After a 15-3 start, the Stanford men’s basketball team appeared to have stepped up into the top tier of the Pac-12, and all signs pointed toward a fight to make the NCAA Tournament. Two games later, and there are suddenly questions of whether the Cardinal has even improved very much since head coach Johnny Dawkins’ first year on the Farm.
That may be a bit of an overreaction, but a come-from-ahead, double-digit loss to mediocre Washington State and an uncompetitive beat down by Washington don’t inspire very much confidence.
Of course, the 15 wins so far are already as many as the team had last year and more than in ’09-’10, but success in major college basketball is measured by postseason success. And so far, Dawkins has led Stanford to one postseason tournament–the lowly CBI three years ago–and lost to a conference foe that year. The quick start this year has given Stanford fans hope of making it back to the Big Dance, and that hope is certainly still there. But the team’s struggles in the Evergreen State are worrisome for those chances.
For much of the season, the Cardinal’s calling cards have been defense and rebounding. Against foes from the Pacific Northwest, however, those have been flaws instead of strengths. Case in point: in the 16 games against teams outside Oregon and Washington, the Cardinal allowed 72 points or fewer in every game and outrebounded its opponent in every game but one. Not surprisingly, Stanford’s record in those 16 games is 14-2. In Stanford’s four contests against Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State and Washington, though, the Cardinal has allowed more than 72 points in every game and has failed to outrebound any of its four opponents. Stanford’s record in those four games: 1-3, with the one win coming in quadruple overtime.
All this is not to say that the problem is confined to those particular teams. The other trait that those four games share is that all four were on the road, and this could be the biggest issue. In six road games, Stanford is 3-3, but only one of those wins came against a team with an RPI above 280 (the quadruple-overtime win over OSU).
This is particularly notable because the Cardinal’s next game comes on the road against the likely favorite to win the conference: Cal. The Golden Bears are 13-0 at Haas Pavilion, and Stanford has lost its last three games there by a combined 52 points. With how bad the Pac-12 is this year, the Cardinal cannot afford a poor showing against the conference’s current top dog.
On the positive side, Stanford sits just a game out of first place in the Pac-12 and has ample opportunity to move up in the standings. Six teams have two or three conference losses, and the Cardinal gets to play five games against those teams in its final 10 games, so winning the conference is fully in Stanford’s control. And even as bad as the Pac-12 has been, the team that wins the regular-season title–particularly if its conference record is around 13-5 or 14-4–will almost definitely make the NCAA Tournament in March.
Stanford has shown flashes of the ability necessary to win the conference, and its schedule going forward sets up well for a run at the Pac-12 title. In order to have any shot at doing so and making the first major postseason tournament in the Dawkins era, though, the Cardinal desperately needs to become more consistent, particularly on the road. Stanford will get its toughest road test of the year on Sunday, and the team’s performance against Cal will be very telling about its postseason chances.