After playing two games in the Preseason NIT Classic over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Stanford Cardinal (3-3) return to Palo Alto with a much needed confidence boost. The 69-66 comeback win over the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-3) in Friday's consolation game snapped a streak of three losses, all by double-digit margins, including a 59-45 defeat at Barclay's Center the day before to the eighth-ranked Villanova Wildcats in the tournament semifinal.
Something finally "clicked" for the Cardinal on Friday when they found themselves trailing the Razorbacks by 17 points with only six minutes remaining in the second half. Senior Rosco Allen forced a turnover after an Arkansas offensive rebound, eventually leading to a driving layup by sophomore Michael Humphrey to commence a 21 point offensive explosion to conclude the game, all while holding the Razorbacks to a single free throw. Humphrey also blocked a layup attempt with 13 seconds to go, which led to a Marcus Allen deuce, courtesy of a defensive goal tending call, that finally put the Cardinal ahead with just over two ticks left on the game clock and also drew a technical foul on Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson. Rosco Allen then sank two free throws to cap off his career high 25 point performance, with 12 of those points coming from the charity stripe. He also drilled back to back three-pointers down the stretch in the final 4:32, offering a promising sign for a Stanford team that has struggled to find a consistent offensive juggernaut since the departure of Chasson Randle, the program's all time scoring leader.
Along with Rosco Allen, three other Stanford players (Humphrey, Marcus Allen and Reed Travis) also finished in double figures. The Cardinal shot 46.9% from the floor, a mammoth improvement over an abysmal 26% shooting in the prior day's loss to Villanova, a contest in which the Cardinal also turned the ball over 23 times. On Friday, Stanford committed only 10 turnovers.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins boasted to reporters after the game about the big hearts on his young squad. He asserted that his team will neither give up nor give in, no matter how awful the agony of growing pains that commonly plague young teams, especially early in the season when still developing chemistry and consistency on both ends of the hardwood. The Cardinal trailed the Razorbacks by as many as 20 points in the first half and were down 10 at halftime.
Most impressive, Stanford was able to appropriately channel the frustration from Thursday's loss, a contest that was very winnable at times due to uncharacteristically poor shooting from Villanova as well. However, the Wildcats' participation in Thursday's non-stop bricklaying competition was tempered by their ability to seize upon Stanford's non-stop mistakes every time the Cardinal had an opportunity to close the gap. The Cardinal never got closer to within seven points in the game's second half before the Wildcats pulled away for good in the final five minutes.
During the first half on Friday, it initially appeared more of the same was in store. Stanford was already down by double digits less than five minutes after the opening tip. The Cardinal offense starved itself again by enduring over nine-minutes without a single point from the floor. During that stanza, there were more turnovers, more questionable shot selection choices and more missed free throws. Marcus Allen eventually took charge by aggressively slashing into the paint for three straight layups to bring the game back within reach before the first half concluded.
Whatever Dawkins and his squad discussed in the locker room at halftime, combined with escalating frustration over repeated failures to take care of the basketball and to execute offensively, finally sank in during those final six minutes, starting from the moment Rosco Allen yanked away the ball before the Razorbacks could get off yet another second chance attempt. Nonetheless, rebounding remains a concern for the Cardinal. Altogether, Stanford allowed their two Brooklyn foes 31 offensive rebounds. They've allowed opponents to snag double-digit offensive boards in all but one of their six games thus far.
Thursday's loss to Villanova also laid bare this young Stanford team's troubling propensity to commit careless mistakes, thereby squandering opportunities to seize momentum. Multiple miscues kept the game out of reach for the Cardinal despite the Wildcats' hideous 30.6% shooting, and despite the fact that Villanova's big man, Daniel Ochefu, was limited to only 15 minutes due to foul trouble in both halves. Again, it didn't help Stanford that their shooting was even more horrific, but the Cardinal further exacerbated the problem with a plethora of errors that added more salt to the wound.
For example, in the second half the Cardinal procured an ideal opportunity to cut the Wildcats' lead to five points, only to fall back down by double digits within 90 seconds. With 5:37 remaining, Travis had the ball right under the basket with an easy layup opportunity, but he attempted a dunk instead. Not only did he miss the dunk attempt horribly, but he then opted to continue hanging from the rim with his left hand while attempting to reach for the loose ball with his right, drawing a technical foul. Villanova sank their free throw at the other end, and then senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono drilled a corner three to give the Wildcats a 50-39 and provide the extra boost needed to put the game away.
Other second half mistakes on Thursday also afford Stanford valuable learning opportunities as Pac-12 conference play fast approaches. Center Grant Verhoeven forced a Villanova turnover with 8:15 remaining, but then he jumped the gun by setting an illegal screen on a Wildcat defender not yet in position, preventing the Cardinal from capitalizing. The back court still seems lost and has yet to develop solid basketball instincts. Several bad passes ended up in the first few rows of the stands instead of in the hands of an open teammate. On multiple occasions, the guard running the point seemed lost, slowing down shortly after crossing half court to look at Dawkins for instructions on what to do next. Another slow start almost doomed Stanford during Friday's game versus Arkansas, while on Thursday, the Cardinal missed their first 15 shot attempts from the floor in the first half and their first eight in the second half. Aforementioned rebounding woes are also of grave concern with conference play on the near horizon, as most Pac-12 opponents have no shortage of big bodies underneath to attack the rim.
The Cardinal have five more opportunities to iron out the kinks, all at home, before their first Pac-12 conference showdown versus Utah on New Year's Day. The highlight of Stanford's remaining non-conference schedule is a nationally televised duel with the Texas Longhorns on December 19. The balance of the 2015 calendar includes tilts with Dartmouth, DePaul, Sacramento State and Carroll College.
Friday's hard fought win provided a glimmer of hope that despite being a work in progress, this Stanford Cardinal squad can eventually bounce back from various gaffes and other shortcomings to regain its competitiveness. However, once conference play starts, the margin for error becomes increasingly scant in a Pac-12 stacked with talent and experience.