The Finishing Touch
"So far, we're not there yet," Stanford forward John Gage told me. "But we want to be known as great closers. We want to be known as that team."
Thirteen games still remain in the Cardinal's 2013 Pac-12 slate, but a finisher's sense of urgency already permeates a squad whose NCAA Tournament aspirations are in a precarious position following a 2-3 conference start. Gage provided the sizzle in the Farm Boys' 69-59 win over California Saturday, and now his teammates will try to throw down the hammer over a three game stretch that's ripe with opportunity. A home date with league-leading Oregon (16-2, 5-0) awaits after this upcoming Thursday-Sunday road trip to Colorado and Utah.
Stanford (11-7, 2-3 Pac-12) can firmly throw itself right back into the Big Dance mix with three wins. That may be considered a far-fetched task until one considers the fact that the Cardinal manhandled Colorado 74-50 in Boulder late last season. The Buffaloes, once red-hot, have lost four of their last five since dropping a heartbreaker at then-undefeated Arizona.
"Our success in Boulder last year certainly gives us confidence going in there this season," Gage said. "It's just a great atmosphere to play in out there."
The Gage is Hot
Though Stanford's three point shooting percentage has floundered at or below 30 percent for much of the season, Gage has separated himself as a dependable sharpshooter from the outside. The junior knocked down all four of his downtown attempts Saturday to complement Dwight Powell and Chasson Randle with 14 points of his own.
"I think John has improved as much as anybody on our team this year," coach Johnny Dawkins touted his 6-foot-10 forward. "Everyone can feel what he's doing out there when he's hot. Everyone's on the edge of their seat. Our own guys want to say 'shoot it!' whenever he has a look."
Gage has knocked down 20 of his 46 three-point tries this season, good for a 44 percent clip. That's not too shabby for a player who was recruited as a center -- albeit one who knocked down seven of 11 three-point tries his senior year of high school.
"I always thought John had the capability of being a good three-point shooter," Dawkins said. "Over the years, we've been working on increasing his range. Now, it's about refining his inside game. I still think he's capable of doing that on our level."
Gage's rebounding and interior presence has improved since he's added about 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason, enough to earn his lethal outside shot more minutes on the floor. More Gage time is generally a good sign for Stanford: Whenever he's played at least 15 minutes, the junior is averaging 9.8 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field and from long distance.
Of course, Gage -- ever humble -- shrugs off that statistic, suggesting that he's gotten over 15 minutes of playing time in some games only because he was playing well in the first place. But he says he enjoys the process nonetheless.
"I love going out there and earning every minute that I'm on the court," he said.
Freshman Rosco Allen contributed 15 valuable minutes against Cal, scoring six points and grabbing seven critical rebounds. His role has expanded as the season has progressed, while fellow newcomers Christian Sanders and Grant Verhoeven have seen their gameday playing time decrease. Dawkins asserts that the latter two freshmen continue to improve, though.
"Christian is practicing hard and practicing well. He's growing as a freshman," Dawkins said. "If the opportunity presents itself, he'll play. The rotations Saturday were good, and we liked the kids we had out there. It was working."
Verhoeven, meanwhile, is polishing his offensive game in practice to complement the high motor and physicality that has earned him some playing time this year.
"I see the improvements he's making," Dawkins said. "He's starting to face up from 15-17 feet. He's starting to knock down that shot, and he's developing a go-to move in the paint."
The Farm Boys' Horses Pull the Weight
Dawkins was particularly pleased with the aggressiveness Chasson Randle and Dwight Powell displayed Saturday. Together with Gage, the two combined to score 46 of Stanford's 69 points in the victory. Offensive continuity has been an issue for the Cardinal throughout large parts of this season, so the powerful production from the Farm Boys' two lead horses was certainly welcome.
"They're starting to develop very good chemistry," Dawkins said. "Chasson is getting back to the Chasson we remembered. Dwight is the most unselfish really good player I've been around, but now he's realizing that sometimes we need him to carry the scoring load."
Dawkins said that, despite last year's surprising result at mile-high altitude, his team did nothing differently leading up to its 74-50 shellacking of Colorado in Boulder. This year's key remains the same: slow down the Buffaloes' frenzied transition attack, which can produce its own shot after an opponents' score as quickly as any team in the country.
"We're going to have to put a wall and defensive perimeter up in transition," Dawkins said. "It'll be about getting back defensively."
Rebounding in thin air will also be imperative, and success there will be be dependent on boxing out forward Andre Roberson, who averages over 11 boards per game. Stanford's Josh Huestis has the ability to provide a solid rebuttal: He's coming off a 14-board effort that featured seven offensive rebounds.
Beyond that, it's easier said than done: the Cardinal will attempt to replicate their hottest shooting performance of last year, one that saw them knock down 58 percent from long range in the first half.
Thursday: Stanford at Colorado, 7 p.m. - ESPNU
Sunday: Stanford at Utah, 6 p.m. - PAC-12 Network
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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