The Power of Defense: Improvement?

Huestis was a monster on the glass: 11 rebounds

Stanford scored only four points over the final 10 minutes of its gut-wrenching 60-57 loss to No. 1 Arizona, but Andrew Santana says the Cardinal demonstrated an unprecedented 40 minutes of defensive and rebounding toughness. Can that be the ticket to finally turning the corner?

Stanford finally turned the corner Wednesday night in front of an electric crowd at Maples Pavilion, pushing around a tough minded and defensively elite Arizona team throughout before putting away the #1 ranked Wildca….


Not many things are worse than having to re-write your lede, but failing to finish off the No. 1 ranked team in the nation on your home court after playing the best 30 minutes of basketball (best 40 if you're talking defense) anybody around your program has seen in the past 6 years, all in front of a packed house paying you serious attention for about the first time in that time span may qualify. That's what happened to Stanford on Wednesday, when thanks to a tight, tentative, and wholly unproductive offensive attack down the stretch, the Cardinal let a major opportunity slip away in ultimately losing to the #1 Wildcats 60-57.

Close. Oh, so close, yet again unable to turn that elusive, proverbial, and—let's just go ahead and say it—godforsaken corner. Visions of a rushed court, of the lead-in highlight on the 10 and 11 and midnight SportsCenters, of a team moving forward with serious momentum at the right time snatched away faster than you could ask yourself just how Nick Johnson managed to make a 15 foot one handed floater over the outstretched arm of Stefan Nastic (or just how Dwight Powell could miss two free throws with the team starving for points; or just why Anthony Brown and Josh Huestis would hesitate on bunnies around the rim only to see their shots get blocked; or just…). It was a frustrating loss, one certainly worthy of some good ol' fashioned venting. Frustrating, mainly, because for as well as Stanford played for an overwhelming majority of this game, it was unable to make the 1 or 2 plays down the stretch to push itself over the top. That was it—just a couple of mistakes, just a couple plays.


And dare I say there is a but.

Even taking into account the overwhelmingly frustrating woefulness on offense coming home, for truly the first time all season, the Cardinal put forth the type of effort and performance worth being proud of Wednesday night.

Blasphemous as it may sound to some, there is some good, in fact quite a bit, to take away from the loss.

An Honest Look
We've been as critical as anyone of this Stanford team this season, repeatedly questioning its toughness, its commitment to the defensive end, its willingness to answer the bell when challenged by hard-nosed basketball teams. Quite simply, we've questioned its desire—and ability—to compete when up against a team that guards for 35 seconds and rebounds and fights for loose balls and does all the "little things" that make winning at an elite level difficult in college basketball. We haven't gotten overly—and falsely—excited over wins against overrated opponents (see UConn) or those over teams whose no-defense, run and gun style seemingly played right into the Cardinal's hands (see Oregon). We were encouraged to see some grit against USC, but remained unsure if the Cardinal could carry over similar levels of sustained intensity against better opponents.

Well, Wednesday night in terms of toughness and intensity, if not the final score, Stanford by and large rose to meet the challenge.

Defensively, the Cardinal played man to man the majority of Wednesday night, and to focus on a stretch in particular, played the defense about as well as any team can the first four and a half minutes of the game. Cardinal bigs effectively doubled the massive Arizona frontline in the early going, forcing the Wildcat posts into some difficult and contested looks around the rim. When Stanford was beat down low, they banged the Wildcat bigs, forcing them to earn points at the line. Most of all, Stanford did extremely well to close out possessions. Neighboring Stanford posts not involved in the double repeatedly sought out and bodied Arizona players flying in for offensive rebounds. In fact, the Cardinal were successful in keeping the Wildcats off the offensive glass all night. Arizona came into Maples averaging 13 offensive rebounds per game, but finished with just 6 Wednesday night.

Around the perimeter, Stanford defended ball screens involving Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell as well as it has all year. There was a defined plan of attack, and the bigs did well to hedge aggressively while giving the guards time to recover. Moreover, Cardinal wing defenders did a nice job in laying off perimeter-floating big men Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley, daring the two face-up Arizona forwards to shoot from the outside. Such a move was clearly in the scout, and it undoubtedly paid off. Gordon airballed an open jumper early, and the two combined to finish 5-19 on the game.

