M. Basketball: Strong start puts Stanford in thick of Pac-12 race

Jan. 9, 2012, 1:38 a.m.


The road to a 3-1 conference start has been far from flawless, yet in the fourth season under the direction of head coach Johnny Dawkins, the Stanford men’s basketball team appears to have finally turned a corner and is now on pace to see its first legitimate postseason action since the departure of Brook and Robin Lopez in the spring of 2008.


The Cardinal (13-3) has emerged as the early, albeit minute, favorite in the Pac-12, a conference still stuck in what seems like a perpetual rebuilding process. Stanford has benefitted from an improvement on offense, possible in large part because of the emergence of sophomore guard Aaron Bright and the addition of freshman guard Chasson Randle. The backcourt duo have combined to hit 63 three-pointers thus far, with Bright connecting on 50 percent of his looks from behind the arc. Efficient production from the perimeter has yielded a team output of 73.1 points per game, good enough for third in the conference.


However, the real surprise from this year’s team has come on the glass, where senior forward Josh Owens leads the most productive rebounding team in the conference. The Cardinal ranks first in both offensive and defensive rebounds, and its 52.7 rebounding percentage ranks in the top 25 nationally. It’s a marked improvement for a once height-challenged squad that has augmented its frontcourt depth. Owens pulls down 6.1 boards per game, and sophomore forward Josh Huestis grabs nearly 10 rebounds per 40 minutes. Both players, undersized at their respective positions, have performed admirably early in the conference season, most notably in the Pac-12 opener against UCLA, a team with a significant size advantage.


Rebounding has been critical in preventing second-chance scoring opportunities for opponents, repeated looks that would be fatal for a turnover-maligned offense—the Cardinal gives the ball away nearly 15 times per game. Additionally, the team averages less than one assist per turnover, a statistic that will undoubtedly need to improve to sustain Stanford’s early-season success but one that is shockingly not the worst in the conference.


As in recent years, turnovers have almost exclusively been the product of the cliched, careless errors. Stanford’s young ball-handling core has struggled with full-court pressure, reckless dribble-drives and, as demonstrated in the four-overtime thriller against Oregon State, inbounds in decisive moments. These issues, especially when attributed to youth, typically resolve themselves with increased playing time. But consistent minutes on any given night are hard to come by, and Dawkins has been far from hesitant to make lineup alterations. Nine players regularly average more than 11 minutes per night.


Another glaring issue is the team’s free-throw shooting, a groan-worthy flaw that is exposed on a nightly basis. Stanford has recorded the fifth-most shots from the charity stripe in the conference but has hit those attempts at a rate of 67.7 percent. The Cardinal plays four guys in its regular rotation that shoot worse than 65 percent from the line, and opposing teams have been intent to exploit this fault.


But even when factoring in the free throws and turnovers, Stanford is getting it done in the wins column. The Card is one of four teams in the Pac-12 with just one conference loss, a group that trails undefeated Colorado, a league newcomer that has shockingly won its first three Pac-12 games by a combined 69 points. It’s unlikely that the Buffaloes will maintain this torrid pace, leaving the door wide open for the conference title.


“Unlikely” may be an understatement when describing the Pac-12’s chance at securing more than two bids to the NCAA Tournament in March. But aside from the conference tournament champion, the team currently with the best shot at receiving an at-large bid is Stanford. The two losses to Oregon and Butler sting, but a five-point defeat against No. 1 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden—a game in which the Cardinal led for the majority of the action—could actually benefit Dawkins’ squad when the selection committee takes a look at its resume.


First, though, Stanford must navigate its way through a daunting post-break schedule. The team receives Utah and Colorado at home this week before taking on its toughest road trip of the season, a three-game gauntlet at Washington, Washington State and Cal. If the Cardinal is able to win at least four of those games, most notably the matchup with the Bears, then Stanford could see its first action inside the AP Top 25 and position itself for a berth in the Big Dance.


Minimizing turnovers and increasing offensive efficiency is imperative, as is cementing a firmer rotation. Sloppy play often masks reality, but the talent and coaching is there. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together when it counts.

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