I made the mistake of recording Tuesday night's game, not actually starting to watch until minutes after the final buzzer had mercifully ended Pittsburgh's 88-67 thumping of Stanford at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As such, by the time I hit play on my DVR, my phone had already been flooded with text messages from a couple friends who had the (mis)fortune of taking in the game live.
"Does our team know that when you play zone you still have to try hard and move your feet?"
"Can we play transition defense?"
"I'm not even sure if Pitt is that good…"
I probably could have written this review right then and there, without having watched a single minute of action. Alas, I chugged ahead for what I was now pretty certain were to be an excruciating 40 minutes of basketball for any Stanford basketball fan.
It must be said that there is no such thing as a must-win game in November, especially one coming on the second night of a back-to-back 3,000 miles from home. That may, in fact, be about the only positive to take away from Tuesday night's performance.
Yet, even so, with the Cardinal already having laid an egg in their first non-conference statement game against BYU, and with particularly daunting matchups against more talented and seasoned UConn (at UConn) and Michigan (back in Brooklyn) teams looming on the horizon, the matchup against the Panthers took on added importance, even for November. The game presented Stanford a realistic opportunity to take a step forward against a good, but not overwhelming BCS opponent, securing both its first "resumé-building" win of the season and, really, first marquee non-conference win of Johnny Dawkins' five-year tenure. At the very least, the game would serve as the proverbial early-season test. After wading through a pool of cupcakes, Stanford's matchup against Pitt did not necessarily scream "win or bust," but the Cardinal's play stood to reveal a lot about what type of team it could become in February and March. With the stage set as such, it's more than discouraging that the Cardinal flopped as they did.
Pittsburgh, while as tough-minded and defensively sound as ever, is a far cry from the dominant Big East juggernaut of the mid-aughts. To say that the Panthers overwhelmed the Cardinal with talent would be foolish. You'd have an easier time making the argument the other way around. This year, in particular, Jamie Dixon finds his club in a bit of a transitional phase, having lost his two best players in Steven Adams and Brad Wanamker from a year ago. As such, the Panthers rely largely on young players and unproven upperclassmen. There is neither a true creator nor post-presence on offense, but that isn't to say that the Panthers are without weapons on that end of the floor. In fact, this is probably the best shooting Pitt team in recent memory, one led by senior guard Lamar Patterson, who torched Stanford for 24 points.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason this Pitt team will certainly make the Tournament, and probably steal a couple games from the ACC's elite before settling into the middle rungs of the conference, sits on the bench the entire game. The Panthers are as well a coached team as any in the country. You see it in the way they attack a zone (i.e. with screens and a purpose), in the way they hedge pick and rolls, in the way they double the post and rotate around it, in the way they play zone defense. From the time Ben Howland roamed the Pitt sidelines up to and through the Dixon years, the staple of Pitt basketball has been 40 minutes of aggressive, disciplined man-to-man defense. Yet, Pitt flashed a zone Monday night that it probably spends a quarter of the time practicing as does Stanford. That the Panthers' zone looked light years ahead of the Cardinal's zone is telling. Seeing zone defenders mark baseline runners and high-post cutters, and not getting caught watching the ball was a sight for sore eyes – and a first in any Stanford game all year.
We've noted here several times now that this Stanford team has some physical limitations on defense. Those in no way excuse the embarrassing, unfocused, and undisciplined defensive display Tuesday night. This Stanford team will never be great on the defensive end. As we said in the recap of the Houston game, the recipe for success for the Cardinal is to play solidly enough on that end, to string enough defensive stops together, to give the offense a chance. Not playing up to even that level night in and night out (i.e. average defense) is not a product of physical or athletic limitations, it is a product of a lack of toughness. Toughness is a concept repeatedly misunderstood and misused, especially in the landscape of modern-day college basketball. The toughness that this Stanford team lacks is not the largely useless toughness: the scowl after a dunk, the emphatic corral of a rebound with elbows locked out, the "banging" for rebounds down low. That's fake toughness.
The toughness that this Stanford team lacks is the type of mental toughness that ultimately translates into sustained success. That toughness is about a big man communicating to a guard that a screen is coming, about the guard fighting over the screen and not helplessly giving in, about a defender checking cutters and baseline runners in his zone when the ball is away from him, about guards and wings away from the ball not watching a baseline drive as players sneak in behind them for offensive rebounds, about a post player not cheating for a skip pass 25 feet from the basket he has no shot of stealing, about all post players working to get rebounding position early so as to not have to "bang" late, about not just playing 30 seconds of defense but a full 35, about everyone getting back in transition and communicating as to who is stopping the ball, about not compounding mistakes with mental errors like fouling a three-point shooter. That toughness has nothing to do with quick lateral movement or a couple extra inches of height or a chiseled physique. It has everything to do with desire and discipline.
Really, we could stop there. You're free to go. If you're feeling especially masochistic, however, please, be my guest.
