The quickest way to get dropped from Stanford coach Mike MontgomeryÂs Christmas card list this year is to toss out a casual remark about the strength of his teamÂs schedule. The Cardinal players may have needed daily insulin shots after their steady diet of early season cupcakes and Montgomery has grown rather surly after answering repeated questions on the subject. That reputation, while tiresome for Stanford, is not without merit as the CardinalÂs strength of schedule is ranked 237 by Sagarin and 163 by the RPI listings. The same could possibly be said of the Blue Devils who carry a 113 ranking by Sagarin although their RPI strength of schedule is rated 26th.
But while the Blue Devils have faced some decent competition like Illinois, the Cardinal schedule is relatively devoid of any highlights. The stiffest competition Stanford has faced to date has been Georgia Tech at 6-3 and the Georgia Bulldogs who at 6-4 are probably better than their record would indicate and. After you leave the state of Georgia though itÂs a rapid free fall to the rest of the schedule where Memphis and Long Beach State are mixed in with the likes of San Francisco State and Sacred Heart. However, if any Duke fan questions the legitimacy of StanfordÂs ranking they only need to look back to the start of last season where the Cardinal downed the Blue Devils to start the season.
In that game a young Duke team fell to Stanford 80-79 in overtime as guard David Moseley and forward Mark Madsen combined for 35 points. Both those players have graduated but the Cardinal team has picked up without missing a beat. This yearÂs group is a deep and versatile squad that is highly skilled from both the perimeter and the inside. They are also more athletic than last year thanks to the departure of Madsen who, while a terrific player and competitor, had some limitations in that regard.
Stanford has an almost embarrassing wealth of power players. Start out with a pair of twin brothers in the 6-10 range, toss in another guy at 6-11, and then add in a 6-8 highly regarded, redshirt freshman. What the hell- might as well include a 6-7 two sport star from the football team too.
The twins are Jason Collins (6-11/255 lbs.) and Jarron Collins (6-10/248 lbs.). ItÂs hard to tell if they are actually twins or clones, at least from a statistical perspective. Through 6 games this year Jason was averaging 12.8 points per game while Jarron was averaging 12.7 points per game. They were both averaging 8.5 rebounds a game and each had 16 offensive boards and 35 defensive boards. Since that time Jason has surged ahead of his brother in all of those figures, but they are still quite close. Despite the numbers there are some differences in the way they play the game.
Jason Collins has had a difficult time at Stanford. He missed his freshman year with a knee injury. After getting a medical redshirt he dislocated his wrist 7 games into the next season. Last year was his first full year of college ball and he responded with 8 points and 6 rebounds a game. Jason, who continues to be hampered by the knee injury, plays more of a traditional post game than his brother. He also has shown an ability to hit a mid-range jump shot that compliments his low post play.
The other Collins has enjoyed a healthier run at Stanford. Jarron Collins has been a productive player for the Cardinal for the last three years. Offensively he has a solid midrange jumper and can put the ball on the floor although heÂs not especially aggressive in driving to the basket. HeÂs also a good player with his back to the basket and uses strong footwork to position himself for high percentage shots and rebounding position. He is a solid enough ballhandler that Montgomery will use him against a press although he may be hesitant to try that when Shane Battier is defending him.
The first frontcourt player off the bench for the Cardinal is usually 6-11 sophomore Curtis Borchardt. While lacking the scoring punch of either of the Collins brothers Borchardt does give the Cardinal a shot blocking presence on the interior. Neither of the Collins brothers is especially gifted in that area as they instead use their size and strength to play position defense rather than try for blocked shots. Borchardt on the other had will remind some of Casey Sanders in that he is not a physical player (heÂs listed anywhere from 210 lbs. to 230 lbs.) and relies on his quickness and leaping ability to block shots. Stronger post players can muscle him around.
On offense Borchardt contributes about 7 points a game and is not averse to stepping outside for a three point attempt although the Stanford staff would probably prefer to see him stay closer to the basket. He doesnÂt have the best hands on the team and can be erratic when trying to finish down low.
