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Northwestern Basketball Preview: Stanford

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn).

The last time Northwestern played a basketball game, it needed a furious 12-0 run to scrape by Texas State. The Bobcats are an improved team. They are not what anyone would reasonably call quality competition. Stanford – owners of the nation’s 20th most efficient defense, two extremely talented guards in Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, and a very respectable win over Northern Iowa – most definitely is. The Cardinal is Northwestern’s last chance to secure a respectable win before the Big Ten season, and to prove that whatever post-Drew Crawford injury malaise that fell over it Monday night has been lifted. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to look for from Stanford (7-4).

Coach: Johnny Dawkins
Fifth Season, Record at Stanford: 82-63
 
Conference: Pac-12 
Preseason Media Poll Projection: 4th 
 
Season Profile
Record: 7-4
Best Win: Northern Iowa
Worst Loss: Belmont

Three Players to Watch

Chasson Randle (Sophomore, Guard)

The defining trait of Johnny Dawkins’ team is its hard-nosed halfcourt defense. The Cardinal’s defensive efficiency (88.6), opposing three-point field goal percentage (28.7), block percentage (12.1) and opposing effective field goal percentage (44.2) all rank in the nation’s top 100. The Cardinal guard like crazy, execute crisp rotations and create turnovers without ceding position. Randle sets the tone at the point of attack. The 6-1 lead guard is a feisty, lockdown defender who harasses opposing ballhandlers, gets into passing lanes and does an awful good job of making life miserable for the opposition.

He’s also grown into Stanford’s most frequently-used offensive players – he uses 26.5 percent of available possessions and commands 27.4 percent of available shots – which has eroded some of the efficient shooting and scoring he provided last season. But overall, Randle is at the heart of everything the Cardinal runs on offense, and he’ll get plenty of touches as long as he’s on the court.

Dwight Powell (Junior, Forward)

If Randle is Stanford’s highest-usage threat on the offensive end, Powell is its most efficient scorer. After playing only 40.8 percent of available minutes last season and posting a lowly 93.9 offensive rating, Powell is spending more time on the floor (playing 66.8 percent of minutes), taking more shots (his 24.6 percent shot rate is nearly six percentage points up from last season’s mark) and scoring at a more efficient clip (117.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Ken Pomeroy’s possession-free metrics).

Posting gaudy efficiency numbers is all well and good, but Powell’s flattering statistical profile bears out empirically, too. The 6-10, 235-pound forward is an excellent athlete with great finishing touch around the rim. Another key facet of Powell’s game: rebounding. His 22.6 defensive rebound percentage ranks in the nation’s top 100. What was once unrealized potential and athleticism has morphed into one of the Pac-12’s most promising young forwards.

Aaron Bright (Junior, Guard) 

The key figure in Stanford’s NIT Championship run last season has largely disappointed in 2012-13. Bright missed the Cardinal’s last four games in November with an injury before returning for a Dec. 2 matchup with Denver. His minutes have picked up over the last three games, and in Tuesday night’s loss at NC State, Bright poured in a season-high 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting and 4-for-7 from three. That’s a strong indication Bright is fully healed. Whether he’s ready to return to being the NIT Tournament MVP-level floor maestro who averaged 16.8 points and shot 64.1 percent is an open question.

It’s encouraging that Bright was able to have his best game to date against the toughest opponent he’s faced all season (Bright missed games against Missouri, Minnesota and Northern Iowa), but until he can maintain a consistent level of scoring and creative production at the point, his season will be viewed as a failure. After last season’s NIT breakout, big things were expected from Bright, and so far, he hasn’t met those expectations. Tuesday night’s game – when Bright posted an astounding 180 offensive rating while using just 17 percent of available possessions – could be the spark Bright needed to jog loose the level of performance witnessed last postseason.

Key Matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Chasson Randle

Replacing Drew Crawford will entail small increases in scoring, ballhandling and offensive responsibilities across the board. Players will need to step out of their comfort zones. Roles will change. The offense will be altered. The biggest change, if the last two games (The Texas State game was Crawford’s first since opting to take a medical redshirt) is any indication, is Dave Sobolewski’s scoring focus. During that two-game span, Sobolewski has evolved into Northwestern’s most prominent and most efficient offensive player. His increased usage on the offensive end should only crystallize into a larger sample size as the season rolls along, and he’ll face his toughest challenge yet in Stanford’s Randle, one of the best on-ball defenders in the country.

Sobolewski spent three years playing with Randle on the AAU circuit, which means one of two things. Either Sobolewski knows Randle’s defensive weak points, and can use that to find space and dart by Randle on the perimeter. Or Randle can draw back on Sobolewski’s ballhandling tendencies to take away what he does best. Either way, it should be a fascinating matchup: a point guard developing into a dangerous scorer trying to overcome a savvy ball-stopping force, both of whom know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.