Well then. Things just got a little more interesting.
Stanford faced its third test of the season Wednesday night in a hostile road environment against UConn and earned its first passing grade, upsetting the tenth ranked Huskies 53-51. On a night where neither team shot better than 35 percent from the field, Stanford made just enough plays to nudge ahead in the second half and then held its collective breath late to hold off UConn. In doing so, the Cardinal notched their first road victory against a ranked opponent since 2008 and, more importantly, first marquee win of the 2013-14 campaign (Ed: The win also snapped UConn's 54-game home nonconference winning streak).
In our reset before the second half of the nonconference schedule, with the BYU loss still firmly planted in our minds, we mentioned that the Cardinal would probably have to win one of its three games against Pittsburgh, UConn, and Michigan to consider the nonconference slate a success. Stanford was promptly thumped by Pitt, and the out-of-conference mini season found itself hanging in the balance. A split on this final east-coast swing was now imperative; a good showing Wednesday night in Hartford essential if only for the team to prove to itself that it belonged on the big stage.
Now you probably would have been hard pressed to find anybody before the game that would have marked Wednesday night's tilt a must-win. The formula for success would have probably been something more along the lines of play the Huskies tough on the road, and then take down what was shaping up to be a beatable Michigan team in New York on Saturday. That being said, the way this game unfolded, with UConn seemingly unable to buy a basket in the second half and making no real attempt at running any semblance of an offense, you got the feeling that this was the night that the team had to finally take the proverbial step forward.
Yet by the time Johnny Dawkins called a timeout with 2:16 to go, the XL Center was rocking with the Huskies having strung together a steal and DeAndre Daniels tip-in to pull within one at 52-51, and the ghosts of Kentucky in Cancun, Syracuse in Madison Square Garden, Minnesota in the Bahamas, and seemingly every conference game last year had to have been creeping into the minds of Stanford fans everywhere. One could hear the murmurs: Here we go again. I jotted down a note during the break: "This would be a devastating game to lose."
It probably speaks more to how sloppily Wednesday night's game was played than anything else to report that nothing much happened in the final stretch. Shabazz Napier, UConn's lead guard and Wooden award candidate, kept chucking contested jumpers and kept missing. Stanford looked disorganized on offense, running possessions deep into the shot clock and coming up empty. And Josh Huestis left the door open for the Huskies to steal it, missing two of three free throws in the final minute. Nonetheless, UConn guard Omar Calhoun's 30 foot heave clanked off the front iron as time expired, and the Cardinal held on. And in doing so, in battling through a tough road environment, in finally finding a way to do enough to win a close game when it played far from its best, in overcoming a bad shooting night, in taking advantage of an opponent that missed a fair share of easy looks, Stanford did what it hasn't in recent memory: look the part of a team to be taken seriously.
We've harped here over and over that the key for Stanford will be how it performs defensively, and Wednesday night proved that more than ever. You'd probably be going too far if you believed that the Cardinal dominated the Huskies defensively. Frankly, UConn played rather poorly, missing a number of looks around the rim and some good ones from distance, especially early in the second half when it had Stanford on the ropes. That being said, Stanford turned in a focused and smart defensive effort, which, to be quite honest, is all that it will need on most nights. The Cardinal spent much of the first half playing man-to-man, and, outside of a few transition breakdowns just before the break, fared well in doing so. You saw a defined plan of attack on ball screens, with the big men hedging and recovering and Josh Huestis, Anthony Brown, and Chasson Randle switching. Stanford also did well to close out possessions, with Dwight Powell and Huestis doing an excellent job on the defensive glass.
Credit is especially due to Brown for his performance guarding Napier in the first half. Napier is extremely quick and has a great handle, exactly the type of guard that has given Stanford fits in the past. Accordingly, Dawkins started the longer Brown on UConn's leading scorer. Brown was content to play off Napier a couple feet, using his length to challenge shots late. More importantly, Brown did an excellent job of turning Napier several times when the senior guard looked to attack the rim. In doing so, Brown forced UConn into multiple possessions of ball watching: the four other Huskies standing around the perimeter watching Shabazz pound away trying to beat his man. And when he did get beat, Brown did a nice job funneling Napier to his help, creating easy block opportunities for both Huestis and Dwight Powell. Brown did well to disrupt what little flow UConn did have on offense.
