Barring an unexpected upset tomorrow, we should be invited to the NCAA Tournament once again this year. Arizona State only has one win in the Pac-10, and sure, they’ve lost by small margins, but they’ve lost 14 games all the same. They play a slow, plodding pace which is perfect for us—we don’t want our big guys running around, especially with run n’ gun Arizona coming in on Saturday. Their best player is a forward, not a guard and they shoot the three poorly. If we lose tomorrow, either Arizona State got extremely lucky, or we played extremely poorly, or more probably a combination of both happened.
With that being said, I’m really pleased by just making it, as we’re a team composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores and have no real bench to speak of (yet—next year Will Paul and Landry Fields could provide sparks alongside Taj Finger). The next question is, of course, how well can we expect to do?
Well, the prerequisite to our doing well is this: will Anthony Goods be back, and will he be at least 75% of his former self?
The reason this is important is not so much for his shooting (which has really fallen off in recent Pac-10 play), but the fact that it provides better defense in the starting lineup and more aggressiveness. Mitch Johnson hasn’t played poorly in his stint in the starting lineup (I was pleasantly surprised), but all the same, Goods could be a huge boost, especially because he might catch fire.
The next question is this: can our offense operate as a team? Recently, Brook Lopez has been showing how NBA-ready he is (some people thinks he needs to gain weight. This is not the case: considering that the NBA has been becoming smaller, and looking at the other PFs/Cs possibly entering the draft, he’s fine), but that’s come at a cost. First, Brook tends to be a bit of a black hole on offense—when he gets the ball, it’s going up. Lawrence Hill hasn’t been as uber-efficient as earlier, and the offense just looks kind of stagnant (Robin Lopez also looks afflicted by torpor.). Our offense sometimes looks pretty good, other times, not so good. I’m never sure what to expect.
There are, of course, the defensive issues, but I think part of those are Mitch Johnson related, who basically looks like he wants to personally escort his opponent to the rim.
After that we have to look at the specific match-up, and just as importantly, where it will be played. The latter factor is underappreciated, but traveling to Winston-Salem versus Spokane, for example, could be a slight edge for one team over another.
In terms of match-ups, let’s look at two mock brackets. ESPN.com has us playing Villanova; SI.com has us playing Tennessee. Both are well-coached (better in-game coaches than Trent Johnson, I think), but the differences end there.
Stanford versus Tennessee:
Tennessee plays at a hectic pace with a full-court press. They force a lot of turnovers for this exact reason. They’re also excellent in not giving up turnovers. They have an excellent backcourt—Chris Lofton is pretty money.
The key though, is slowing them down, which I think we might have a decent shot at doing. We’re a good rebounding team against people who are much smaller than we are. Pardon me for going John Madden here and pointing out something extremely obvious, but in order to fast-break, you must have the ball. Furthermore, for all our turnover problems, we’ve actually done a pretty decent job at breaking the press when it’s been employed against us—a lot of our turnover problems come in the half-court set. We could slow this game down, which would benefit us, because Tennessee is horrible about getting its shots blocked in the half-court set—in the Florida game yesterday, Noah and Horford were blocking them all the time. They don’t look that great in the half-court set. There are definitely a lot of favorable factors here for Stanford.
The problem is that they have a quick, good backcourt. Chris Lofton is an excellent, excellent player and exactly the kind of penetrating guard who gives us problems. And if the turnover bug bites us, we’re toast.
It would be a tough match-up—with our likely seeding (8 or 9), we’ll be playing a team that’s pretty evenly matched up with us. But I think we’d have a decent chance of winning this.
On the other hand, there is the other (hypothetical) match-up:
Stanford vs. Villanova
The positive thing here is like Tennessee, they’re pretty small. Their tallest regular player is smaller and thinner than ours. But they’re tough and gritty—they grab a ton of offensive rebounds. When we do have trouble rebounding (Jon Brockman, USC, UCLA), it’s against gritty, athletic forwards. These guys fit the profile.
They play a slow pace, but they do pretty good work on the offensive end. They boast two point guard/shooting guard combos in their starting lineup. Scottie Reynolds is as good as Chris Lofton, and Mike Nardi can bomb. I think this would be a tougher match-up and one we might be an underdog against.
See how much match-ups change the picture? Duke last year had just the wrong match-up—LSU and its imposing bigs, and they lost. Pair us against an aggressive backcourt, and we’ll be packing our bags early. On the other hand, if our offense catches fire, we could be a Sweet Sixteen team.