College teams have a hard enough time finding one competent big man, so you would think having two would be a huge advantage. As sexy as the twin towers concept is, numerous teams have failed the past two decades to match the oversized expectations 14 feet worth of hyped big men brings.
To wit, LSU's Shaquille O'Neal and Stanley Roberts got bounced in the second round of the NCAAs in their only season together (1990). Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo also exited in Round 2 in both seasons they played big minutes (1990 and '91). After a second-round exit their junior year, Stanford's Jason and Jarron Collins did help get the Cardinal to the 2001 Elite Eight.
That's the backdrop 7-foot sophomores Brook and Robin Lopez -- literal twin towers -- are up against as they lead this season's Stanford squad, which is 21-4 (10-3 Pac-10) and ranked ninth in the country.
The Lopezes have their own brief history, having been important pieces on last season's squad that was eviscerated in the first round of the NCAAs by Louisville. The abrupt conclusion to an up-and-down 18-13 season helps explain why more people haven't yet caught on to this year's version. The twins might be quite noticeable, but they don't seem to mind Stanford not being noticed.
"I like it," said Robin Lopez about the team's continued under-the-radar status. "Even though we're in the top 10, in some ways we're still playing as underdogs."
The subtlety with which the Cardinal have moved up the polls is in direct contrast to the sledgehammer style of basketball they prefer. On offense, Plan A (and Plan B) is to pound the ball inside to Brook, the more offensively polished post. Defensively, the goal is to defend aggressively on the perimeter and steer all traffic toward the trees. Stanford doesn't gamble much; the Cardinal are 312th in D-I in forcing turnovers. Rather, they just close out quickly on shooters and force them to make plays in the midrange game off the bounce or risk getting swatted.
"Brook and I really make our defense that much stronger," Robin Lopez said. "Our teammates don't have to be as tentative when they're guarding players on-ball. They know they have someone behind them."
So far, the tactic seems to be working. Brook Lopez's absence and a very weak nonconference schedule make analysis of that portion of the season essentially meaningless. Stanford's performance in league play, though, has been compelling. Per Basketball Prospectus' calculations, the Cardinal have the third-lowest defensive efficiency in league play of any team in a "Big Six" conference. As the table to the right shows, they also are tied for 10th in conference-play efficiency differential. Five of the nine teams ahead of Stanford are realistic candidates for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
In an era dominated by guard play and dribble penetration, is there room for a team constructed like this to make a deep run in March? There are some positive indicators that hint at Stanford's legitimacy.
A previous Hidden Truth noted that championship teams are extremely proficient at making and preventing 2-point baskets, as well as hitting the offensive glass. The Cardinal are elite in two of those three categories. In Pac-10 play, they are posting a 42.2 percent offensive rebounding rate (which would rank third nationally in the full-season stats) and are allowing opponents to make a miniscule 39.3 percent from inside the arc (which also would be third nationally). Add in an elite defensive rebounding rate, and the Cardinal are enjoying a huge plus-10.1 margin on the glass.
"Every team that has a chance to go beyond the first and second round have one thing they hang their hat on that's really good, and for them that's rebounding," said first-year Santa Clara head coach (and former UCLA assistant) Kerry Keating, whose Broncos lost at Stanford 74-48 on Dec. 19. "That goes beyond the twins. I think that's their mentality. They have some toughness, and they make sure they're using the twins to limit their opponents to one shot, because they rebound so well."
It's the offense, though, that's the big question mark for this team. Simply put, the Cardinal are not a good shooting team. In conference play, they're making only 45.3 percent on 2s and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc. They have had four subpar defensive games in Pac-10 play, and on three of those occasions, the offense wasn't good enough to avoid defeat. They also are extremely dependent on Brook's scoring. He's averaging 19.1 points a game this season (up from 12.6 last season) while taking more than a third of the Cardinal's shots when he is on the floor, according to kenpom.com. Point guard Mitch Johnson, though, expects better future returns on this approach.
"We've seen every kind of defense we can see from here on out as to how they're going to play us in the post," he said. "It just comes down to looking for Brook, and then when they double-team or take away something, just take what the defense gives us."
Even if Brook Lopez gets more efficient inside, this version of the Cardinal really could use a wing scorer like Casey Jacobson, who led the Collins twins' 2000-01 squad at 18.1 points a game. Guard Anthony Goods can make big shots, but he is the only other player in double figures (10.7 points per game). Last year's leading scorer, Lawrence Hill, has struggled offensively while averaging only 9.4 points per game, and he now is coming off the bench. However, Stanford head coach Trent Johnson sees some signs that last season's Hill could be on the verge of returning.
"Lawrence has taken the same shots he took last year," he said. "I think the key is, as he admitted to about three, four weeks ago, it's been hard for him to get comfortable. Well, it's been hard for him to get comfortable because of all the attention being paid to him. Now Brook has started commanding other people's attention, and Lawrence is starting to shoot the ball very well."
Indeed, Hill has scored at least 13 points in four of the Cardinal's past five games, and Stanford won all four of the contest he reached double-digits in. Although Hill's scoring resurgence is a significant development for the Cardinal, it doesn't help answer the questions raised by last year's Louisville rout. The Cardinal were exposed as lacking quickness and ballhandling. With essentially the same personnel back this season, have things changed enough to make Stanford less "draw-dependent" in the NCAAs? Several Cardinal noted that the quality and diversity of play in the Pac-10 this season has forced the team to improve in those areas.
"I think we've made a very big emphasis on that this past year, starting back last spring," Johnson said about limiting turnovers, "and I think we know that's one thing we have to do to have an opportunity to beat some of the good teams."
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.