The Stanford Cardinal (2-2) enter the NIT Season Tip-Off in a state of flux and frustration, as a team still struggling to define individual player roles and an overall team identity after losing last season's top three scorers. Still reeling from back to back double-digit losses, both versus fairly mediocre opponents, the Cardinal might find themselves more akin to guppies in a shark tank when they face off against the Big East powerhouse Villanova Wildcats (4-0) on Thursday in Brooklyn, NY. While most folks are enjoying their Thanksgiving feast, Coach Johnny Dawkins's squad hopes to avoid getting feasted upon by the nation's number-eight ranked team.
The previous two games:
Blistering losses to SMU at home, then to St. Mary's on the road only three nights later, both reminded the Cardinal of some harsh realities. Chasson Randle is no longer on the roster after smashing the school's all-time scoring record. Neither is Anthony Brown. Nor Stefan Nastic. The trio collectively averaged 47.8 points per game last season, accounting for nearly two-thirds of Stanford's total offensive output of 72.9 points per game. Although the current season is still in its infancy, the Cardinal have yet to execute an effective strategy to replace these lost tranches of offense.
The good news is that sophomore forward Reid Travis turned in a solid effort in both losses, scoring 30 points total on 15-for-23 shooting. He also attacked the boards effectively, snagging 13 rebounds over the two contests. Senior Rosco Allen, Stanford's top returning scorer, chipped in 14 points versus SMU but was then held to a mere two points versus St. Mary's before fouling out with about three minutes remaining in the game. Brothers Marcus Allen and Malcolm Allen (no relation to Rosco) have both put points on the board but still need to make better shot selection choices, as well as improve on the defensive end.
Red flags and areas of concern:
In fairness, injuries plagued multiple returning players throughout the 2014-15 season. One might argue that the Cardinal are still learning to function as a collective unit with everyone finally starting to get healthy. Nonetheless, the past two games triggered multiple red flags and alarm bells, especially with an always imposing Villanova squad waiting on deck, a program that can boast an overall record of 66-8 dating back to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Stanford completely fell apart about seven minutes into the second half of the St. Mary's game en route to a 78-61 defeat in a game the Cardinal actually led by four at halftime. The Gaels erupted offensively and embarked on a 27-9 run, nailing three point shots down the stretch as the Cardinal heaved bricks from outside, connecting on only one shot from the floor in the game's final 5:30 and going only 1-for-9 from beyond the three-point arc the entire second half. Stanford basically responded to St. Mary's offensive surge by either turning the ball over and/or committing fouls to create further offensive opportunities for the Gaels on the perimeter, in the paint and at the free throw stripe. Coach Dawkins didn't mince words afterwards, assessing the team's second half defense "as bad as I've seen us."
Rebounding is another major area of concern for the Cardinal when evaluating the team's recent play. A strong showing on the boards was expected from Stanford's returning players to somewhat offset the gaping holes on offense. Instead, Stanford was out-rebounded by an identical 34-24 margin versus both SMU and St. Mary's, with both opponents hauling down offensive rebounds in the double-digits. Senior center Grant Verhoeven didn't play versus SMU and saw only limited action versus St. Mary's as he continues to recover from a hip injury that caused him to miss most of last season. Freshman center Josh Sharma, another seven-footer, isn't ready for big minutes yet. Hence, Stanford needs other players aside from Travis to step up on the boards as well.
Of course, losing key players to graduation is a yearly ritual in college basketball to which even Villanova isn't immune. Coincidentally, the Wildcats also lost a trio of last season's top impact players, including Darrun Hilliard (now starring for the NBA's Detroit Pistons). The difference however, is that Villanova's returning players are far more battle-tested and experienced. They know their roles, and several have already stepped forward as leaders on the hardwood. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono returns as reigning co-Big East player of the year, and Villanova head coach Jay Wright considers him the team's "quarterback." Junior guard Josh Hart nabbed last season's Big East sixth man of the year honors as was also named MVP of the conference tournament. Senior Daniel Ochefu casts a formidable inside presence at 6'11" and shoots over 60% from the floor when he isn't crashing the boards. All three were integral pieces of last year's team that finished 33-3 and nabbed a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament, whereas Stanford's returning players, when they were healthy, played a mostly passive role while Randle, Brown and Nistic served up offense.
Matching up with Villanova:
All things considered, Stanford does have a chance to compete with Villanova, provided multiple components fall into place and work in lockstep for the game's full 40 minutes. Reid Travis has shown an ability to dominate on the boards, and if Stanford deploys every ounce of aggressiveness on both the offensive and defensive glass, Villanova's Ochefu could be in for a long and difficult afternoon, all the more so if he gets into foul trouble.
At the offensive end, both Travis and sophomore Michael Humphrey must attack the low post relentlessly. Thursday's matchup affords the duo an ideal chance to prove themselves an dangerous front court force, even if still a work in progress. Add another solid showing from Rosco Allen and Villanova's interior defense could get flustered early on. Meanwhile, the brothers Allen have an opportunity to showcase Stanford's perimeter offensive capabilities post-Randle. However, rest assured that Villanova's Hart will do everything he can to give the siblings fits at both ends of the floor, while Arcidiacono's play-making prowess could render Stanford's back court as vulnerable as that last slice of homemade pecan pie.
Thursday's tilt could go one of two ways. Back to back embarrassing losses may have finally lit an inferno under Stanford's collective derriere, and hence the Cardinal emerge stronger, determined and cohesive in perhaps their toughest game of the still young season. That's the ideal scenario. However, it's more likely that Stanford's inexperience and still developing team chemistry are no match for a more mature Villanova squad that spots an opponent's weaknesses early and exploits them to no end.
Stanford vs. Villanova tips off Thursday at 1:30pm Pacific time on ESPN2. The tournament's first game features the Arkansas Razorbacks versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Both the consolation and championship games are slated for Friday.