SEATTLE - If not for the names and uniforms, I would never have guessed that the Stanford Cardinal team I saw blow out the Seattle University Redhawks 72-49 Thursday at KeyArena was the same group that finished below .500 a year ago. Stanford continued an impressive 7-1 start with a clinical victory powered by suffocating defense and a balanced scoring attack that more than made up for a scoreless night from leading scorer Josh Owens.
In the process, the Cardinal won over the opposition.
"Really a sound team," said Seattle U senior forward Eric Wallace. "Really disciplined. They ran their stuff, knew what they wanted to do on defense. A really good team to learn from."
Wallace got right to what most impressed me about Stanford. The Cardinal plays with relatively little flare, but executes on the offensive end and is always in the right place defensively. Stanford simply makes the right play the vast majority of the time, and that combined with an improving group of talented players makes the Cardinal dangerous.
Sophomore point guard Aaron Bright, a revelation during his second year on campus, runs the show. Bright handed out just two assists during the first of two trips home this season (the native of Seattle's Eastside will also come back to face Washington in January), but that understates his role in setting up teammates. When the Redhawks briefly cut into the lead behind an effective full-court press midway through the second half, all Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins had to do was insert Bright to quell the uprising.
"He went in there and he settled us down, he steadied us and he executed well against the press," said Dawkins.
While Bright turned the ball over three times, the Cardinal had just 10 miscues as a team--none in the game's first 12:25. That's a testament to how well Bright played against a defense that thrives on forcing turnovers. He also knocked down a pair of three-pointers, bringing him to 19-of-36 (52.8 percent) for the season.
"I think he put most of my gray hair up here (last season), but that's typical of all freshmen point guards," joked Dawkins. "He really grew up over the spring and summer. To his credit, he realized what he needed to do to get better and he went and did it. A lot of people can hear what they have to do to improve but not embrace it. He embraced it. He made the necessary adjustments. He worked his butt off all summer. I'm really happy to see him have the success that he deserves because he really put the time in."
Usually, Stanford's offense runs through the frontcourt and big men Owens and Dwight Powell. On this night, Owens had a tough time finishing, missing all seven of his shot attempts. Powell barely saw action before halftime and finished with nine points. Instead, the Cardinal got surprising interior contributions from senior centers Jack Trotter and Andrew Zimmermann, who combined for 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
"So many guys are able to step up and pick (Owens) up," noted Dawkins. "That's a great feeling for him because there's no pressure. He realizes there are guys who are capable of contributing, coming in and helping us."
Trotter and Zimmermann were among seven Stanford players, four of them reserves, who scored at least seven points. Anthony Brown came off the bench to lead the Cardinal with 15 points, while Josh Huestis finished with nine points and nine rebounds and another hometown kid, Vashon Island product John Gage, knocked down a pair of triples and scored eight points.
While Stanford won't always get that kind of production from the bench, Dawkins has used a wide-open rotation with as many as 11 players early in the season. That's not solely a product of the schedule; nine players saw meaningful minutes in each of last week's games at Madison Square Garden during the NIT Season Tipoff. Dawkins feels that keeps his players from having to ration their effort.
"Our kids are able to go out there with great energy knowing that when we do sub, someone can come in and give that same kind of energy and contribute it as well," he explained.
The impact is felt primarily at the defensive end. The Cardinal's defensive rotations are crisp, and the team's big men--even the ferociously bearded Zimmermann, who blocked 11 shots all last season--are flying around defensively. The description I wrote down on my notes was the same one Wallace used after the game: disciplined. Stanford isn't going to allow anything easy, so opposing teams will have to work to score. That was too much to ask of a Seattle U team still learning Cameron Dollar's system.
The Cardinal showed promise on defense last season, ranking fifth in Pac-10 conference play in per-possession defense. But there was no reason to imagine that Stanford would give up 54 points over 60 minutes of basketball (the tally from Monday's win over the University of the Pacific and the first half Thursday) or rank in the nation's top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
"I think the experience is key," said Dawkins. "Last year we did a lot of teaching of the defense and teaching of our culture and what we expect. They were so young. I had eight, nine new players. I give them credit. Every day they came to work. We had long days. They really got after it. I think they've started to understand why we're emphasizing it to that level. There's a lot of room for us to grow in that area, but we have improved defensively."
Dollar, meanwhile, credited the Cardinal's size for the Redhawks' difficulty from beyond the arc, among other woes. Seattle U missed its first 12 three-point attempts and finished the game 4-of-21 on threes.
"I think their length bothered us more than you could even quantify," he said, "whether it be running our offense or rotations."
To match up against the Redhawks, Dawkins used the lanky 6-9 Powell and 6-7 Huestis at small forward much of the night. However, Stanford has plenty of flexibility to deal with all sorts of lineups. Before senior Jarrett Mann was benched for being late to class (he did not play Thursday), Dawkins had started him alongside Bright and freshman Chasson Randle as part of a three-guard lineup with multiple players capable of handling the ball. That flexibility is another upside to the Cardinal's depth.
As we start the second month of the NCAA season, it's time to accept that Stanford's success is legitimate. While the schedule has not been particularly challenging outside of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Cardinal has dispatched of all comers with surprising ease. Even the Seattle U game could have been tricky, given that the Redhawks beat a Pac-10 team at home last season (Oregon State) and lost by just 11 to Stanford on the Farm. Instead, Seattle U was never competitive.
Stanford's only blemish came against the No. 3/4 team in the land, Syracuse, in what was essentially a road game. Already, the Cardinal is up to No. 17 in the kenpom.com rankings, tops among Pac-12 teams. In what looks like a down year, Stanford can legitimately aspire to win the conference for the first time since the Mike Montgomery era.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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