After falling at the buzzer to Oral Roberts on Nov. 18, Stanford men’s basketball knew that Thanksgiving would bring anything but a “break” for the team. In fact, the Cardinal was in for a series of battles — not the least of which was against the football team for fan turnout on the day of Big Game, plus the battles on the court with Florida A&M, Virginia, No. 5 Kentucky and Portland State — before classes resumed.
So, Stanford (4-3) went to work, notching a 30-point win over the Rattlers of Florida A&M (0-7) on Nov. 21, despite losing fans at the half to a less successful appearance by the football team at Big Game. Sophomore guard Jeremy Green led all scorers with a season-high 21 points, while senior Landry Fields earned his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds along with a season-high six assists.
Sophomore forward Jack Trotter and guards Drew Shiller, Jarrett Mann and Emmanuel Igbinosa all reached double figures in scoring as well, helping the Cardinal to lead by as much as 34 partway through the second half and to earn an eventual 99-69 victory.
Fields believes that the shared scoring in the Card’s most dominant win to date is a sign of Stanford’s continued improvement as individual players and as a group.
“Playing with each guy, I think the rotation is starting to really set in,” Fields, Stanford’s team captain, said. “A lot of guys are really starting to find their identity out there — I feel like everyone’s getting comfortable with their roles.”
Coach Johnny Dawkins agreed, noting that he’s seen the most improvement this season in Stanford’s young players.
“Some guys ducked into the lineup when they probably weren’t expecting it with Josh [Owens] around,” Dawkins said. “To see those guys really step up and compete for us at a really good level and to see those guys continuing to get better — when I’m speaking of those guys I’m speaking of the Zimmermanns, the Trotters, the Matei Daians — those guys at every practice have really come and battled, you can see the improvement in them.”
Stanford rode the momentum from the win all the way to Cancun, Mexico, where it met the University of Virginia (4-2) in the Cancun Challenge on Nov. 24. The matchup was fairly even, with six ties and 13 lead changes over the course of the contest. Both teams struggled in shooting — the Cardinal shot 38.9 percent from the floor to UVA’s 37.8 — but Fields lifted the Stanford offense with 25 points and 13 boards and found some help from Green, the only other Cardinal player to contribute in double digits, who added 10 points. Half of Green’s points came in the final 5 minutes of play, helping Stanford to pull away from the Cavaliers after being down 47-46 with 4:52 remaining.
At 4:42, Mann scored on a lay-up and Green followed with a lay-up of his own and then a long ball, along with a lay-up and two made foul shots by Fields to finish the 11-5 run by the Cardinal to win the game by the score of 57-52.
The win against Virginia placed Stanford in the tournament’s championship game against the fifth-ranked University of Kentucky (5-0). The Wildcats jumped out to what would be their largest lead of the meeting, holding a 19-11 advantage eight and a half minutes into the game. However, the second of Green’s five three-pointers at 12:21 jumpstarted an 11-0 run by the Card to give Stanford a three-point edge.
By the half, the teams had already seen six ties, but a final burst by the Cardinal earned the team a 38-32 buffer at halftime.
With Kentucky expected to dominate Stanford, Dawkins said that his team’s confidence in itself allowed Stanford to hang with one of the nation’s top teams.
“I think our kids believe that we can be competitive and that’s the first step — believing,” he said.
Throughout the second half, that belief and the Cardinal’s play, hung tough. Despite shooting only 31.8 percent, Stanford maintained a slight lead until 6:42, when a lay-up by Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson put the Wildcats up by one.
In the final three minutes, the teams tied four more times, but with nine seconds left, the Cardinal held a two-point lead. A pair of missed free throws by Mann failed to clinch the victory for Stanford and a foul by sophomore Andrew Zimmermann gave Kentucky the chance to make everything even. Clutch conversions by guard John Wall — he went eight-for-eight from the stripe on the night to help earn his game-high 26 points — made it 63-all and the teams went to overtime.
In the extra period, however, the young Stanford team crumbled under a combination of inexperience and fatigue. The Cardinal did not score a single field goal in the remaining five minutes and the team was outscored 10-2 in overtime, falling 73-65.
Stanford was led by Fields’s third consecutive double-double with 23 points and 13 rebounds and Green added another 18 in the loss. No other Stanford players reached double digits.
Dawkins blames some of Stanford’s shortcomings thus far on youth. But he also acknowledges that this team has more potential than it has yet reached.
“We’re not exactly an old team,” Dawkins said. “There are a few things that we’re still trying to see with our guys. We do have an idea of what our guys can do. That’s what this time of the season is about for us — it’s a growth period. I think we’re learning more — and there are a few things that we need to clean up, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Back on campus, Stanford looked to rebound against Portland State (1-4) on Nov. 29. Again, play stayed relatively close throughout the first half and the Vikings’ eight-of-13 threes — and 65 percent overall shooting — certainly helped keep it that way. In fact, Stanford only had a two-point lead until Fields stepped up and hit a three of his own with one second left to close the period, 43-38.
Dawkins was less-than-thrilled with the Cardinal’s performance, though he gave credit to Portland State for its offensive success in the first half.
“They made us play the way they wanted to play,” he said. “We didn’t play as well as I would’ve liked to see us play in the first half. I thought our second half defense was better — and that’s a credit to our guys in making some adjustments and being really focused. [But] this is one of the best shooting teams that I’ve seen in the last couple years. They really shot the ball well.”
Luckily for the Card, the Vikings’ shooting fell to 37.9 percent after the break and the team went only 2-for-11 from long range. Meanwhile, Stanford’s shooting jumped to 69.6 percent and the game became increasingly one-sided.
The Cardinal finished with an 83-64 victory and was again led in scoring by Fields with 25 points. Green, Shiller and Trotter added 19, 11 and 10 points, respectively. Despite the improved scoring, though, Dawkins saw room for improvement and he hopes that the next two weeks — when the team breaks for finals — will give Stanford some time to prepare.
“I think we have to continue to get better defensively,” he said. “We have to get better on the boards — we battle pretty good, but I think we can battle even better there, so those are areas I think that need to be cleaned up the most. Offensively, we’re still working on our spacing and some timing issues and you know we’ve got to clean that up. So, I’m definitely not satisfied with where we are. I think there’s a lot of room for us to improve some of the intangibles of the game really. And I think if we make those improvements, we can be a better ball club.”
“Like coach said, there’s a lot to improve on,” Fields agreed. “I think we are improving and I feel like these next two weeks we’ll get better in a lot of aspects of the game, in a lot of our deficiencies. But I’m liking how it’s going right now, but we can’t be satisfied with anything, especially with this team because our margin for error is so small. We just have to keep getting better.”
Stanford will have a chance to test these improvements when it returns on Dec. 13 to take on UC-Davis at Maples Pavilion at 7 p.m.