Could Cardinalmaniacs™ have drawn up a more dismal scenario last Saturday in Spokane (Wash.) when Stanford faced #5-ranked Gonzaga? With their NCAA Tournament backs against the wall, the Cardinal were in dire need of a high-profile road win to help erase some of their abject underperformance early in the year. Stanford is a team that has been towed by two star seniors in recent weeks: Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz. They have shouldered the load, separately or in tandem, in each and every recent victory.
Heck, they were not just Stanford's best players. They were the conference's top dogs, racking up the last three Pac-10 Player of the Week honors between them.
In a game when Hernandez plays just 22 minutes, plagued in both halves with foul trouble... in a game when Stanford, the best free throw shooting team in the Pac-10, struggled with just 62.5% at the charity stripe... in a game played at the house that holds the longest home winning streak in the NCAA. Stanford hung remarkably tough. The underdog Cardinal in fact led numerous stretches of the game.
That recipe undoubtedly included another Herculean effort from Haryasz, right? That was not at all the case. The 6'11" Stanford senior had his most mediocre outing in more than a month, scoring just 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting and grabbing an underwhelming four rebounds. With Hernandez shackled by Dave Libbey-imposed Kryptonite, Haryasz was a shell of himself.
It is a credit to the supporting cast of Stanford that the Card could play the Zags to the wire, despite the travails of their two power players. We will address that a little later. But for now, we take a closer look at what brought Stanford's center standout down to earth.
The most visible problem that plagued Haryasz in the game was the relentless double-team that Gonzaga applied each and every time he touched the ball. It was clearly the core of Mark Few's game plan to stop Stanford, and in the end, it worked. It was Few's good fortune that officiating in his home gym put Hernandez on the bench, which took away Stanford's top weapon that could make a Haryasz double-team strategy backfire. But it worked.
"Triple-teamed sometimes, as well!" Haryasz remarks. "I've been going over this a lot lately in my head. That's basically the scheme: to make somebody else beat you."
The other time this season we saw such an obvious double-team strategy against Haryasz came in the Pac-10 opener at UCLA back in December. The Bruins were physical and disciplined in closing on Haryasz when he touched the ball. His 3-of-10 shooting that day was one of his worst of the year, and Stanford suffered a horrible defeat. The Gonzaga strategy was more striking due to the consistency and the speed which brought the double-team upon the big man.
"You have to give a lot of credit to Gonzaga because they did a really good job bringing that double-team," Haryasz praises. "It was there quick. I remember several situations where the guy would be throwing the entry pass, and as the ball was in air, J.P. Batista was already coming over to double me. Before I had even caught the ball. That's just something we're going to have to adjust to. Teams are going to do that to us now."
"We've seen that a lot already. Washington State does it post-to-post. UCLA with their athletes and physical aggressiveness, they do it all the time," Trent Johnson notes. "I thought Matt did a good job of dribbling out of the double-team and making passes. I think he was out of rhythm and he got in a hurry at times, but I attribute that a lot to lack of practice [that week]."
"He's prepared for it, and he's done a good job. He's gotten better at it," the coach comments.
Stanford's improvement this year has come in two phases. The first saw their defense addressed. After ranking at the bottom of the cellar in the conference for field goal and three-point defense, the Cardinal have stepped up individually while also better mastered a mix of play calling between zone and man defenses.
More recently, the offense has turned around. Why? Key players have played their best once they've become healthy. The roles for other players around Mitch Johnson as a freshman starting point guard have settled into place. But the defining characteristic of Stanford's offensive ascension has been their improved passing. Players better recognize when and where their teammates are, in positions to make plays. The ball is finding its way into the hands of players with higher percentage opportunities, whether that is an open Hernandez on the perimeter or Haryasz with post position and a defender he can beat.
On Saturday in Spokane, Hernandez played just nine minutes in the first half and hit just one field goal. Haryasz had a quiet six points. But the ball movement was unquestionably the best seen from Stanford all year. The Cardinal clicked to the tune of 15 assists on their 17 baskets. That is off-scale, folks.
"Other guys stepped up and hit shots. A lot of times, we moved the ball real well," Hernandez observes. "In that first half, everything was just clicking. Everybody was in a rhythm. Everybody stepped in. Everybody felt good. Everybody was thriving off everybody's rhythm they had. It's just a matter of continuing to do what we're doing. Move the ball to the open man. If everybody can step up and make shots, get people open and make people better, we can ride that."
"I thought our ball movement was exceptional in the first half - passing out of doubles, getting the ball swung," Trent Johnson echoes. "If we can just continue that, we'll be fine offensively."
Gonzaga did not waver in their defensive strategy, however. Haryasz had recorded zero assists in the half, which meant he was unable to make the pass to make them pay for the double-teams. They continue to hound and harass the Stanford standout through the remainder of the game. By the time the final buzzer sounded, he was stuck at zero assists versus four turnovers. Haryasz shot 1-of-6 in the second half.