BorchardtÂs minutes may be reduced thanks to the long awaited arrival of redshirt freshman Justin Davis. Davis was a highly rated recruit as a high school senior but the congestion in the Cardinal frontcourt pushed him to redshirt as a freshman. He was set to make his debut this season but a sprained ankle followed by a strained abdominal muscle held him out of competition until this week. Expectations are high for the guy that the Stanford media guide proclaims as "The next great player in Standford basketball history."
Whether Davis can live up to that billing is another matter but he certainly has the potential. At 6-8 and 230 lbs. he brings an athletic dynamic to the squad that is missing in other players of his size. ItÂs doubtful that Davis will be at full strength when he faces Duke because it has been so long since he has played competitive basketball. HeÂs not in full basketball condition yet and his game is no doubt a little rusty. Even with the rust Davis still has the skill to make an impact. He is a very aggressive player around the glass who can finish and defend. His aggressiveness can lead to foul and turnover difficulty although that should diminish as his playing time increases.
Teyo Johnson is the final member of the Cardinal frontcourt. Technically Johnson is a walk-on as he is on a football scholarship at Stanford. But like Ron Curry, Julius Peppers and Charlie Ward, this guy is a true basketball talent. Johnson is the third string quarterback for the Cardinal and typically when you think of quaterbacks playing basketball you pencil them in at the point guard spot like Curry and Ward. But Johnson, who was athletic enough to play point guard in high school, is not your typical quarterback. At 6-7, 256 lbs., he is built more like Peppers than Curry or Ward and consequently plays in the Cardinal frontcourt.
Johnson plays basketball like a defensive lineman. He is an animal on the offensive glass where he is teamÂs third leading rebounder despite playing rather modest minutes. Perhaps itÂs more appropriate to say he plays basketball like a defensive lineman with a jump shot as he has shown a respectable touch from the outside. Like Davis, his youth and aggressiveness can lead to turnover and foul troubles. And also like Davis, Johnson is a little banged up. In his case it is a deep thigh bruise and while Davis is likely to see a few minutes in the Duke game JohnsonÂs status is questionable.
Facing Stanford will give Duke a good barometer for the development of their interior reserves. Casey Sanders, Nick Horvath, and Matt Christensen have all seen more playing time in recent wins but that doesnÂt necessarily ensure they will play much against Stanford. Most of those minutes came when the Duke machine was steamrollering an overmatched opponent. It remains to be seen if they will continue to earn playing time when facing tougher competition.
Two guys who will see playing time and plenty of it are Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Boozer is DukeÂs primary (some would say only) inside scoring threat. He has great size (6-9/270) but is still able to play the pressure perimeter defense that the Duke system demands of all players on the floor. BoozerÂs production dropped off somewhat after a strong start where he led the team in scoring in 3 of the first 6 games. Over that span he was averaging 18 points a game but in the three games following his average fell to just below 15 points per game. Some of that was due to limited playing time as the Duke coaching staff tried to develop other post players. But most of the drop off in BoozerÂs numbers was attributable to the surge in Jason WilliamsÂ game.
After the Villanova game and the first Temple contests, most opponents elected to stay on Boozer rather than help off on a driving Williams. Consequently Boozer has not had as many easy looks at the basket as he did earlier in the season. He has remained effective as his field goal percentage remains at around 60%, but he is not getting as many shot attempts in recent games. Against a Portland team without anyone to match his size and strength Boozer turned in one of the best performances of the year by any Blue Devil. He shot 11 Â 11 from the field to finish with 22 points and 6 rebounds. He also displayed more range on his jump shot hitting a few from 17 feet out.
Matching that performance when facing a more talented and physical Stanford front line may be difficult. Duke would love to get a game out of Boozer similar to his effort against Illinois, another opponent with a wealth of strong frontcourt players. In that game Boozer responded with a strong second half to help the Devils defeat the Illini. He finished the game with 15 points and 7 rebounds including a 7-10 performance from the free throw line. More importantly, Boozer was able to stay in the game despite picking up his third foul less than 2 minutes into the second half. For Duke to be at its most effective, Boozer must avoid any foul difficulty that would limit his play. In the Illinois game, as well as the Michigan game, Boozer picked up two early fouls. He can ill afford to do the same against a team as deep and strong in the frontcourt as Stanford.
