Nearly every college basketball team in the country suffers at least a couple of bad losses per season. Bad losses are disappointing, but they normally don’t mean much beyond that a team was worn out, faced an unfavorable match-up, or merely lost focus for a night. Bad losses are, as frustrating as they can be, inevitable.
And then there’s an entirely different kind of loss. This more severe kind of defeat is one that isn’t just hard to watch, but one that calls into question the entire direction of a program. A team’s flaws can all become obvious over the course of 40 minutes of ball, and such a loss can serve as a strong indictment of where the team is headed for the remainder of a season and in seasons yet to come.
Stanford’s 74-55 loss on Saturday to Cal in Haas Pavilion is one of those losses. If you think this is rhetoric or an exaggeration, just bear with me. The tape from Berkeley and the corresponding numbers prove that there is a lot of bad going on in the men’s basketball program.
First and foremost, Stanford had no offensive gameplan to speak of. (Again, not hyperbole.) The Card returned to the early-season strategy of swinging the ball around the perimeter for around 20 seconds before even attempting to either pass the ball inside the arc or drive to the rim. Sure enough, the numbers reflect the team’s inability–or at least refusal–to get the ball to the post. Stanford scored 16 points in the paint, while Cal scored 44. Stanford shot 38% from the field, while Cal shot 56%. Whereas the Card’s front line accounted for 36% of the team’s scoring, Cal’s forwards and center scored 53% of the Bears’ points. Cal forwards Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison combined for 33 points and 18 rebounds, and had their way with a Stanford frontcourt that looked afraid of the rivals. Josh Owens and Dwight Powell, the Stanford equivalent of the Kamp/Sanders-Frison duo, scored a combined 8 points with 10 total rebounds.
Stanford was outrebounded by 11, and Cal scored 5 more second-chance points. Cal’s roster is big from sideline to sideline, by Stanford has the size edge in height. Still, the Bears abused Stanford on the boards and in the post.
So here’s trouble #1: lack of toughness.
And #2: no cohesive offensive playbook.
Jeremy Green did his best to put points on the board for the Card, and the junior guard finished with 19 points on 50% shooting from the field. But even Green was unable to get the offense going, and did not record a single rebound or assist. Back-up point guard Aaron Bright injured his arm midway through the first half, which put the offensive flow into even tougher waters and forced head coach Johnny Dawkins to play the seldom-used Gabe Harris. But even with the injury to Bright, Stanford ought to be able to run a solid offense. It’s March, after all, and even freshmen can learn an offense in 5 months.
Speaking of which, let’s return to the issue of shooting, the one skill that remains the same regardless of location, opponent, or any other factor. Stanford shot 38% from the field, but, more shockingly, shot 19% from three and 47% from the free throw line. We now know that Dawkins takes after his teacher, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, as a proponent of the “Live and Die by the Three-Ball” School of Offense. Saturday’s contest was a prime example of why that philosophy is generally a bad idea. Stanford shot 21 threes–or 38% of its total shots–and made 4 of them. Furthermore, they weren’t nice, open threes created from collapsing the defense and kicking the ball out to an open shooter. Instead, they were the default choice for an offense afraid to get the ball inside. And as for free throw shooting, the coaching staff has to force the team to shoot free throws. Simple. Under 50% is totally unacceptable for a college team.
Therefore, trouble #3: shooting the ball.
Cal had no trouble shooting, and a big part of their success came courtesy of Stanford’s defense. The Card had no answer for the crafty guard play of Golden Bear junior point guard Jorge Gutierrez, whose 8 points, 7 assists, and 4 steals won’t make any national leaderboards. But Gutierrez is the perfect example of an excellent and under-appreciated lead guard whose contributions don’t fully appear in the box score. He routinely butchered the Stanford defense by getting into the paint, drawing a help defender, and hitting the open big man for an easy lay-up or, as happened several times throughout the game, an uncontested dunk. Stanford helped too much on ballhandlers in general, who did a nice job of seeing the floor and passing to the open man for a good look at the hoop.
Which summarizes trouble #4: team defense.
And now comes the most intangible of the team’s shortcomings on Saturday, but also the most discouraging. Whereas Cal’s bench featured genuinely enthusiastic jumping up and down and a coaching staff that high-fived and shook hands with players as they came off the court, the Stanford bench was a morgue. Yes, the players stood up and clapped when their teammates scored, but no one–coach or player–looked like he wanted to be there. Dawkins stuck with his very detached, cerebral style that seems to isolate him from his players. We keep hearing how young and inexperienced the team is, and youth needs a powerful leader and supportive teacher. Mike Montgomery seems to do that for Cal. It’s unclear that the same thing happens on the Farm.
Much remains to be seen about Stanford and its future, but the future might not be as bright as the athletics department would like us to believe. Obviously, The Daily Axe will have more on this once the season ends and there’s time for honest and fair assessment of the season. Until then, it’s understandable to be upset with Saturday’s loss. It was a bad one.