The Cardinal aren't tough enough for serious stretch-run basketball yet. This past Oregon homestand was a microcosm of the squad's season gone sour: it opened with an impressive, aggressive onslaught in an 87-82 victory over Oregon State, and it whimpered away in disappointing fashion against the Ducks.
In its victorious effort Thursday, Stanford mauled the Beavers 36-23 on the glass. Guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright combined for 44 points and didn't miss a single free throw.
Just three days later, the Ducks turned the tables on the Cardinal. Oregon grabbed a 37-32 rebounding advantage. Randle and Bright were limited to 11 points - a quarter of their previous output. They made only 33% of their free throws.
For Stanford, the most discouraging fact is that, personnel-wise, Oregon shouldn't have been able to reverse trends the way they did on the Cardinal. The Ducks were relatively small inside - 6'7" Olu Ashaolu was their rebounding leader. They were helpless against Stanford post Josh Owens (20 points, 8-13 shooting) in one-on-one situations on the interior.
Yet Oregon still punished the Cardinal when it came to physical positioning and turned them into a shell of their Thursday rebounding and scoring selves.
During the times that Stanford has performed well this season, they've played on their toes. Sunday, they reverted back to playing on their heels.
A smaller Oregon team matched Stanford's field goal percentage (44.4%) from the floor, but the Ducks took nine more field goals on the game than the Cardinal. That statistic alone is an indictment of Stanford's physical toughness on the glass and in loose ball situations down the stretch.
An even more alarming number: the Cardinal's 11-22 performance from the free throw line, highlighted by Aaron Bright's two critical misses as time waned. Physical toughness is reflected in rebounding statistics; mental toughness often in free throw numbers. Stanford seems to be as hard as a rock in both aspects one night and soft as a pillow in both facets the next.
Even when shots aren't falling, great teams consistently put the hammer down - on the glass and at the free throw line. This Stanford team just can't find a way to clang that proverbial hammer on a regular basis, and it certainly has given their season a spineless feel.
There have been earlier setbacks where a lack of beef was the culprit for this second half stagnation. But against the Ducks, the Cardinal clearly had the personnel to win on the inside, even despite poor shooting from the perimeter. Instead, they gave Oregon way too many free opportunities via the offensive glass and couldn't capitalize on their own freebies at the charity stripe.
More experience, more offseason muscle added to this young team, and the addition of a player or two who has a nose for loose basketballs will go a long way toward allowing Stanford basketball to re-emerge as a legitimate Pac-12 contender.
Until then, though, this is a team stuck in Jekyll-and-Hyde purgatory during this 2012 season - obviously a disappointing fall from the campaign's lofty beginnings.
Let's see if the Cardinal can muster a way to toughen up down the stretch at Colorado and Utah. If they do, then that small, flickering flame of remaining 2012 hope can still ignite into something bigger by season's end.
About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link.
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