The first half as a whole was seemingly a clinic on how not to play zone defense. Pittsburgh finished 8-of-17 from beyond the arc on the night, and the majority of those makes came on open looks in the first 20 minutes. Anthony Brown was relegated to the bench with two first-half fouls, and as such, Dawkins returned to the type of small-ball lineup that had played well together against Houston. As we said then, however, that lineup is at a very real defensive disadvantage. Both Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright were screened far too easily and far too often atop of the zone, opening up gaps for the Pitt guards to drive and kick out for easy looks. Again, this is not entirely their fault; their teammates are also to blame for the lack of communication. It is particularly alarming, however, that the Stanford zone, which was not bad as Pitt swung the ball around the perimeter, looked so disorganized and scattered once Pitt started screening. A rather simple zone attack philosophy almost singlehandedly dismantled Stanford's primary defense, one it's been working on for weeks now.
Similarly alarming at this stage is the positioning of the guards at the top of the zone. That is, they seem to be standing much too close together. All three of Randle, Bright, and Brown cheat too far over when the ball is at the top but opposite their side. It creates a situation where a simple reversal to the wing elicits a rushed scurry back over by the guard and pits the lone post defender against two offensive players. Without having to do anything but take a couple dribbles and make a single pass, Pittsburgh had the Stanford zone right where it wanted it: flying wildly and at a numbers disadvantage. Lastly, the ball watching was at an all-time high Tuesday night. Really you could plug in any Stanford player into the formula, "_______ gets lazy, stands up, and stares at the ball when it goes away from him," but both Randle and Dwight Powell were especially bad against Pittsburgh.
If you were craving some different types of defensive breakdowns, you got them in the second half, as the Cardinal switched to man-to-man. It actually was a pretty astute halftime adjustment, considering, well, the state of the zone. But even more than that, this Pitt team, with its lack of creators off the bounce and consistent inside presence, actually screams to be played straight up. There's no sense in harping on the quickness limitations of Bright and Randle or of the strength issue of Nastic down low. If the theme of this loss is toughness, we'll focus on something this team can control: pick-and-roll defense. Stanford looked completely lost on simple ball screens, with no defined plan to defend them.
A sequence of a couple possessions early in the second half, with stops at a premium as Brown and Powell led a comeback on offense, stands out in particular. With 15:30 to go, Pitt runs pick and roll against Huestis and Nastic. There is zero communication. Nastic neither commits to hedge nor to switch, with the result being that both Huestis and Nastic both follow the ball. A wide-open roll guy receives a pass and misses a layup after a late contest from Powell, but the ball finds an open Pitt guard in the corner for a three that pushes the lead back to 17. With 13:54 to go, Huestis and Nastic again both decide to trail the ball on a pick and roll, leaving the rolling Pitt forward open for a dump down and a trip to the free throw line. With 13:00 to go, Grant Verhoeven and Brown decide to switch a pick and roll, leaving Verhoeven to defend a guard, who promptly blows by him for a lay-up.
If you're still reading at this point, you probably need to get checked out. But if the first half was about zone breakdowns and the second about man-to-man breakdowns, the entire game was a pitiful display of transition defense. We said in the Houston recap that poor transition defense would hurt Stanford, a team already struggling to get stops, against better competition. The first Pittsburgh points of the game came on a secondary break dunk, with neither Powell nor Nastic in the frame. Powell not getting back on defense was actually a repeating theme throughout the night. For as strong as he was on the offensive end, Powell turned in an equally poor performance on defense. When one of your leaders is failing to make plays for a lack of desire, where else are you to look?
There's been no mention of offense in this review, and purposefully so. All you need to know about the offense is that for as embarrassing a defensive performance as it put on, Stanford was actually in this game somewhat late in the second half. Spurred on almost solely by Brown's shooting and Powell's all-around terrific offensive play, the Cardinal found themselves down just 66-55 with 8:13 to go. In an instant, however, the game turned on (drumroll, please) a defensive breakdown. After Randle launched an ill-advised, fadeaway three, Pitt sprinted down, leaving Stanford in its by now expected chaotic mess of a transition defense. Bright and Brown both rushed to stop the ball, leaving Pitt guard Durand Johnson wide open for a three pointer. Randle, who had inexplicably sunk to a couple feet below the free throw line, rushed out and fouled Johnson, who later completed a four-point play at the line. Game, set, match.
In his live game blog, Daniel Novinson pointed out that Tuesday night's game spoke to the type of ceiling that this Stanford team may have moving forward. In the sense that the squad is limited in what it can do defensively, you'd be hard-pressed not to agree. But, frankly, there is a larger pervading sense that a team this talented should not be crippled to the extent that it currently is by an inability to play man for 40 minutes or create turnovers out of a press. The limiting factors of this team thus far speak largely to the aforementioned lack of toughness, and by extension a lack of desire and discipline. If we are to lay the onus of a lack of a desire on the players, that of a lack of a discipline has to rest some with the staff on the bench. The lack of any improvement in the defense (in things like assignments, and how to play pick and rolls, and how to rotate) against any semblance of good competition thus far is disheartening. And so is the lack of any real progress from last year. Stanford will have two more opportunities against UConn and Michigan to take the proverbial step forward, and then several more in what is shaping up to be a good Pac-12, but if the results from Tuesday night's litmus test are any indication, you may be hoping against hope at this point. And if that turns out to be the case, then Tuesday night may not have been merely the night we saw the ceiling of the 2013-‘14 Stanford Cardinal but also that on which we saw the ceiling of its coaching staff.
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