It bears mentioning at this point that UConn is not a top ten team. Their record is a bit inflated with close wins against traditionally "strong" but not-nearly-as-good-as-you-may-think-this-year Maryland, Indiana, and Boston College teams. Moreover, they are excessively reliant on Napier, a formula that often results in many a UConn possession devolving into hero ball. And if Wednesday night was any indication, they aren't getting much, if any, direction from the bench when the offense does turn into Napier chucking up contested fadeaway 22 footers off the bounce or Ryan Boatwright trying to go one on three.
Advantage in the Coaching Department
Indeed, Stanford had a clear advantage in the coaching department against UConn, and at no time was it more apparent than in the second half. UConn had extended its ten point halftime lead to thirteen, 43-30, at the 17 minute mark of the second half thanks in large part to attacking Stanford big men off ball screens. John Gage, in particular, had a tough time corralling both Napier and Boatwright long enough for the Stanford guard to get back. Appropriately, then, Dawkins switched to zone the next time down, and UConn looked, well, baffled. They seemed surprised that Stanford even had the zone up its sleeve, especially odd considering how much time the Cardinal have spent in the defense this year. Really, the zone was the key to keeping UConn at bay in the second half. For the duration of the game, they had no plan of attacking other than swinging the ball around the perimeter and forcing up challenged shots. It really was night and day from the Pitt game. While the Panthers cut and screened, the Huskies stood and chucked.
When penetration did get through, the Stanford big men (Powell, Huestis, Gage, and Stefan Nastic) did an excellent job of contesting without fouling. It seems like a little thing to point out, but with UConn so lost on offense, it was crucial that Stanford not bail them out with cheap fouls. The last thing the Cardinal wanted was for the Huskies to get in a groove at the foul line. All in all, though, it was a difficult game on which to evaluate the zone. Stanford's length bothered the Huskies, but with the zone having to move so little, it was hard to see just how much it had improved.
Randle Rages on the Offensive End
Offensively, Chasson Randle turned in a superb effort. He was the catalyst for the Cardinal all night, finishing with 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting (four-for-six from beyond the arc). He knocked down big shot after big shot, sparking the Cardinal early in the first half with a couple threes and converting some tough finishes around the basket late. For a guard his size without elite athleticism, Randle finishes remarkably well around the basket. He is extremely crafty and uses great angles in his attacks to the rim. His floater over Boatwright in transition and his subsequent pump-fake three point play minutes later at the 10:52 mark that pulled the Cardinal ahead for the first time since late in the first half were both things of beauty. Randle had hit a bit of a rough stretch the last time Stanford faced non-cupcakes, so it was encouraging to see the junior guard round back into form. In total, he scored 7 of Stanford's final 12 points.
Outside of Randle, Powell and Huestis both battled their way double-doubles. Huestis turned in an efficient performance, knocking down 6-of-8 shots en route to a 13 point, 10 rebound night. Powell, on the other hand, struggled from field, converting on just 4-of-18 shots. Really, had Powell converted on just half of his easy looks inside the lane, the Cardinal could have been ahead comfortably entering the game's stretch run. Nonetheless, Powell still managed 10 points. More importantly, he finished with 15 rebounds and was extremely active and disruptive on the back line of the zone, finishing with 4 blocks. Bad shooting nights happen. It was more than encouraging then that Powell, a senior leader, still found a way to have a profound impact on the game with his offense not working as he would have liked.
Final Perspective: A Tough Road Win
And so, the Cardinal now set their eyes on Michigan this Saturday with what Dawkins hailed as a "signature win" in their back pocket. Is it a win that nonetheless brings along with it its fair share of questions? Sure. Did UConn play well? I'd bet they'd tell you that it was their worst game of the year. Does Napier normally make some of those contested jumpers, tough as they were? His highlight reel from this year would indicate that he probably does. Is UConn as good as their ranking or record suggest? I'd tell you no.
Yet to focus on whether "Stanford is that good" or "UConn is that bad" would be to miss the point. The most relevant question, then, is two-part: 1) did Stanford play a complete game? and 2) did Stanford win? The answer to #1 is no. There were breakdowns in transition defense, a failure to close a half, miscommunications on ball screens, an inability to get good looks or convert on those that were available down the stretch, and some missed free throws that could have proved costly, just to name a few of the mishaps. But, you know what, today, that's all encouraging news.
It is because months from now, the record will show a tough road win, and days from now you would hope and expect that Stanford will improve from the weaknesses it displayed against UConn. More than anything, though, you would expect that this Stanford team would learn from the way it won. Mediocre teams find ways to lose games like the one played Wednesday night. Mediocre teams have to learn and improve, if at all, by losing. Teams that expect to play into March find ways to win. Teams that expect to play into March learn and improve by winning. It really is that simple.
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