All in all, the early defensive intensity helped the Card open up a 9-2 advantage. Yet unlike previous contests, where Stanford has lulled in its commitment to guarding, the Card maintained the defensive effort for a majority of the 40 minutes Wednesday night. There were breakdowns on possessions, sure, but not the type of extended hands-in-your-pockets, lazy stretches this Stanford team has been especially prone to this year—stretches you can bet a physical, aggressive Arizona team would have taken advantage of.

Controlling the Defensive Glass
Indeed, the focus was a team effort, with the Cardinal getting contributions all around. Josh Huestis was a monster on the defensive glass (11 on the night), as was Dwight Powell in limited minutes because of foul trouble. Anthony Brown largely did a nice job on Arizona leading scorer Nick Johnson, but for some tough made shots but Johnson late. Brown also was much better in his rotations when away from the ball. John Gage hedged well when in during the first half, and Marcus Allen had a very nice stretch in the opening period during which he was active in his zone on several possessions, ultimately forcing a steal on one. He also knocked down a nice pull up jumper on the other end. Allen, we felt, probably needed to play more in the second half, especially considering that Brown and Chasson Randle played 39 and 40 minutes, respectively.

Yet the catalyst for Stanford on the defensive end throughout was undoubtedly Stefan Nastic. The senior center had quite the game, his modest line of 10 points and 5 rebounds not even beginning to tell the story. This is not to say that Nastic didn't play well offensively (he may have been Stanford's best player there as well Wednesday night), but his play defensively was particularly impressive. He was nothing short of a physical force against the Wildcats, repeatedly giving Arizona big man Kaleb Tarczewski fits on the block. He challenged shots, stepped up to take charges, and at critical junctures in the second half came up with some huge rebounds in traffic. That we are lauding Nastic's physical play against arguably the best front line in the entire country is really a testament to how far he's come in his four years at Stanford.

In short, Stanford went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the nation, with KenPom's No. 2 overall team in adjusted defense on Wednesday night, and largely matched them stop for stop, rotation for rotation, crowded rebound for crowded rebound. For a team that was bullied and put to shame by a UCLA team that is nowhere near the physical, defensive beast that this Arizona squad is less than a week ago, that is called progress. Throw in the stretches against USC, and as hard as it may be to hear considering the final result Wednesday night, Stanford—for, to a large extent, the first time all year—is finally seeing some substantial improvement. Excuse our positivity, but with Stanford guarding and rebounding as such against the nation's best when we weren't sure to this point if it could do so at even a mediocre level (defending, that is), we were for the first time this year shown how good this team could be. And the answer is, pretty darn good.

The Overarching Frustration
Of course, the overarching frustration in reading such reports of improvement ultimately stems from the big picture timing of it all. The hourglass is running out.

Where, you say, was this tenacious and imposing length around the basket in November? Where was Stanford communicating in pick and rolls in early January? Where was Stanford fighting through screens and putting an arm-bar to cutters last week? Heck, where has all of it been for the past 6 years?

Fair, I say. If Stanford has finally seen the light, then it's picked a hell of a time to open its eyes: namely, playing for its coach's job as it stares down a difficult slate of conference games in an increasingly desperate fight to win seven out of the ten as a means to feel relatively safe of making the tournament. That being said, if Stanford has indeed seen the defensive light, if it can carry over the same type of commitment to that end of the court for the rest of the year, then the team is more than in its right mind to feel confident about accomplishing such a feat. If Stanford plays as it did Wednesday night against Arizona—all of it: the stops that had you standing and clapping, the empty possessions that had you rolling your eyes and cursing under your breath, but most of all the palpable sense of urgency—then it will make the tournament.

We've avoided it long enough, but no write-up would be even near complete without discussing just what happened on offense the final 9:43 of the game, during which Stanford managed just four points. As with most things, the answer is a combination of a couple factors.

