, as they showed, and then lose to Santa Clara at home by 16. Nonetheless, the days of utterly crazy losses (the Cardinal lost at home to Division II UC-Davis last season) are probably over, as this team has already gained valuable experience. The bottom line is that a decent team that plays smart, fundamentally sound basketball—ala UCLA and Washington State—is going to give Stanford fits, but reputable teams that aren’t the most disciplined may suffer an upset at the hands of the Cardinal. Arizona, you have been duly warned to watch out later in the year.
Biggest Games: Because the PAC-10 is the consensus choice as the best conference in the country this year, Stanford actually has more room for error than in past seasons. As a result they don’t necessarily need too many “marquee” wins as much as they need to win the games that they should. Of course they will also have to beat some of the conference teams that are in the same boat as they are in. Many pundits claim that the PAC-10 will receive up to sevens bids this season. I, however, beg to differ because teams four through seven will be constantly knocking each other off. Be that as it may, starting January 27 the Cardinal begins a six game stretch against the LA schools, the Washington schools, Gonzaga and Cal. Stanford has already beaten Washington and Washington State, but both contests were at home and both were very close. Cal has already beaten Stanford at Maples Pavilion. Right now Gonzaga looks like a bubble team. In short, the Cardinal really needs to go 4-2 over the next six to stay off the bubble, but a minimum of 3-3 is necessary for them to stay in the NCAA discussion.
Has to be on the Floor: Although twins Robin and Brook Lopez have received the lion’s share of attention, the team has revolved around two sophomores. Forward Lawrence Hill leads the team in scoring and guard Anthony Goods is the Stanford’s outside threat. The two lead the Cardinal in shot attempts by a wide margin and also lead the team in minutes played. Hill is a fair shooter himself, but with teams keying on the Lopez twins, he has done his share of scoring in the low post. Goods’ numbers are mediocre, but his play has improved dramatically of late. It’s no coincidence that Stanford’s team play has improved just as much.
Crunchtime Crutch: Stanford is vulnerable to strong backcourts that can force Goods and sophomore point guard Mitch Johnson into mistakes. While the Cardinal run a variation of a motion offense, they don’t get the ball into the low post as much as one would think. Generally this is because teams double down on whichever Lopez is in the game. For all of Hill’s talent, he is still more of a small forward, not a true post player, so getting him the ball on the low block is not the way to a sure two points. When pressured, the Cardinal guards begin to rely too much on their outside shooting, which is fine if they are on, on, but if they’re not, they can get run off the floor. Their overall lack of experience definitely hurts.
Last Shot: As good as Hill has been this season, Goods has been the player with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He is an 80% free throw shooter, so if the Cardinal needs to hold a late lead, the ball goes to Goods. Similarly, if Stanford needs a shot to tie or win, that shot generally comes from the outside and Goods is the best outside shooter on the squad (although Hill has a better percentage from behind the arc). Finally, Goods wants the ball at the end and you can’t say enough about a player who wants that kind of pressure on his shoulders at the end of a game. Goods beat Washington State two weeks ago with a three-pointer with less than four seconds to go in the game.
Straw that Stirs the Drink: The only senior on the team that sees significant minutes is Fred Washington. He is listed as the small forward but he is the best assist man on the team and generally is guarding one of the opposition’s two best players. If Washington could add some outside shooting to his repertoire, he would really open things up for the rest of the team. As it is, he has been asked to guard bigger players while also assuming a kind of point-forward position.
Impact Newcomer: Although the Lopez brothers came to ’Furd in a package deal, Robin is clearly better than his brother, Brook. In fact, because of Robin’s ability to play hard-nosed defense and block shots, there are some that argue that he has had more of an impact on the Cardinal than Spencer Hawes has had with Washington. Robin is very difficult to guard one-on-one, and when the guards learn to get him the ball when they are under serious pressure, he will be scoring closer to 15 PPG rather than the 10 and change he currently averages. He is good with both hands and is fundamentally sound (squaring up when he receives the pass; drop step to the side of the pass, etc.). He isn’t the most athletic specimen in the world, but it also seems to be working fine for Pitt’s Aaron Gray and he doesn’t have nearly the skill set that Lopez has.
Potential Pitfall: Youth. This is the least experienced of all the PAC-10’s NCAA Tournament contenders. Although the Cardinal beat Washington State, they lost some tough conference games to Arizona and Cal, two teams that have senior point guards. This is going to be a problem when Stanford faces UCLA, USC and Oregon for the second time. They are lucky enough to have a courageous player in Goods who will want the ball at the end of a half or game. The issue, however, is that he can’t always get an open look, so who’s going to take the key shots when Goods is being hounded by Arron Afflalo or one of USC’s plethora of wing players?
How to reach the NCAA Tournament: The Cardinal stand at 12-5 overall and 4-3 in the PAC-10. They still have to play USC and UCLA twice and Gonzaga. It’s important that the Cardinal hold serve at home, which will be tough this weekend. If they can get out of the first half of the conference season at 5-4, they are sitting pretty. Beating the Zags because also would help considerably. If Stanford can finish 9-9 in the conference and beat Gonzaga, that will give them an 18-11 record and a few top-50 RPI wins. That should be enough get them in the Big Dance. After that, anything else is icing on the cake. But because this team is so young it’s more likely that they lose their next six games than it is they go, say, 5-1. This team is, in reality, a year away from truly making noise in the NCAA Tournament.