One of the ways in which Boozer has been able to play despite some foul trouble this year is by getting defensive help from Shane Battier. And if youÂre going to look for help thereÂs no one better to turn to that the two time National Defensive Player of the Year award winner. In several games this year the 6-8 senior has been able to help Boozer defensively. BattierÂs quickness and instincts on the defensive end of the court allow him to play what amounts to a one man zone. In the Temple games and the Illinois game his help defense was readily apparent as Duke consistently double-teamed Kevin Lyde and Marcus Griffin.
It might not be as easy for Battier to provide defensive help in the Stanford game. Both Collins brothers are skilled big men who can score enough in the paint to keep the Duke defense honest. Neither of the Collins brothers has exceptional range Â theyÂll both attempt an occasional three point shot but rarely make them Â so Battier may still be able to provide some interior help and still recover to his own man. However, the Cardinal team has several deadly three point shooters and if Duke has to make multiple defensive rotations they could really make the Devils pay.
Battier will face more challenges than just trying to provide defensive help. HeÂll also have his hands full with his own man where he will be giving up at least 30 lbs. when heÂs matched up against either of the Collins brothers. However that size mismatch also plays to BattierÂs advantage on the offensive end of the court. In the Michigan game Battier showed the offensive arsenal that college basketball observers were expecting to see this year. He finished as the gameÂs leading scorer with 21 points and a good mix of shot selection. In addition to the three point shot heÂs known for, Battier responded to the Michigan defense which was instructed to play him tight on the perimeter. He aggressively drove the ball to the basket or operated inside the three point line. That attack continued in the Portland game where only 3 of his 10 field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. Defending the three on Battier will still be the first goal of any opposing defender since heÂs hitting on 45% of his attempts. But BattierÂs ability and willingness to utilize other aspects of his offense will make him even tougher to defend.
When Duke does turn to their reserves Casey Sanders is likely to be the first guy off the bench in the frontcourt. In the Michigan game Sanders scored 11 points on 3-4 shooting and pulled down 8 rebounds, 7 of which were on the offensive end of the court. He may see some minutes in this game when the Cardinal turns to Curtis Borchardt and if so, it will be one of those rare moments when Sanders is not at a size disadvantage. The matchup between Sanders (6-11/218) and Borchardt (6-11/210) isnÂt likely to provide footage for ESPNÂs WorldÂs Strongest Man Competition, but may still be a good pairing of developing big men. For Sanders and Duke the keys must be for him to avoid fouling, play defense and rebound. Any points he produces would be a bonus in this type of game.
The job assignment for Matt Christensen (6-10/247) will be much the same as Sanders. In ChristensenÂs case, playing defense means less about shot blocking and more about using his strength to push opposing post players away from the blocks. If Boozer sees early foul trouble Krzyzewski may turn to Christensen to avoid having to defend the physical Collins brothers with Casey Sanders.
The Devils would also like to use Nick Horvath (6-10/220) to provide additional depth in the frontcourt. However, Horvath has been nursing an injured foot for most of this season and has seen limited playing time as a result. His status for the Stanford game is uncertain. In last yearÂs game with Stanford he played well when he scored 5 points in 15 minutes of play. This year he has been struggling with his offense, an area that should be the strongest aspect of his game. The coaching staff would love to be able to get Horvath some minutes before heading into ACC season but he has yet to remain healthy enough to develop any rhythm.
Thanks to the guys at CNN/SI this could turn into the Jacobsen versus Dunleavy show. Two years ago the pair was among the top recruits in the nation and, according to many recruiting experts, both were interested in Duke. Jacobsen was alleged to have offered a verbal commitment to the Blue Devils but the coaching staff kept him at bay while they awaited DunleavyÂs decision. Tired of waiting for the Blue Devil staff (and perhaps feeling like their second choice) Jacobsen committed to the Cardinal and Dunleavy ended up at Duke. How much of all that is true and how much is nothing more than internet speculation is unclear. The story was revived this year when writers over at CNN/SI traded words over whether Duke made the right choice. WhatÂs lost in all of that is the realization that with guys of this caliber, there is no wrong choice.
