Sweltering Cardinal basketball could surprise Wildcats
As recently as 13 days ago, Stanford appeared to be in the bottom half of an average Pac-12 conference, miles away from the dark horse status it had in November.
Now, three wins later, the hot-shooting Cardinal poses a serious threat to the No. 7 Arizona men’s basketball team as the two teams square off tonight at 7 p.m. in McKale Center.
“The first thing that [Stanford] brings is an unprecedented percentage from three,” head coach Sean Miller said.
“And any time you shoot the ball at that level from three, and you do it through nine games, you’re not only a dangerous team, you’re an excellent team.”
Stanford's Dwight Powell (33) tries to find a shooting lane against Washington State's Brock Motum (12) in the first half at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California, on Wednesday, January 9, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)
The recent Renaissance by Stanford (14-8, 5-4 Pac-12) comes directly from its efficiency from the three-point land. During Pac-12 play, the team has shot 44.9 percent beyond the arc, with guard Chasson Randle and forward/center John Gage being the main perpetrators. To put the 44.9 3-point rate into context, the Cardinal would rank second in the nation if it had shot that percentage all year.
While Arizona (19-2, 7-2) is riding a three-game winning streak of its own, the suddenly on-fire shooters from Palo Alto, Calif., could cause some havoc in Tucson. The Wildcats rank 252nd in the nation at 3-point defense, and that even takes into account how much better they’ve been lately.
Arizona allowed its opponents to shoot 46.0 percent in the first four Pac-12 games, but it has since tightened the perimeter defense. During the last five games, teams are shooting a lowly 25.3 percent.
Miller knows the enhanced 3-point defense can change in a heartbeat, though.
“It can improve and then all the sudden, ‘What happened to it?’” Miller said. “We have the biggest challenge all season on Wednesday to make sure that our 3-point percentage defense is intact. That alone helps our cause tremendously because that’s what they do so well.”
The biggest reason for the below-average defense from three is the freshmen frontcourt. While the size has caused opponents to shoot under 40 percent this season, something Miller sees as a mark of a great defense, it hasn’t translated to beyond the arc.
Forward Brandon Ashley feels that the best way to improve 3-point defense is simply by improving defensive play as a whole. The various styles of forwards make it hard to concentrate on stopping one specific type of shot.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” he said. “But we’ve been watching film, and I think we’re prepared for them.”
Stanford has two 6-10 forwards shooting better than 42 percent, with Gage and junior Dwight Powell. In fact, the substitute Gage is shooting an unprecedented 65.4 percent from deep in Pac-12 play. Randle, another hot shooter and the team’s greatest perimeter threat, has made exactly half of his threes during the first half of the conference season.
“You look at the combined percentage of those guys alone, it’s astronomical,” Miller said. “They have to be among the nation’s leaders.”
Stanford hasn’t been this good from distance the whole season, though. During nonconference play, the Cardinal only hit 27.3 percent of its deep attempts.
But with the newly-found perimeter touch, the Cardinal is now a much more formidable opponent.
“For our guys to see the ball go in is a great thing; we have terrific shooters,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins in the weekly Pac-12 conference call. “We started the season off not really shooting the ball as well as we anticipated, and we had to just grind through that. Give our kids a lot of credit; they never really wavered and have been able to bounce back.”
Stanford’s big man Powell does a little bit of everything. The junior from Canada leads the team in scoring (14.4 points per game), is second on the team in rebounding (7.7 per game) and can stretch the court with his jump shot.
For the Arizona frontcourt, this could cause some matchup problems. But Miller doesn’t think it’s a one-way street.
“It’s a dilemma [guarding Powell], and equally I feel like they feel like it’s a dilemma for them,” he said.
The 7-foot tall Kaleb Tarczewski will bring a presence that the less-physical Cardinal could struggle with. And as of late, the freshman center has played well.
Since putting up goose eggs in both the points and rebounds columns against UCLA, Tarczewski has scored 10 points in each of the Wildcats’ three wins and is averaging 6.3 boards.
“I think that Kaleb, in his own mind … hit rock bottom after the UCLA game,” Miller said. “He didn’t feel that he played particularly well.”
“From that moment on, watching him in practice, having a couple talks with him, I think he refocused for a great stretch run … The space that he takes up, he’s become a very good defender, a very good defensive rebounder. And he was really doing all of that prior to scoring — just everybody notices when you score more.”