Thursday, March 27, 2008

What to Make of the Cardinal

What is so scary about one little red bird? Well if you look closer, Cardinal also means of prime importance, chief; principal. That sounds a little fiercer. But what happens when you double it and make them both 7 feet tall? Then you have an incredibly formidable Sweet 16 opponent.

In only a short time at Palo Alto, Trent Johnson has returned the Cardinal to the status it had achieved under Mike Montgomery before he foolishly tried to resurrect the Golden State Warriors. Despite what his regrettable ejection will tell you about Trent Johnson, the man will be considered a top coach before his time is said and done. He built a Nevada program and managed to bring in top talent with Nick Fazekas, and now has done the same at Stanford, with the likes of the Lopez Twins. He is a good coach and Stanford plays a disciplined, physical style of basketball. They don't turn the ball over and pound it inside, and they don't force the turnover, but play a suffocating defense built from the inside out that focuses on forcing a one and done for their opponents.

I suppose we should start where CBS will start, by fawning over Babbling Brook Lopez. What can you say? He's 7 feet tall, big and strong, great technique and understanding for the game, and a mean streak inside. Put all of those together and despite such a pretty name, you have an NBA Lottery pick. He's averaging 19 ppg, 8.1 rpg/ 2.1 bpg and shoots an excellent 78% from the charity stripe. What is more, is the poise and creativity he showed with his game winning shot against Marquette. He is the focal point of Stanford's offense. They get him the ball and he knows what to do with it.

However, we musn't forget that Babbling Brook has a twin, lord knows CBS won't. "MY GOD, THERE'S TWO OF THEM. AND THEY'RE TALL. OH MY. F-YOU, I"M BILLY PACKER!" Yes, we musn't forget Red-Breasted Robin Lopez. While he plays second fiddle to his brother, he is the wild card in every sense of the word. His play has been impressive over the past two months and he is more firery and more of a douche bag than his brother, as he showed in the Marquette game with his constant trash talking. But he has averaged 12.4 ppg over the past 2 months and he averages 5.7 rpg and 2.4 bpg. He also is the focal point on defense as he takes the harder assignments to cover for his brother. He shoots a respectable 65% from the free throw line and is an equally firery competitor, though not as polished as his brother. He will likely be a lottery pick if he decides to return to school for his junior season.

The X-Factor for the Cardinal is definitely Anthony Goods. The 6'3 junior is the perimeter scoring threat that has kept teams honest all season long. He averaged 10.3 ppg this season, shooting 35% from three and a respectable 70% from the free throw line. However, it is worth noting that he has shot 29% from three in the month of March averaging 7.1 ppg and is 29% from the field in the tournament. If the Longhorns can keep Goods from getting on track, then it makes this Stanford team much more one-dimensional.

A player that shouldn't hurt the Longhorns but very well could is the steady hand of point guard Mitch Johnson. The junior does a little bit of everything for the Cardinal averaging 6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 5.1 apg. While he doesn't get involved offensively much he had an unbelievable 16 assists in the Marquette game burning the Eagles with 3 of 3 shooting from three point range. A 40% shooter from downtown he can hurt us if given the opportunity. The only apparent weakness for Johnson is his 66% clip from the free throw line which could come into play late in the game.

The rest of the Cardinal is an experienced, solid role playing group that rounds out this team with smart, solid play and good defense. 6'5 senior, Fred Washington (4.5 ppg/4.1 rpg/2.3 apg, 53% FT) rounds out the starting rotation. He's there for rebounding, passing, and defense as he didn't attempt a shot in the Marquette game, but has filled up the stat sheet in every other possible way.

The first man off the bench as of late has been Taj Finger. The 6'8 senior has made the most of his swan song with 17 points, 13 rebounds on 8 of 11 shooting in his two games. He will come in to spell the Lopez twins and has been deadly for the Cardinal off the bench. He is a smart saavy post player that will cause problems for our inexperienced bigs.

The face you'll see in the backcourt off the bench will be that of Southlake native Kenny Brown. The 6'1" junior is returning home and is a threat from deep shooting 38% from downtown. He is 6 of 8 in two games from deep in the tournament. If he is given time he can hurt the Horns from deep.

The man who has seen his playing time dwindle over the past month is athletic 6'8 junior swingman Lawerence Hill. He's averaged 8.7 ppg/4.9 rpg and shoots 37% from deep and 75% from the line. But with the emergence of Taj Finger his minutes have fallen off a bit in the past month. But he is obviously talented enough to cause damage from inside and out.

The Cardinal is a pretty straight forward team. They get consistent point guard play, attack inside and play great defense. It is a formula for success in the tournament. This is a junior and senior laden team that understands its support role for the Lopez twins. In the absence of Anthony Goods, the rest of the team has stepped up in a big way, getting this team to where they are now.

It is an interesting matchup for the Longhorns. While we will struggle inside against the Lopez twins, we have the bodies (Connor, Damo, Gary, Dex, Wangmene, Chapman) to bang inside with the Lopez's. We will need our young bench to play over their heads and big games on the defensive end from Gary, Dex and Alexis would be huge for our chances. But Texas has been an underrated team defensively all season. The biggest test will be keeping the bigs out of foul trouble and keeping Connor on the floor. It will also be imperative for the Longhorns to rebound the basketball and limit the second chance points for the Cardinal. We will also need to keep Anthony Goods from getting on track and limiting the role players from hurting us. Damion James will need to dominate inside as he is the most athletic player inside and Texas has the edge with their quickness on the perimeter and inside.

The more intreaguing matchup is how the Cardinal will defend Texas. After watching the Marquette game, the perimeter defense of Stanford lacks athleticism. (Well, the entire Stanford team lacks athleticism. They are not a team to get out and run. Texas can steal some points if they can attack in transition.) But, the Texas guards will cause all kinds of problems for the Standford backcourt. Jerel McNeal, Marquette's slashing two guard, scored 30 points and got into the lane at will. DJ Augustin's mid range game will be essential against the Cardinal as getting to the rack is not the best decision against the interior presence of the twins. If DJ can get on fire with his mid range jumpers and fade aways, he can easily score 20 and control the game. Justin Mason will also be important in driving to the lane, drawing the big men over and dishing for baskets. This will get our bigs involved offensively and will also get the Lopez twins out of position and into foul trouble. Texas will get in trouble if they try to go right at the Lopez's but can be effective off the drive and dish.

The biggest weakness that the Stanford defense showed in the Marquette game was their defense on the pick and roll, a staple of the Texas offense. Neither Babbling Brook or Red-Breasted Robin looked comfortable or willing to jump out to cut off the guard. Both seemed to stay closer to the basket and just wave at the guard coming over the pick. If they do this against Texas, AJ Abrams will continue to put up his 26 points that he did in the first two rounds of the tournament. DJ Augustin will also recognize the problems it causes the twins and wreak havoc using the pick and roll. It should also give Damion James and Connor Atchley ample opportunity to get open looks from long range. Expect Stanford to employ the zone a lot which will give AJ Abrams and company several opporunities to get open looks as well as break down the zone with the dribble.

I think Texas will have all kinds of problems with the Lopez twins, but I also think Stanford will have an equally difficult if not more difficult time defending the perimeter players of Texas. It will be a true test of execution and coaching. I'm nervous about this game, but I think if Texas comes out and shoots well they can win this game. Foul trouble will play a crucial role and if the refs call it tight that will only favor Stanford.

I don't like making predictions, but I like our chances in front of a home crowd. Well a semi-home crowd. More on that later.

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