WhatÂs also lost in all of that is the Cardinal has not one, but two excellent wing players. Starting with Jacobsen is 6-7 senior Ryan Mendez, one of the Cardinal captains. Jacobsen at 48% and Mendez at 51% combine to give Stanford one of the best three point shooting tandems in college. ItÂs Jacobsen that gets most of the attention, and probably for good reason. The 6-6 sophomore is a tremendous offensive player. In addition to his three point sharp shooting he is aggressive with the basketball and penetrates well despite his relative lack of foot speed for his position. Above all else though, Jacobsen is one of those guys who just knows where to be in an offense. ThatÂs a testament to his ability to move without the ball, use screens from the Cardinal trees, and nail a quick jumper off a pass.
There arenÂt many downsides to JacobsenÂs game, especially on offense. He may have a tendency to try and do too much on his own, often to the exclusion of his teammates. You can see that in his assist to turnover ratio of .47 which is abysmal for a two guard. On many teams that type of play could lead to chemistry problems but the rest of the Cardinal squad seem to know what a special player they have in Jacobsen and are aware of what that can mean at times. The times where Jacobsen is likely to overlook an open teammate while attempting to score extra points for degree of difficulty are more than offset by the times that he can carry a team that is struggling.
Mendez is an especially accurate baseline shooter, although heÂs not limited to any particular area of the court. Opposing defenses that focus too much on Jacobsen will pay the price by leaving Mendez open. He is a complimentary player who knows his role in the offense and fills it well. Were Mendez the focal player on a team he probably wouldnÂt be as effective. Taken out of the Stanford offense he would be a spot up shooter who can rebound well but has difficulty taking anyone off the dribble. However, in a structured system like the Stanford offense, MendezÂs discipline makes him much tougher to defend.
While both Mendez and Jacobsen are great offensive players they are less effective on the defensive end of the court. Neither player is especially quick and teams with slashing players on the wing can present problems for them. However, both guys are big for their positions and use that to their advantage forcing opponents to shoot over a tall defender. That size also allows them to be very good rebounders on the defensive end of the floor.
Coach Montgomery doesnÂt have nearly as much depth to work with on the wings as he does in his frontcourt. However, because of the versatility of Mendez and Jacobsen he can gain depth by substituting in other positions and moving his two wing players to other positions. Stanford can go big with both Collins brothers and Borchardt (or Davis or Johnson) on the frontline and play either Mendez or Jacobsen at the two spot. He can also move Mendez to the power forward spot and Jacobsen to the three spot and bring in another reserve from the backcourt.
When Montgomery is looking at a straight wing substitution he can turn to freshman Matt Lottich. At 6-4, Lottich is a shorter version of Mendez and Jacobsen. HeÂs shooting 44% from beyond the three point line and while he can put the ball on the floor heÂs more likely to be a spot up shooter.
Duke will try to stop StanfordÂs great shooters with Dunleavy and senior Nate James. On offense the 6-6 James continues to maximize his potential. James came to Duke five years ago as a guy who had played with his back to the basket most of his high school career. Along the way heÂs developed the offense needed to play on the wing. The three point shot came first after he showed his ability by winning the McDonaldÂs 3 Point Shooting Contest in high school. He also shows some of that high school frontcourt experience in his work on the offensive glass where he is tied for second on the team. This year he has added more penetration to his offense and as a result has seen an increase in his two point shots as well as his assists.
The versatility that James has developed at Duke is something that Dunleavy has had from day one. Pick any statistical category and Dunleavy is certain to be one of the Duke leaders. While Jacobsen may attempt to carry a team, Dunleavy is more likely to find the niche that needs filling and contribute in that area. ThereÂs no doubt that the 6-9 sophomore can score (witness his second half performance in the Illinois game) but the other areas in which he contributes are often more valuable to a team with a wealth of people who can score.
Defensively both Dunleavy and James match up well with their Stanford counterparts. James has the size to defend Jacobsen, something the Cardinal player doesnÂt often see from opposing two guards. The same can be said for Dunleavy in his assignment with Mendez. For James and the Duke defense, the key is to stay with Jacobsen as he runs through the various screens and picks of MontgomeryÂs offense. If the two players face off in a one on one James should have the advantage because of his underrated quickness. However Jacobsen is too savvy a player to let that happen and will work the nuances of the offense to gain his advantage.
