by Michael Vernetti
Has Randy Bennett fashioned some of his early season match-up plans around stopping Stanford’s Dorian Pickens, whom the Gaels will meet Wednesday night in Palo Alto?
Bennett surprised a lot of people (well me, anyhow) by matching small forward Calvin Hermanson on Dayton’s Charles Cooke, a 6-5 guard and the Flyers’ leading scorer. He doubled down on this strategy by putting Hermanson on UAB’s top scorer, also a 6-5 guard, Dirk Williams, on Sunday.
The score so far: Calvin 2, big guards 0. To be fair, Cooke did cobble together 19 points for the Flyers, but Hermanson kept him from going off early, and Cooke scored most of his points from the free throw line. He’s one of those players — think James Harden of the Houston Rockets — who draws a lot of fouls.
Williams never recovered from Hermanson’s defense, going 1-9 for the game and totaling four points in 31 minutes. He had been averaging 13.4 PPG.
The essence of this strategy is to take away a big guard’s primary advantage — greater size than the typical 6-1 or 6-2 guard. Hermanson nullifies that advantage with his 6-6 height, and has proved in two tests so far that he can match the quickness of big guards. He kept his body in front of Cooke and Williams, and perhaps spooked them with his superior height.
Which brings us to Mr. Pickens.
Not an unknown quantity
Pickens is also 6-5, and also creates match-up problems for most of the people guarding him. He has upped his scoring average from 12.3 PPG last year to 15.4 so far this year, and has become the focus of Stanford’s offense — along with 6-8 forward Reid Travis, who is averaging 17.4 PPG on the low block. The Gaels remember Travis from last year’s 78-61 victory over Stanford in Moraga, when he punished Dane Pineau for 18 points to lead the Cardinal.
Pickens’ elevated role this year was underscored by the comments of Seton Hall Coach Kevin Willard following Stanford’s 66-52 win over the Hall on Sunday, in which Pickens scored 21 points. “Our whole thing was how good Pickens is,” said Willard. “He’s really picked it up from last year.”
Pickens was a big star at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, winning Arizona Player of the Year honors in his senior year, being rated a four-star recruit and earning a ranking as the 81st best player nationally by ESPN. Bennett, who has strong Arizona roots and recruited two players from his boyhood home to the current Gaels’ roster — Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse — certainly was aware of Pickens in high school. He also got to view him up close and personally in last year’s Stanford game when Pickens was mostly a non-factor, scoring 10 points on 2-9 shooting.
So, did Bennett have Pickens on his mind when he switched Hermanson to guarding Cooke and Williams this season? We’ll probably have to wait for Bennett’s memoir to answer that question, but it certainly makes sense as the Gaels reach a key point in their out-of-conference schedule.
The Stanford game is the Gaels’ third out-of-Moraga contest among six games, and after that they will settle into a more familiar pre-conference stance — hosting five straight opponents at home before kicking off the WCC race with a visit to Loyola Marymount on Dec. 29. The Gaels, ranked no. 12 in the AP poll and no. 13 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll as of Monday, have a lot riding on the Stanford game.
Bennett might have given his team one more advantage by exposing Hermanson to players similar to Pickens. The result of that strategy will be one of the interesting developments to follow Wednesday night.
The rest of the story
In addition to Pickens and Travis, the rest of Stanford’s lineup is mostly familiar to the Gaels. The only key player missing from last year’s romp in Moraga is Roscoe Allen, who became Stanford’s leading scorer after Travis went down with a leg injury. Allen was also not a factor against the Gaels, scoring just two points.
Marcus Allen, a 6-3 senior, joins Pickens in the back court with a combination at the point guard position consisting of last year’s starter, Christian Sanders, and Robert Cartwright, who missed all of last season with an injury. Allen is averaging only 4.1 PPG this year, but burned the Gaels with 14 points on 6-11 shooting in Moraga.
Joining Travis in the front court is 6-9 forward Michael Humphrey, backed up by a Gael-who-got-away, Grant Verhoeven. Verhoeven, one of the most sought-after players in California’s Central Valley in high school, went down to the wire between Saint Mary’s and Stanford as his college choice, eventually opting for the Cardinal. His career has been marked largely by injuries, but he is getting considerable court time in his senior year, averaging 5.4 PPG.
Neither of these teams will surprise the other, as the Gaels rode the penetrating abilities of Joe Rahon (24 points) and Emmett Naar (15 points) last year, and still rely on their savvy passing and court generalship. The emergence of Jock Landale in the post will give new Stanford Coach Jerod Haase something to worry about besides Rahon and Naar, but he also has access to UAB head man Robert Ehsan for strategy. Ehsan was Haase’s understudy at UAB before Haase moved to Stanford to replace Johnny Dawkins.
The chess match between Bennett and Haase will be interesting to watch.
Dorian Pickens of Stanford, above, will be a prime focus of the Saint Mary’s defense Wednesday night. Photo courtesy of Bob Drebin/ISI Photos.