Where Did Nastic Go?
The most frustrating factor, and undoubtedly the one the Cardinal could control most, was that Stanford stopped working through Nastic. From the 10:03 mark to the :36 mark, when the Card would still conceivably feed the post in a one possession game, Stanford had 12 possessions. Of those 12, Nastic touched the ball in the post just once, at the 2:12 mark. He did fumble the ball out of bounds, but probably in wonder that the rest of the team remembered he was even on the floor. In the 7 most important minutes of the game, during which Stanford was faltering significantly on offense, their most effective offensive player to that point (perhaps a tie with Powell) touched the ball in a position to score once. It's baffling on multiple fronts, for not only was Nastic scoring effectively when he touched it, but he was functioning as such a willing and effective passer that the offense was clearly moving more freely with it working through him early in the second half. Look no further than Randle's made three to put Stanford up 41-36 at the 16:25 mark. Nastic touches the ball twice thanks to an effective repost, realizes he's still too far from the basket, and quickly skips it over to an open Powell on the opposite wing. With the defense recovering from its shading over to Nastic, Powell drives an open lane forcing help. Randle slides over to replace the driving Powell and knocks down the jumper on the kick out. The Cardinal didn't get movement anything close to this sequence during the final 9:43.

Secondly, the Wildcat length bothered Stanford shots at the rim. You have to give some credit to Arizona. Say what you will about the Wildcats' ability to shoot the basketball, or what you feel about them being ranked #1, but there is no questioning that Arizona is an elite team defensively. The Cardinal offense may not have been moving great, but outside of a few jumpshot bailout possessions (one of which actually resulted in a Huestis make to beat the shot clock just before the drought), Stanford was actually getting shots near the rim. In fact, of those 12 possessions, 8 of them resulted in Stanford shots (all misses outside of Powell's reverse to tie the game at 55 with 1:21 to go) inside of 6 or so feet. However, Randle, Huestis, and Powell were ridden out into some tough runners going away from the basket, and the Wildcats managed to block three other shots during the stretch. In fact, no sequence is more emblematic of Stanford's struggles coming home than that of Brown getting stuffed at the rim by Gordon on a nice drive to the basket, and then hesitating—essentially pump-faking the air—the next time down from point blank range. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was able to close the distance thanks to Brown's worry and swat the shot away anyhow, keeping the score locked at 53 with 6 minutes to go. Huestis would have a similar mishap later. The intimidation—the mental contest, if you will, is part of a good defensive team's arsenal. The fact of the matter is that good defensive teams make you work for every shot, even the close ones. Saying Stanford missed a lot of close shots is true; saying they missed a lot of easy ones? Maybe not so much.

That being said, Stanford missed some shots it plainly should have made. Call it tightness, call it nerves, call it lack of focus, call it all of those things. In a game that came down to a play here or a play there, Johnson made the tough runner and the three late, while several Stanford players failed to convert on looks far easier than those. There was Randle's missed layup with Stanford up 4 at the 9 minute mark, Powell's missed free throws in a tie game at the 4 minute mark, and Huestis's missed alley-oop with the score still knotted just a minute later. Stanford had its chances, but had no one to step up in the closing moments.

The Power of Defense
Damning as that sounds, awful as it was to have to re-watch the final 10 minutes to digest just how poor the offense was, Stanford had a look—a good one at that—to send this game to overtime. That is the power of defense. I would feel much differently if the Cardinal would have done something like finish 60 percent from the floor and had gone on to lose some wild shoot-out heartbreaker to the Wildcats. I suppose then this recap would take on the tone of desperation perhaps appropriate to letting the top ranked team in the country squirm away because I would know that Stanford had played a game it would have a hard time replicating in the future.

Defense, however, can be replicated. Rebounding can be replicated. Time is of the essence, and margin for error is probably no longer existent, but in losing a heartbreaker Wednesday night, Stanford may have had its first true breakthrough of the year.

And so, the Cardinal may not have turned the corner against Arizona, but they undoubtedly took a step forward. Here's to hoping it's not too little too late.

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