Off the bench the Devils may look to get some minutes from 6-6 freshman Andre Sweet. Like Sanders, Horvath, and Christensen, Sweet is trying to emerge as a quality reserve for the team. His progress has been a welcomed surprise to most Duke observers as he continues to increase his playing time. Sweet has a reliable midrange jump shot and can also hit the three. Like the other Duke reserves though, SweetÂs biggest contributions should come on defense and the boards. If he plays in this game it will be his first minutes in meaningful, high-quality competition and provide a good indication of his development.
StanfordÂs Mike McDonald, like every Duke opponent, faces a stiff challenge in this game when he squares off with Jason Williams. Last year McDonald helped spoil WilliamsÂ garden party debut. Although Williams scored 13 points, the 6-1 McDonald harassed him into a 3-15 shooting night as well as 6 turnovers. That was then Â this is now. The Jason Williams that McDonald faced last year is not the same guy thatÂs playing now and for McDonald, the challenge will be much greater.
Still, thereÂs not much chance that the CardinalÂs senior point guard will back down from the challenge. He is a strong defender with great lateral quickness who will make Williams work for his points. Offensively the big knock on McDonald has always been his shooting. Coming into this season he was hitting on just 33% of his attempts including 32% from the three point line. In their opening round win over San Francisco State University, McDonald gave Cardinal fans cause for hope when he hit 5-6 three point attempts to finish at 7-9 overall with 19 points. Since then though the numbers havenÂt been nearly as good. In the remaining games heÂs averaging only 4.8 points and shooting just 16% from the three point line. Even worse, in games against major opponents heÂs only averaging 2.8 points.
But scoring is not McDonaldÂs role on a Cardinal team with so many offensive options. What Stanford needs out of McDonald is someone to distribute the ball and not turn it over and in that regard he is an excellent point guard. His assist to turnover ratio is a gaudy 4.25, which places him among the nationÂs leaders. Facing a Duke team that thrives off turnovers, McDonaldÂs ability to control the ball will be a key to the game.
Two guys who are both capable of playing either backcourt position back up McDonald. 6-2 sophomore Julius Barnes is a quick, athletic player who likes the midrange jump shot. If heÂs pushed further from the basket his accuracy really suffers. He can be a little careless with the ball but that isnÂt unexpected with a player of his aggressiveness. The other reserve point guard is 6-2 junior Tony Giovacchini. Giovacchini lacks the quickness of his backcourt teammates but provides a reliable backup. Like McDonald, he is conservative with the ball although his assist to turnover ratio isnÂt nearly as impressive. Also like McDonald, he is not a great shooter and has struggled from the field this year.
When the Stanford point guards square off against Williams they will find a greatly improved opponent. The 6-2 sophomore is coming off a 5 game stretch where he is averaging 23 points a game. Over that same span of games he is dishing out 5 assists a night. On the offensive end of the floor Williams has been spectacular. He can at times fall victim to trying to do too much (like Jacobsen). However those periods of poor judgement are decreasing as his understanding of the game matures. Defensively Williams has also matured and is playing more position defense rather than reaching as he did early in his career. HeÂll still gamble as is reflected by his 2.2 steals per game, but heÂs much less likely to commit a foul while applying defensive pressure.
Some of the improvement in WilliamsÂ defense can also be attributed to the arrival of a quality backup point guard. With freshman Chris Duhon available as a substitute Williams is freed up to pressure the ball more. Duhon can ably run the team should Williams need a rest or pick up some fouls. The 6-3 freshman can play either guard spot and when he teams with Williams they give Duke a backcourt that can really apply defensive pressure. Duhon is a particularly larcenous player. He is one of the team leaders in steals despite playing fewer minutes than others on the list. In addition, he is a dangerous outside shooter although he has struggled to find his shot this season. He has been rounding into form and he is currently hitting 35% of his three point shots. While DuhonÂs shooting has been streaky in the early part of his career the rest of his game has been rock solid. In addition to his defense he also has the best assist to turnover ratio on the team.