"I tried to do the best I could to find the open guy - hit the open man. I think we did a good job of that in the first half, but in the second half I was a little bit out of rhythm," he admits.
One factor that undoubtedly contributed to his difficulties was his lingering struggle with his injured left eye. Seven days earlier, he took a shot to the face that swelled up his eye until it shut. Continued swelling and bruising left Haryasz with double vision and unable to practice prior to the Thursday night game at Cal. He wore prescription goggles that not only protected his eye, but also corrected his affected vision. While Haryasz complained about numerous details in his post-game comments about the difficulty of wearing the goggles - limited peripheral vision, fogging, etc. - he did manage a stunning evening of shooting the basketball. Haryasz was 4-of-7 from the field, including made medium- and long-range jumpers, and 9-of-10 from the free throw line. The senior admitted that he wanted to rid himself of the goggles as soon as he could. He judged that time to have arrived for the Gonzaga game, but his performance more than suggests he moved too soon.
"I'm not a guy who is going to make excuses for the way I played, or that the reason we lost is because I had goggles or didn't have goggles," Haryasz mantains. "There are pluses and minuses to both wearing them and not wearing them, and I think I made the right decision to not wear them."
"Yeah, he had a problem. Matt doesn't make excuses, and neither do we as a group. But for some of us who wear glasses, just put a patch over your eye," Trent Johnson declares. "Yeah, he had a problem. It was pretty evident in reviewing the game tape, when he was on the move. When he was stationary, he was fine."
"I thought he did a very fine job, considering the circumstances," the coach continues. "And I'm not necessarily talking about his vision, as opposed to talking about having not practiced for a week and losing his conditioning and rhythm... "I look at tape, and go back and look at Matt in the second half. I don't care what he says. I'm not a big excuse guy, but Matt was winded - visibly.""
The play of Haryasz in the first half versus the second is evidence in support of Johnson's contention. 3-of-4 from the field in the first half. 1-of-6 in the second half. As the game wore on Haryasz bore less and less a resemblance of himself. That happens when, in the middle of the season, you miss a week of practice. Perhaps against a "normal" defense, Haryasz would have better persevered. But the pace of the game, and the ferocity of the double-teams that continued to attack him, pressed him.
The good news is that Haryasz is back in practice and returning to his normal routine. The team had a day off Tuesday, as the NCAA mandates one day every week without a game or practice, but otherwise Haryasz has been back in the saddle. Better still, he decided Tuesday that his left eye and vision had completely returned to normal.
"It's back completely - 100%," Haryasz beams.
Hernandez' foul trouble and Haryasz' physical liabilities were an unusual confluence of factors that conspired against the Cardinal on Saturday. But it seems likely that more opponents will nevertheless try the double-team strategy that took Haryasz out of his game. Thus the question remains of how to best react to that defense. Ideally, Haryasz would face his teammates and make a pass that directly or subsequently finds the open man left unguarded. An open shooter or an open driving lane would lead to high percentage shots or a trip to the free throw line. But the tactic which Stanford and Haryasz had practiced, prior to the Gonzaga game, was for him to move away from the double and then find a teammate.
"The way they were double-teaming real hard made it impossible for me to split it. And I didn't want to take a shot unless I felt comfortable with it. I didn't want to force anything," Haryasz explains. "By dribbling it out, it opens the court for your vision. Kicking it to the open guy and making that extra pass led to open shots for other guys... Other guys are going to have to hit shots, and I'm confident that they could do that."
That worked well enough in the first half. Despite just nine minutes from Hernandez, the Cardinal had their best offensive execution of the year. A great piece of that equation came from an unlikely source. As Haryasz says, it takes teammates hitting shots. The man of the hour who stepped up to that challenge was redshirt sophomore Tim Morris.
Coming into the game, Morris was hitting at just 35.4% from the field and 12.5% from three-point range, with only two makes from deep all season. I have confidently maintained that Morris is a better shooter this season than in either of his previous years on The Farm. There is no question in my mind. His form is greatly improved, and the consistency of his release gives him a chance to knock down the jumper. His mid-range shot has been effective numerous times for Stanford this year, but his overall field goal percentage has been so low because of his inability to score at the basket. For a player whose greatest offensive strength is his ability to drive to the basket, finishing is a critical skill. That is the next great challenge in his development at Stanford, and he can be an all-conference player if he makes strides there to parallel his improved shot.
But on this day, Morris found himself with open looks and repeated opportunities in the first half against Gonzaga. Given his numbers, it was a reasonable scouting report to sag off Morris and turn your attention to other Stanford weapons. He, however, made them pay. On 5-of-6 shooting, including a pair of three-point baskets, Morris collected 12 first-half points off the bench. The 6'4" wing was the single individual most responsible for Stanford's five-point lead going into the locker room.
