Although Stanford was certainly the better team, Houston presented an upgrade in both talent level and athleticism over the past several Cardinal opponents, and it showed at several points in the contest. To bookend the game, an initially aggressive Houston defense and, later, trapping full court press forced Stanford into a number of turnovers and empty possessions. On the other end, the Houston guards had a relatively easy time getting into the lane at particularly critical junctures late in the second half, repeatedly finding their big men for easy buckets or trips to the free throw line. Forward TaShawn Thomas was dominant throughout for the Cougars, posting 22 points and 14 rebounds—numbers actually curtailed by a 7-13 mark at the charity stripe. It was on the whole encouraging, then, that even after an extremely poor shooting start, Stanford was able to string together enough stops to keep it close early on and then really turn on the offense en route to a 54 point second half.
Huestis and Verhoeven Shine
As we've said before, the key to many a Stanford game this year will be how it performs on the defensive end. Monday night was no exception, and the results were, as you would expect from a game that was probably a little too close for comfort overall, a mixed bag. The Stanford zone looked about as good as it's looked all year the first 13 minutes of the game. The guards did well to not allow easy passes into the teeth of the zone and to cut off penetration. Similarly, the bigs were long and active, but, more importantly, under control and disciplined. You saw much fewer flailing close outs, and not surprisingly, both fewer easy baskets and much better numbers on the defensive glass. Credit for this good stretch is especially due to Josh Huestis and Grant Verhoeven. Huestis was his usual monster self on the defensive glass, corralling multiple boards early on (13 for the game, 10 defensive), while also contributing a couple of blocks. Verhoeven also played probably his best stretch of basketball all year. After having struggled a good deal on defense thus far, he provided a nice boost off the bench after checking in early in the first half. He played good assignment zone defense, consistently put himself in the right positions, and took an excellent baseline charge after a perfect rotation.
Just as the defense giveth, however, it taketh away. For as good as the half-court defense was the majority of the first half, the transition defense was just as bad. Giving up a two pass kick-ahead dunk after a made basket, as occurred with 4:30 to go in the first half and which capped off an 11-4 Houston run, is simply inexcusable. Oddly enough, the repeated lapses in transition were—outside of the dunk—not exactly due to Stanford defenders failing to get back. In fact, there were repeatedly Stanford defenders in a position to make a play, yet they refused to stop the ball. It almost seemed as though Cardinal defenders were saying to themselves, "that's not my man, somebody else will get him or I need to get back to my zone, someone else stop the ball." You know, the type of stuff fourth graders do in their rec leagues. Against Houston, these mental lapses turned out not to cost the Cardinal. But against better competition, you can bet that won't be the case.
Offensively, the Cardinal were plagued by some turnovers early on, but outside of that, did not play all that poorly in the first half. Yes, they shot just 36 percent, but the majority of those misses were good looks. To top it off, Stanford had a number of shots go in and out. You had the feeling that so long as they continued to get those looks, they would eventually start to fall, which they eventually did.
Once again, it was Anthony Brown who ignited the spark. With Houston extending its lead to eight thanks to the shoddy Stanford transition defense at the end of the first half, Brown hit back-to-back threes to quell the run. He finished with three bombs in total in the first 20 minutes, and 20 points on 8 of 12 shooting for the game. He looks as confident as he ever has right now. Monday night, he got to his spots at will and converted on several pull-up jumpers. Moreover, Brown has done really well rebounding the basketball from the shooting guard position. He finished with nine rebounds total on the night, and his ability (as well as that of Huestis) to work on the glass gives this Stanford team some lineup flexibility. You saw it for an extended period in the second half, with Brown sliding down to the three and Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright manning the guard spots.
After sleepwalking through a good deal of the past three games and the entire first half Monday night, we saw some signs of life from Dwight Powell in half two. We were thus able to remind ourselves just how good he can be when engaged. He was simply un-guardable in the final 20 minutes, abandoning his jump shot for quick post moves and strong takes to the basket. He'll present a matchup problem for every center on the schedule due to his ability to face-up and put the ball on the floor. And as such, one has to wonder if Johnny Dawkins won't consider playing a lot more small-ball (i.e. Powell, Huestis, Brown, Randle, and Bright), as he did effectively for extended stretches against Houston.
A Boost from Bright
Bolstering the case for a smaller lineup—at least tonight—was the play of Aaron Bright. The senior guard played a season high 24 minutes and was largely effective running the show on offense. At this point, it's pretty clear that he's both more effective and comfortable as a distributor and facilitator than Chasson Randle. The drawback to Bright on offense is his inability to finish after penetrating the first line of defense. He is entirely a passer after driving, and teams with the chance to scout him will play him as such. Similarly, he alone leaves a lot to be desired on defense—a lineup with he and Randle playing at the same time may be asking too much.
Randle struggled all night, finishing with eight points on 3-9 shooting. At times, it seems as though Randle is the polar opposite of Bright when it comes to decision making after penetrating. Randle, that is, almost never looks for teammates after getting into the lane, focusing solely on scoring the basketball. To his credit, he has developed a nice floater that he converts from tough angles, but the blinders do get him into tough spots. He is especially prone to picking up offensive fouls (as he did in the first half on Monday) and missing out on some open teammates spotting up. At the very least, you get the feeling that he's at his best with his feet set for open threes or when he has the opportunity to attack an already moving defense off the bounce. In other words, best off the ball.
Stefan Nastic had a nice game offensively, as he is wont to do against undersized opposing front-lines (Houston's big men were both 6-foot-8), finishing with 14 points. He'll struggle defensively and on the glass most nights, but can give you good stretches offensively depending on the match-up. On a team that has a tendency to get a little jumpshot-happy from time to time, he could provide some valuable, if not consistent, production.
An Insightful Win
All in all, it was a solid and insightful win for the Cardinal. For one, it gave us a sense as to how this team will have to win games: stringing together enough stops for the offense to keep it close against the better teams and to create breathing room against the more mediocre competition. Similarly, we got a sense for the line this coaching staff will have to tow in terms of both personnel and defensive strategy. For as well as the small-ball lineup played for the majority of the second half, both Randle and Bright struggled to stop penetration from the Houston guards, the driving factor fueling the Houston free-throw parade comeback late in the game. In fact, had this game turned out a bit differently, we may very well be here talking about whether or not Dawkins stayed in man for a couple possessions too long (especially after Randle picked up his fourth foul).
Most importantly, the win sets up the matchup with Pittsburgh Tuesday night and, hence, another opportunity to pick up a marquee non-conference victory. To consider the nonconference slate a success, you'd have to think that Stanford would have to pick up one win out of the three games remaining against Pittsburgh, UConn, and Michigan. It will be a tall order having to bounce back so quickly, but, frankly, Tuesday night will be Stanford's best chance.
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