The conventional wisdom holds that Duke may get killed on the boards in this game and when you look at a team with two guys pulling down 17 rebounds a game between them you would be inclined to agree. But the assumption that the Cardinal will dominate the boards may be premature. In several contests where you would expect them to be dominant on the boards they have either been outrebounded or the battle of the boards has been a draw. In the games against Old Dominion, Georgia, and Long Beach State Â all teams without a strong inside game Â the Cardinal were either outrebounded or didnÂt achieve a significant advantage in that area.
Still, the Cardinal big men (in particular the Collins brothers) have the ability to dominate a game not only on the boards but also within their offensive sets. When Stanford has the ball DukeÂs success in stopping them will be directly related to the play in the post. If Battier and Boozer are able to contain the Stanford inside game the Duke perimeter players will be able to focus on the CardinalÂs outside shooters. However if either Collins brother proves too much to handle Duke will have to double on them with the wing players. That could make for a long evening for the Blue Devils as Jacobsen and Mendez could see lots of open looks. Duke can give McDonald open looks until he proves he can hit the jumper, but it is difficult to give low post help off a point guard.
Limiting the low post offense of the Cardinal doesnÂt mean that you can shut down their offense. Stanford is like Duke in that they like to take advantage of three point opportunities. While the Duke offense features a multitude of players who can all shoot the three well, the Stanford offense features two player who can shoot the three exceptionally. Jacobsen and Mendez can hurt any team and DukeÂs defenders must do a good job of not allowing them any looks at the basket. Expect Dunleavy to start out on Mendez and James on Jacobsen although with DukeÂs switching defense those projected matchups may not mean much on each possession. Whomever ends up with Jacobsen must stay with him and deny him the ball as much as possible. ThatÂs a tough task for most defenders as Jacobsen is a man in perpetual motion and will work forever for open looks.
For DukeÂs offense they must try and find a way to neutralize the Cardinal size advantage. In that regard they would love to use their full court press to not only force turnovers but dictate the pace of play. If the Devils can turn this into more a full court game they should be capitalize on their quickness. To avoid that Stanford must stick to their disciplined approach and replicate the success they have had against other pressing teams. Stanford has traditionally had problems against pressing teams but this year they may be better prepared. The Cardinal are averaging a respectable 13 turnovers per game although that figure can be questioned given the quality of their opposition. While McDonald is their primary ballhandler, both Barnes and Giovacchini are adept enough to help break the press. If Stanford has any trouble they can use either of those two players at the off guard and move Jarron Collins into the post. That creates a ripple effect on the CardinalÂs team speed.
When Duke is in a halfcourt game they will need to find ways to score on the bigger Stanford team. For the Devils that typically means relying on their perimeter players and in this game they should have a quickness advantage at every position. Stanford will probably play a man defense although they have utilized a zone on several occasions this year. If they play a man, look for point guard Jason Williams to attack McDonald early in the game and take his measure. If Williams is able to get past McDonald then DukeÂs offense can really click as he sets up the rest of the players for open shots. Duke will also use Dunleavy and James to take their men off the dribble and make plays.
Battier also provides significant matchup problems for Stanford. If he continues to show a multi-faceted offense then Jarron Collins wonÂt be able to stay with him. If however he ends up floating on the perimeter (not likely) then Collins wonÂt have nearly as much trouble. Boozer should also enjoy a quickness advantage against Jason Collins. If the Duke perimeter attack is able to draw defenders away from the paint then Boozer could have more room to operate.
Duke cannot become too reliant on the three point shot though. The Stanford perimeter defense has been particularly impressive this year, holding opponents to 26% on three point attempts. Again that figure is questionable because of the level of their competition and also their last game against Georga Tech in which the Yellow Jackets hit on 48% of their three point attempts. If Duke is able to break down the Stanford man defense the Cardinal has a variety of zones they employ. How successful any of those would be against Duke is a dicey question for Montgomery. The Duke team has destroyed every zone they have faced this year with the exception of the first Temple game.
This game was one Kentucky jump shot away from being a 1 versus 2 contest. Instead fans will just have to settle for a 1 versus 3 contest. For Duke the question is how well they can play against a team that has the interior size and perimeter performance of Stanford. For Stanford the question is if their early season schedule has prepared them for heavyweight competition. The answer should come sometime early Friday morning Â East Coast Bias time of course!