The Stanford men’s basketball team had a brutal schedule last year and didn’t fare too well against some of college basketball’s top programs. The good news? The Cardinal should be better this season, thanks to a highly touted freshman class and the return of four starters from last year’s team. The bad news? Their schedule this year may be even tougher than last year’s, including a visit to the Farm from the defending national champions. Other non-conference matchups against highly ranked opponents also loom large for a Cardinal team that has big expectations, but there are also many obstacles standing in their way of going dancing in March.
The Pac-12 conference should also be especially competitive this year, with three teams starting the season ranked in the AP Top 25 and a few others, such as national semifinalist Oregon, who is expected to be a contender once again. The Cardinal are fortunate to have most of their challenging conference road games towards the end of the regular season, but it also means they have a grueling stretch of games to end the year.
Here are some of the key games:
Stanford vs. North Carolina: Nov. 20
There’s no bigger test, and no more exciting challenge, than having the defending national champions make a cross-country trip to Maples Pavilion. The Tar Heels lost a lot of talent from last year’s championship team but are still one of the most elite teams in the country. While Stanford may be the more experienced team, North Carolina has enough senior leadership and an influx of talent that will make this a tough matchup for the Cardinal. Some good news for the Cardinal — Joel Berry II, the Tar Heels senior leader, is out with a broken hand and probably won’t be back in time for the Stanford matchup. But even without Berry, this will be a true challenge for Stanford, one that players and coaches say is leading to more focused preparation this preseason.
“Of course having a schedule like we do that’s stacked up gives you extra motivation,” senior forward Reid Travis said. “It’s not something we’re saying out in the open, but definitely in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘We got these big games, we need to have a sense of urgency to come prepared for that.’”
If the Cardinal freshmen show some poise and Travis outplays Maye in the frontcourt, Stanford will be able to keep it close and potentially grab a victory.
PK80 Invitational — Stanford vs. Florida, Stanford vs. Gonzaga or Ohio State (all games in Portland, OR): Nov. 23, Nov. 24, Nov. 26
This invitational is full of elite teams, including Florida and Gonzaga, both of whom start the year ranked in the AP Top 25. But out of all the Cardinal’s difficult nonconference games, this invitational is the most likely time for them to pull off some upsets. Florida is a bigger and more physical team but is much less experienced than the Cardinal. The Zags are always contenders under head coach Mark Few but lost almost all of their stars from last year’s national runner-up squad. Ohio State is a program that has been missing from the national stage for a while. If Stanford plays North Carolina tough just a few days earlier, it should head to Portland with the confidence that the team can compete with any of the top teams in the country.
Stanford vs. Kansas (in Sacramento): Dec. 21
Reid Travis had a career game when these two teams faced off last year, scoring 29 points and collecting nine rebounds. Despite Travis’ monster performance, though, the Jayhawks proved to be deeper and more athletic than the Cardinal, and while Kansas has had some roster turnover, it is still the stronger team. Senior guard Devonte’ Graham is one of the most electrifying players in the country and will be a headache for the Cardinal defense. Six-foot-10 freshman forward Billy Preston is also a matchup nightmare for opponents and perhaps one of the few players in the country who is more physically imposing than Travis. Whether or not the Cardinal are able to get a victory against a college basketball blue blood, this matchup should be good preparation for their difficult conference slate.
Stanford vs. UCLA: Jan. 4
This is the first real test of the conference season for Stanford. The Bruins return some of their top players from last season and replaced star point guard Lonzo Ball with his little brother, LiAngelo. Forward Thomas Welsh and guard Aaron Holiday are two of the top players in the conference and will be an early challenge for freshman guards Daejon Davis and Isaac White. If the Cardinal can get a win against either of the Los Angeles teams during this brutal week, they should be in a good position early in the Pac-12 season.
Stanford vs. USC: Jan. 7
USC is ranked in the preseason top 10 thanks in part to the return of all five starters from last year’s team. USC basketball hasn’t been a conference powerhouse over the past decade, but they did outplay the Cardinal in their one matchup last year. Travis didn’t play in last year’s game, and he will definitely provide a boost for the Cardinal. USC guard Jordan McLaughlin led the Trojans last year, and his matchup with Davis will be the key to this game.
Stanford vs. Arizona State: Jan. 17
This matchup may not be pivotal to the Pac-12 title race, but it is the first chance for the Cardinal to get some revenge after the Sun Devils won both regular-season matchups and knocked Stanford out of the Pac-12 tournament last year. The Cardinal are the better team, and they will be hungry to avenge last year’s heartbreaking losses.
Stanford at Arizona: Mar. 1
Third-ranked Arizona was a popular pick as the preseason No. 1 team in the country this season and returns three starters from a team that was the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champion. Six-foot-five guard Allonzo Trier is the Wildcats’ best player, and he will prove to be a matchup nightmare against the Cardinal’s talented but inexperienced backcourt. The two teams also play at Maples Pavilion on Jan. 20, but it will be this road trip to Tucson that will be a real indicator of where the Cardinal stand within the conference pecking order. The Wildcats also feature top recruit and freshman center Deandre Ayton, who at seven-foot-one and 249 pounds is one of the few players that could dominate Travis’ post-up game.
Contact Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.