Just a couple of team comments first. If you read this far already, please indulge me. We are not an upper quarter of the conference offensive team at this point, shooting only 46.5% from the floor while taking pretty good shots, and with more turnovers than assists (126-130), but we appear to be the best defensive team in the conference at this point (sorry weenies, but you gave up 92 to Mizzou). Our rebounding margin of almost 10 rebounds a game is heartwarming, as is our holding opponents to 30% from the parking lot. We are strangling opponents to a ridiculous 76 assists against 161 turnovers. Syracuse looks outstanding and we out-rebounded them and we forced more turnovers than assists from them. In our tough win against the original Wolf Pack on Sunday, we out-rebounded them by 10 and we held them to eight assists against 17 turnovers. You can talk about our great free throw shooting against the Pack, and you can assign some significance to C.J. Leslie (who was tuning us up) leaving the game with a quad bruise or cramps or whatever (good job John Gage, if you can't make any shots at least be a strong 6'9" kid and hurt someone), but it was a 22-10 plus for us on points off of turnovers.
I also really like that so far this season we have played three very physical teams, Fresno State, Syracuse and NC State, and we have not lost the toughness battles. Syracuse is just damned good. Against NC State and their fleet of real 6'8" ACC interior talent, Josh wore them down. I haven't seen him do that to quality bigs in his career until the Wolf Pack game. When the Wolf Pack game was on the line down the stretch the best player on the floor was Josh Owens. He demanded the ball and he either was fouled and made the gimmies or he finished at the rim. From the 7:30 mark, down nine, until the 1:42 mark, when we were up 3, Josh scored 10 points, had a block, an assist on an Anthony Brown three-banger, and a couple of rebounds. He was patient, he let the game come to him, then he locked up Deshawn Painter and Richard Howell, who were his physical equal in every way.
The play of Josh Huestis cannot be applauded enough either. He seems to be our best rebounder and defender. Being the best defender on a team full of good defenders is impressive and he is a mistake eraser in the vein of Nick Robinson. His work on the glass on both ends has been excellent. Six rebounds a game in 21 minutes is a wonderful effort.
So let's move on to the Dead Week status report on our guard play. Overall, the biggest improvement on this team from last year is the attitude being projected from the point guard position. This team is being controlled much better on both ends by whomever has the rock at the point. Aaron Bright would be the conference's most improved player if they handed out that award during December. Whatever you want to call it—moxie, gravitas, huevos rancheros, strut, ‘tude—Aaron is playing with it and so is Chasson Randle. Actually, Gabe Harris and Jarrett Mann are also playing with it. Competition in practice and competition for minutes usually translates to improved competitiveness in games, and so it appears here.
I will not argue that this is Aaron Bright's team, but it is obvious that if you want to beat us you had better strap up and take him out of the game or he will make plays. Aaron is taking 7.5 shots per game, which is plenty, and he is shooting 54%, 54% from the barn, and 81% from the charity stripe, while leading the team in scoring and assists, with a pretty decent 1.5/1 assist to turnover ratio. And his defense, given his height and less than stellar lateral ability, has been very good. If you want to gauge the ferocity with which a little guard competes, watch how far out on the court he initiates real ball pressure, and how hard he fights when a bigger guard tries to post him up. Remember, this is really where we all fell in love with Mr. Knight. Against the Wolfpack and their 6'4" veteran point guard Lorenzo Brown, Bright got out and applied good pressure and fought like hell when Brown tried to post him. He did get posted up by Brown and Brown did score over him, but Brown is a good player and Bright battled hard. Teammates watch that, feel the ferocity, respect it and follow it. At this point in the season, our point guard play is far improved over what I anticipated, and no one in the conference is getting markedly better work done at the point than we are.
