Stanford is the most beguiling team in the NCAA tournament field. It is impossible to figure out Johnny Dawkins’ squad. An underwhelming Pac-12 regular season was followed by two quick wins in the league tournament until UCLA defeated the Cardinal by nearly 30 points. Paired against No. 7 New Mexico, though, and Stanford was able to score one of the tournament’s most underrated upsets, winning 58 to 53.
The game was a tutorial in cold shooting and zone defenses. Both teams were plagued by foul trouble — New Mexico’s Alex Kirk picked up two quick fouls, and Stanford’s Stefan Nastic and Josh Huestis each had four fouls (Dwight Powell fouled out) — and the two squads had to use 2-3 zones to cut down on the hacking. Stanford’s zone had a deleterious effect on the Lobos’ interior scoring; the team spent much of 2014 repairing the damage done to its two-point shooting rep last year (the team made 51.8 percent of its twos, as compared to 46 percent in ’13), but Stanford’s zone rendered both Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk ineffective. The junior Kirk scored just 3 points, and while Bairstow dropped 24 points, he failed to make a basket for about ten minutes in the second half.
New Mexico should be commended for rebounding after starting the game down 20-4, but for the second straight season, UNM lost to the higher seed in the first round (No. 14 Harvard last season). Kirk and guard Kendall Williams managed to score just six points combined (on one for twelve shooting), and for those who picked New Mexico to defeat Kansas in the second round, and then rampage through the field until the Elite Eight, this game was certainly a disappointment. Williams, in particular, struggles when UNM leaves the confines of the Mountain West and ventures into the tourney field: against Harvard and Stanford, Williams shot made only two of his fifteen field goals, a poor shooting display that includes missing all nine of his threes.
The offensive star of the game was Stanford sophomore Chasson Randle. The guard scored 23 points and has been on a roll from within the arc; over the last five games, including against UNM, Randle is making more than 58 percent of his twos.
Stanford will next face the winner of No. 2 Kansas versus No. 15 Eastern Kentucky, and the Jayhawks’ coaching staff — should they get past the Colonials — have a much clearer path to next weekend. The Lobos’ interior posed significant problems for Kansas, and since Joel Embiid will miss the first weekend of the tournament, the thought was that Bairstow and Kirk would take advantage of Kansas’ weakened interior.
Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.
According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.
That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.
“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”
As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.
Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.
When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.
Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.
Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.
While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.
“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”
Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.