There are very few guarantees in life. But if you were to flip on ESPN today—or any other February day—you are basically guaranteed to see a story about March Madness and the “bubble teams.” The bubble teams are those that are right on the edge of tournament contention but haven’t quite done enough to lock up a spot in the NCAA Tourney. The Stanford Cardinal men’s basketball team currently falls under that category.
After a heartbreaking 73-66 loss to the Pac-12 leading Arizona Wildcats, in which Stanford squandered a lead that they had held for the entire game, the Cardinal has left itself with a steep road to climb. A road win against the No. 7 Wildcats would surely have launched Stanford into the national spotlight and earned the team some major tournament recognition. After the loss, however, Stanford must play relatively perfect basketball for the rest of the season to capture an at-large bid or earn an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
“We’ve got to go out and fight every single game, no matter who we’re playing, because in this conference, we’re real close,” said junior forward Josh Huestis. “Anybody can beat anybody, as you’ve seen lately. But as long as we go out, play team basketball and work hard, then I have no problem with the results.”
The road to a March Madness invitation continues Saturday night when the Cardinal (14-9, 5-5 Pac-12) travels to Tempe, Ariz., to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (1-5, 7-3 Pac-12). The Sun Devils pulled off a close 66-62 win over Cal last night and have enjoyed recent success in a tough Pac-12 conference.
Stanford will be faced with the difficult task of slowing down the Sun Devils’ freshman phenom Jahii Carson. Carson, a highly touted recruit out of high school who decided to play ball in his home state, has been even better than advertised. The guard has embarrassed opposing defenses, averaging 18.0 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting from the floor. Carson is shooting almost 30 percent from beyond the arc and has the dribble-drive ability to blow past almost any defender. He has also been Arizona State’s best distributor, using his excellent court vision and passing ability to get his teammates open looks. Carson is leading his team in assists, averaging 5.3 per game.
Carson is not the only player who makes the Sun Devils dangerous. His teammate Carrick Felix has put up impressive numbers as well. The senior has assumed a leadership role for Arizona State, demonstrating a mental toughness and fortitude that only comes with experience. The Sun Devils’ prowess in the paint has resulted largely from Felix’s ability to rebound despite being undersized for a forward. The 6-foot-6 combo player is averaging eight rebounds per game. He is also second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.6 points per game with 52.3 percent shooting from the field. Felix has emerged as a legitimate NBA prospect due to his versatility and high-motor play.
Before the Arizona game, Stanford had been on a roll, defeating No. 10 Oregon for the Cardinal’s first win over a top-10 opponent in five years. Huestis was named Pac-12 Player of the week after averaging 15 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 68.8 percent in the three games before the Arizona loss.
Dwight Powell also earned his sixth double-double against Arizona. The Cardinal will count on the junior forward to help counter the Sun Devils’ attack.
The Cardinal defense will have to play with the same tenacity that has helped them win three of their last four games. If Stanford wants to earn a spot in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, they will need to start by making a statement in the Pac-12. The journey begins this Saturday in Tempe.
“We’ve got a lot of games to play, and where we sit right now means nothing,” Huestis said. “We’ve got to go into every single game like our backs are up against the wall.”
Contact Mike Schwartz at [email protected].