Jaffe: Men’s hoops needs more consistency

If you’ve been to a Stanford men’s basketball game this year and saw something you really didn’t expect, you’re not alone.

That’s because this year, even more than the past few seasons, Stanford has no consistency.

A prime example—mid-January, Stanford enters a series with the Washington schools looking to extend its perfect home record. The Cardinal is coming off a 10-point loss to Arizona and now must take on No. 17 Washington, which has won six straight and nine of 10, scoring 87 points per game over that span. So naturally, Stanford held the Huskies to 56 points and snuck out of Maples Pavilion with its biggest win of the season. The Cardinal suddenly had momentum and a buzz about it, and the team carried that over into its next game against Washington State, holding a nine-point halftime lead. And just when you thought all was well, Stanford tanked in the second half as the Cougars outscored the Cardinal, 38-26, for the win.

This inconsistency has marred every aspect of Stanford’s game this season. The Cardinal started 9-4, then went 1-5, then won two of its last three. Both the offense and the defense have had moments of brilliance and moments to forget at different points this season.

In general, Stanford’s saving grace has been defense. The Cardinal ranks in the top 40 nationally in scoring defense and recently went 10 straight games without allowing more than 70 points. This streak was then broken by Arizona, which is understandable considering the Wildcats are 20th in scoring offense.

What was less expected was Arizona State—the Pac-10’s bottom-dweller and one of the worst offensive teams in the nation—coming into Maples Pavilion on Saturday and scoring 11 points above its season average and shooting over 50 percent from the floor for the second time all season.

This brings up an interesting question as to how good Stanford’s defense actually is. At times it has been excellent, such as the win over Washington. On the other hand, the Cardinal only ranks 120th in opponents’ field-goal percentage—a mark that puts the team just above the median for the NCAA. Stanford is below average in blocked shots per game and is one of the worst teams in the country in steals, so the Cardinal is certainly not your prototypical tough defensive team, but the players do play solid team defense.

More than anything, though, the inconsistency comes from the performances of the individual players, and with Stanford’s roster, this should come as no surprise. The Cardinal currently has zero seniors listed on its roster, and nine of the 15 players are freshmen. This youth, combined with the on-and-off success from the team’s more experienced players, has caused most of the team’s inconsistency.

Last year’s team, despite having less overall talent and a 14-18 record, had the one thing this year’s team is lacking: a reliable go-to player. Landry Fields played every bit of that role in 2009-2010, as he scored at least 14 points in all 32 games and shot at least 50 percent from the field in half of them. This kind of dependability is crucial for the development of a team, particularly a young team like Stanford.

This year, though, the Cardinal has no such go-to player. In fact, no player has scored even five points in every game. Stanford’s leading scorer, Jeremy Green, is shooting only 38 percent from the floor. Stanford’s leading rebounder, Josh Owens, has been held to five or fewer rebounds nine times this season. The other starting upperclassman, Jarrett Mann, has reached double digits in points only three times all season (including twice in the last two games) and has had more assists than turnovers in only 10 of the team’s 22 games.

And these are the most experienced members of the team. The freshmen have each had moments of brilliance as well as moments of, well, looking like freshmen. Aaron Bright has scored in double digits four times and has been held scoreless four times. Dwight Powell has shown huge amounts of talent, scoring as many as 20 points and grabbing as many as 10 rebounds, but has also faced foul trouble in nearly every game, committing at least four fouls in five of the past six matchups. Anthony Brown made waves with 21 points in his first start, but followed that up with just three total points in his next two games. John Gage has hit some big three-pointers but has struggled to match up on the other end of the floor.

This isn’t all just to point out the faults with Stanford’s team. In truth, we should all be amazed that such a young team has managed to stay over .500 despite lacking a star player. The progress of the Cardinal over the course of the season, particularly from its freshmen, bodes extremely well for the future. In a few years, we will very likely be singing the praises of the experienced, veteran Stanford men’s basketball team.

Jacob Jaffe is working on his skills and hoping to make it as a walk-on before the season’s over. Set up a pity-game at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.