Speaking of ferocious, Chasson Randle is the other point guard/combo guard, vicious little fella leading this team. In the first two weeks Chasson had a few rough stretches with over-penetration and turnovers, but since the Okie State game Chasson has been flat stinking nails. He is locking down almost 85% from the line and he has already taken 32 gimmes. He is third on the team in scoring, and his shooting will improve from the 42% it is at as he gets more comfortable finishing his forays to the rim with large hairy smelly ugly guys in the way. That was another 6 free throws without a miss in the last minute of the Wolf Pack game for Randle. A polite request to conference opponents this season, please foul Chasson. He will eat your beating heart. Pleasant imagery aside, going back to the point about ferocity and leadership, Chasson spent considerable time in the second half of the Syracuse game guarding Brandon Triche and considerable time in the second half of the Wolf Pack game guarding Lorenzo Brown. Both guys pretty much pummeled Chasson with shoulder bumps, upper cut elbows and other veteran tricks and Chasson never backed down. He may be slightly built, but if you want to play physical, he seems to actually relish the challenge. So far, for a freshman, his defensive abilities are outstanding and he is nothing short of a fantastic rebounder for a player his size.
Jarrett Mann, who started the season at the three spot, but has played considerable minutes everywhere in the back court (18 a game), has taken his demotions about as well as possible. His "whatever you need, Coach" attitude is not only laudable, but a great example of senior leadership. His defense in his 11 minutes against the Wolf Pack was outstanding. And since I didn't see any reports of his having physically battered his coach for not starting him after he self-reported being late to a class (not even missed a class, just late, as in "Dude, my bike tire blew a flatsky") I think he is showing great maturity and restraint. Seriously in 1988-89 Coach Montgomery would have had a hell of a time fielding 5 scholarship players if that was the class attendance standard. Come on Coach. That is a brutal rule.
Gabe Harris gets a huge tip of the Block S cap for his improved play so far this season. By all accounts he was nails all summer long and then missed the Spain trip due to a knee injury. That flushes a lot of hard work, kills your mojo and resets your confidence level. Still, Gabe's defense and his offensive aggressiveness are much improved. He still can't buy a jimmy, and he never will without fixing his release, but he is more than doubling his contributions from last year, he's taking care of the ball and he is getting to the free throw line. 23 free throws from our fourth guard, who is shooting 74% on them, is outstanding depth. At times he has been a catalyst on both ends of the floor, which is much better than buying time.
Final Thoughts: If you want to see another area where we are significantly improved, look not just at our free throw percentage (68% and rising), but look at how many we are taking. In nine games we have taken 214 free throws, which is 24 attempts a game with 16.11 makes. To give you an idea, last year we took 20.38 per game over the course of the season (416-632 at only 65.8%, which is 13.4 makes per game, and our opponents actually made the same number of free throws). 24 free throws taken a game is a lot, and you have to go back to some of our great teams around the turn of the century to find numbers as good as 24 attempts per game. Maybe we can't sustain 24 free throws per game through conference, but when you take a lot of free throws you routinely cause foul trouble, which puts pressure on your opponent's roster night in and night out. If you make 70% or better from the line at the same time, you become hard to beat down the stretch of games. Put another way, Bright and Randle and Harris and Mann have all taken over 20 free throws so far this season, and Randle and Bright shoot over 80%, Harris over 70% and Mann is at a career high 65% (but is much better than that in the second half of games). Case in point, the Wolfpack game, when we fouled out starters Wood and Brown, and Howell and Painter finished with 4 fouls each, and we went 15-17 from the stripe in the last 5 minutes.
Final Final Thoughts: I don't know the name of the ref who called those two charges on Dwight Powell in the last 30 seconds of the Wolfpack game, but I was sitting behind that basket, with a great angle on both of them, and that S.O.B. farted both of those calls. We might as well have gone shirts and skins. I saw the specter of Booker Turner smiling on the shoulder of the brain fart ref.
Final Final Final Thoughts: Conference play is going to be interesting. Let's get there unscathed in December, and see what happens. The conference has zero signature wins so far this season. Zero. Arguably at this point our NC State and our Syracuse loss are the two best games the conference has played. Zona's loss last night to Florida was a signature loss as well. According to the Pac-12 website, Utah is so bad they have lost 65-87 to TBD. And the vultures are circling in Westwood. This thing is wide open and we look better than any of them at this point. I hope it stays that way.
A Happy Holidays Final Thought: Hey weenies, the Holiday Bowl. Again…. ? Como se dice "party" en espanol, cabrons? You can hear the weenies now can't you? Suck some helium and squeal, "At least it's not the Fight Hunger Bowl. Hee hee hee...!"
Do you have a "premium" subscription to The Bootleg? If not, then you are seriously missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest, broadest, and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!