His head coach was proud not just of the performance, but that Morris delivered in a decidedly difficult road environment. Remember that Morris played less than half of one season of college basketball before this year, which makes many of his experiences new.
"Tim - because it was a new experience for him - I thought in the first half he was pretty good," Johnson offers. "Tim has done a really good job of being consistent in terms of his effort, defensively and rebounding. I was surprised that he was that open. He had a driving lane, and he had a lot of open jump shots that he knocked down. When he is that open, he's got to take those shots. He's got to shoot them with confidence. Sometimes they're going to go; sometimes they're not."
Gonzaga made sure at halftime to not give Morris so much room. He attempted just one field goal in the entire second half - a miss - and he also went 0-of-2 at the free throw line. The second stanza reminded that his first-half work was a couple standard deviations away from his norm. But if opponents opt in the future to deliver more double-teams at Haryasz, or Hernandez for that matter, it will require elevated performances by Morris for the Cardinal to prevail.
Another young player who stepped to the challenge Saturday was freshman forward Lawrence Hill. He has shown more and more this year his exceptional confidence as an offensive player, willing to shoot the ball or attack the basket with less hesitation than several of Stanford's upperclassmen. His skill level has allowed him to convert on some of those situations. When Haryasz sprained his ankle at USC, Hill exploded for 20 points and was a catalyst for the second half surge which his head coach has repeatedly described as the turning point of the season. In the overtime near-upset of Arizona in Tucson, Hill hit for 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds. In the thrilling overtime win versus Washington at home, the frosh found 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting (plus 5-of-6 at the stripe) with seven rebounds. Saturday at Gonzaga, Hill scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Through this critical stretch run, the Cardinal will have to have more help from Hill if they want to work their way into the NCAA Tournament. His upside is clear, but he is like any freshman with up and down games. Just two days before the Gonzaga battle, he played only two minutes against Cal. Quickly after he substituted into the game, the Bears put the ball to big Leon Powe in the post with Hill defending him. The physically superior Powe blew by Hill with alarming quickness and was fouled on the way to the basket. Johnson pulled Hill immediately from the game. The head coach says that the difference between the frosh forward playing two minutes at Cal and 21 minutes at Gonzaga is found in the match-ups.
"In terms of the Cal game, that had a lot to do with the size and the strength that Cal's front line had. And that Peter Prowitt was playing well that night. And that Matt was able to play that night. The Gonzaga game - I thought he played well," Johnson describes.
"For Lawrence, it has to do with his being able to deal with the physicality of the game," the coach continues. "That's the biggest difference for me when I evaluate Lawrence. Lawrence is an extremely confident young man, so offensively, in terms of our system and where he is able to get his shots, he is always going to be confident there. Let's be fair to the kid. You're going to throw him out there and expect him to be 35 pounds [lighter] and not as strong as Leon Powe, and handle him by himself?"
Tonight, Arizona State comes to town. While they are last in the conference at 3-10 and 9-13 overall, the Sun Devils gave Stanford more than a scare in Tempe a month ago. Armed with skilled and athletic big men, alongside veteran perimeter shooters, the beleaguered Sun Devils have some weapons. The one we could not have expected to strike with such potency was 6'10" freshman Jeff Pendergraph. He played just 10 minutes in the game but exploded for 14 points with an unstoppable array of scoring moves. Only after he sprained his ankle and sat the rest of the game did Stanford settle down and move their way toward the 70-64 win.
"He was really hot when he started off the game. I think he was 7-for-7 in his first seven shots, which is perfect. He played well. I was surprised at how well he played - yeah," offers Haryasz of the ASU freshman. "He's long. He was hitting shots - I mean, he hit a turnaround fade-away bank shot. Sometimes you just get shots like that to fall for you... He's a good young player, and he made some shots."
"He's as good a freshman as there is in the conference," Trent Johnson states. "He was better in person than he was on tape, and I thought he was pretty good on tape. I think he's really good - really good. He runs hard and is extremely competitive. The one thing he does well for a guy his size is that he shoots over his left shoulder, shoots over his right shoulder. And he's got a lot of quickness... He's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this league."
Pendergraph is a match-up which Hill may be asked to maintain tonight. As Johnson describes, the offensive end is not a question for Hill. He plays with a confidence well ahead of most freshmen. It is instead the physical battle on the defensive end, and how Hill handles it, that largely controls his playing time. Given what Pendergraph did the last time these two teams played, and given the fact that he scored 21, 18 and 15 in his last three games, the defensive assignment will be a tall order for Hill.
Keep in mind that we are talking about a home game, where Stanford is undefeated in conference, against the weakest performer in the Pac-10. The rest of the road will be even tougher for the Cardinal. Stanford needs to stay healthy, succeed against defensive gimmicks, and cultivate more production from its young and supporting cast.
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