Cagers fall to Pitt, 88-67

The Cardinal played their B game tonight, and went down decisively to a Pitt team that was better to begin with and brought their A game. Stanford's retooled offense looked the part against an elite Pitt defense, but the Cardinal's struggles in matching its opponent's physicality and adapt to the 2-3 zone represent a ceiling on how good this team can be.

Elsewhere in the Pac-12 tonight, Cal can't quite get it done against Syracuse, and Montana and Washington are going to the wire. We're seeing in football that how well Pac-12 teams do out of conference is big for Stanford's postseason hopes. (Whether at zero losses, one loss or two losses, Stanford football has been consistently ranked atop or near the top of teams with the same number of losses, especially by the computers. The strength of the Pac-12 in football, and Stanford's resulting strength of schedule, are major reasons why.) In basketball, by contrast, the Pac-12 has been subpar ever since O.J. Mayo, Brook Lopez and all those UCLA guys (Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love et al) went pro and the incoming talent didn't compare. Last year, the league was an absolute laughingstock, and so by comparison, this year's debut doesn't look half bad. Don't get me wrong, it's by no means good, but if last year was a D, we're at a C now. The league has had only a few embarrassing losses, with Washington State falling to TCU and Washington losing to UC-Irvine. Still, the bigger problem has been that the Pac-12 simply hasn't beaten anyone that good, with the possible exception of Oregon knocking off Georgetown (depending on how the Hoyas' season pans out). Stanford and Cal each had chances to tonight, but not to be, barring a spectacular run.

The Cardinal start the second half nicely, with Anthony Brown hitting two threes and Dwight Powell throwing down a dunk. Of course, Pitt, a team that has not exactly built its national reputation upon offensive firepower, keeps hitting layups and free throws when it goes down low, and so the Cardinal have pulled no closer than 12. The Card got shredded outside in the first half. They discuss and adjust at halftime, and now Pitt's taking it to them inside so far here.

Still, it's been a great showing for Stanford's offense against a Pitt team that should again be elite defensively. The Card just have to continue to win the ones they should (5-2 after tonight is fine), and figure out the zone defense in time for conference play. An NCAA bid is totally within reach, then add in next year's top-15 class and who knows.

… Still ugly tonight, though. Five straight Pitt points and the margin's back to 17 at our first media timeout of the half.

Pitt 57, Stanford 40, under-16 timeout

Anthony Brown drains yet another three off the timeout. He's 3-of-3 from deep tonight and has 11. But Pitt keeps on coming, and do give them credit for knocking down their looks. They're now 19-of-20 from the line, 18-of-35 overall and 6-of-12 deep as they go to the line again.

As we scan the stats with this game out of reach, let's see if we can't diagnose some problems on the defensive end. And… eek. The defense has a few glaring weaknesses: It isn't forcing steals, it allows too many threes, and allows way too many assists. (Stanford opponents have assists on 63% of their buckets. That's among the bottom 25 teams nationally.) But perhaps the bigger problem is that the defense isn't doing anything great, with no clear strengths statistically. Offensive rebounding, two-point percentage, blocks – all about 80th nationally, which is good, but not elite (or where they should be, given this team's length and the quality of opponents to date). We know the 2-3 defense can work and we think these players are athletic enough, so hopefully it's just a matter of adjustment.

One final statistic of interest: Opponents are averaging 19 seconds per possession against the Cardinal, which is only 1.8 seconds more than the NCAA average, but is again among the bottom 25 teams in the country. Conversely, Stanford is the 15th fastest offense in the country, with 14.3 seconds per possession. Evidence that Stanford's offense is running and gunning, as per plan? Evidence that opponents are finding that the extra pass is worthwhile against a suspect zone defense? Evidence that the Stanford D is just tiring out, having to spend so much relative time on D and so little on O? Not sure what the narrative is here, or that there is a singular narrative, but these outlier values are worth monitoring as the season goes on.

Pittsburgh 65, Stanford 47, under-12 timeout

And I thought Pac-12 officials were whistle happy. The crew tonight is certainly getting their money's worth, with 27 fouls so far and better than 10 minutes to go. Josh Huestis just induced a call against Pitt on the perimeter, but I'm still not sure what it is. Then, the next time down, Stanford draws foul No. 6 on the Panthers this half. Please, unlike in the first half, attack the paint and get to the line. It's the absolute best thing that a trailing team can do. Instead, it's an NBA-length three for Anthony Brown with a man in his face, but hey, it's good.

BYU leads No. 12 Wichita State by two at the half. That could be big for this Stanford team's resume. Here, it's Brown who splits a one and one, and then it's offsetting turnovers and a Huestis tip-in. The Card are within 11, and have the ball again with a chance to cut the lead to single digits on the strength of an 8-1 run. But Chasson Randle forces a fadeaway three, unsurprisingly short, with a man in his face. Then Randle is late to close out in transition, so Durand Johnson hits a three and makes a free throw to boot. An 11-point lead is now 15 on a tough sequence from Chasson, and there went Stanford's last best shot at a comeback.

Pitt 70, Stanford 55, under-8 timeout

Anthony Brown picks up No. 4 with 6:57 left, and Pitt is now 24-of-27 from the line after hitting the front end of the one-and-one. Stanford has made its mistakes tonight, but not sure a lot of teams can beat Pitt when they're playing like this. Pitt pushes the lead to 17, but Powell responds as he did in the first half, with a fake three, a drive and a flush.

Nastic splits a pair from the line, where Stanford is a mediocre 10-of-15 overall. Not going to matter tonight, but the Cardinal are just 70 percent from the line on the season, and will need to pick that up to win what are presumably going to be close games in the Pac-12.

Stanford's D breaks down entirely, such that Talib Zanna is all alone for a dunk. We cannot pick up this 2-3 scheme quickly enough. Hopefully winter break will help.

Pitt 79, Stanford 61, under-4 timeout

Up next for the Cardinal are two should-be gimmes, South Dakota State and UC-Davis, sandwiching finals break. Then comes a trip to Connecticut and a showdown with Michigan, again at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., before another should-be gimme against Cal Poly. Hope for 4-1, with an upset against UConn or Michigan, putting Stanford at 9-3 heading into Pac-12 play. Ken Pom then projects 11-7 in conference, which would make for 20-10 overall. The Pac-12 keeps winning out-of-conference, the Card beat the No. 11 or No. 12 seed in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, and it's not pretty, but we're going dancing as an 11-seed. That's the hope, at least.

In the meanwhile, the Cardinal played their B game tonight, and went down decisively to a Pitt team that was better to begin with and brought their A game to boot. Stanford's retooled offense looked the part against an elite Pitt defense, but the Cardinal's struggles in matching its opponent's physicality and adapting to the 2-3 zone represent a ceiling on how good this team can be. Here's hoping the team continues to beat the teams they should, adjust to the new scheme, and improve in time for conference play.

The Panthers do finally push the margin past 20 with under two minutes to go, and then Marcus Allen enters the game, only to foul on a hand check with five seconds left on the shot clock. Allen does draw a foul on the other end of the court, though, so it'll be a chance for the true freshman to get onto the scoreboard.

For Stanford, Dwight Powell will finish with 20 points. Anthony Brown added 16, Chasson Randle had 10 and Josh Heustis had nine. The Cardinal will finish shooting north of 50 percent from the floor, which is more than enough to win most nights, but not when your opponent gets 13 offense rebounds, 10 more field goal attempts, and 34 free throw attempts. Stanford's offense did better than the final score suggests, but the defense was every bit as much of a struggle.

Pitt 88, Stanford 67 (Final)

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