Though the COVID-19 pandemic cut the 2020 NCAA basketball season short in early March, the abrupt end did little to halt the accolades rolling in for Stanford men’s hoops. Junior guard Bryce Wills was just one Cardinal athlete to make headlines, dubbed the nation’s best defender after recording a national-low 0.613 points allowed per possession.
Thriving on the defensive side of the ball is nothing new for Wills, who appeared amongst the team’s four best performers in both blocks and steals, recording 22 and 29 in the respective categories during the 2019-20 season. The then-sophomore also added 113 defensive rebounds to his stat sheet over the course of 31 games.
While leading the nation as a sophomore may seem like a peak for many, for Wills the accomplishment has merely become another completed item on his to-do list.
“I view defense as a competition,” Wills said. “[In] basketball, everybody wants to score on each other. But using that reverse psychology, not wanting anybody to score on me and being excited about that when they can’t is what really drives me.”
Though Wills’ defensive talents during the season may have been a head-turner — one that was complemented nicely by freshman guard Tyrell Terry’s skills on the other side of the ball — Wills emphasizes his contributions as having been just a fraction of the team’s capacities. As the No. 16 scoring defense in the country, the Cardinal held its opponents to an average of 62.5 points per contest, transforming head coach Jerod Haase’s emphasis on developing a defensive identity into tangible and impressive results.
To Wills, however, No. 16 is still far too low.
“My personal goal would be to have the number one defensive team in the country,” he said. “The foundation has been laid, now it’s just all about executing that plan that we had.”
This year, it is likely that Wills will play an even bigger role in helping the team execute the plan he hopes will help them climb from the sixteenth-best defensive squad to coveted number one. As a rising junior, he recognizes the importance to step up as a leader on the team. With only three seniors, the Cardinal will be looking for Wills’ stellar defense and experience to guide Cardinal men’s hoops to a successful season.
“We have team defense for a reason,” said Wills. “That means we’re learning it together as a team.”
“We all are relying on each other to be in the right spots at the right time,” he added.
In an unprecedented season, Wills and the men’s basketball team maintain a “team first” winning mentality. Even in unusual practice conditions they continue to hold each other accountable and rely on each teammate to stay on track.
The loss of Terry left big shoes to fill, but the team is focused on creating another winning season and finishing the business that was cut short last year. Players have the ‘next man up’ mindset and ensure that freshmen get on pace early, preparing them for a faster pace of basketball.
For the past few weeks the team has been training at Taube Family Tennis Stadium. Hoops were set up for informal practices on the tennis courts, helping to minimize COVID-19-related risks and abide by safety precautions. However, as Santa Clara County improved to COVID ‘orange-tier’ last week, the team now has approval to practice indoors in Maples Pavilion.
The Cardinal have just over a month of training time in Maples until their first game after the Pac-12 announced that a Nov. 25 start date had been approved for men’s and women’s basketball. Stanford has yet to release a complete schedule but announced its intentions to compete in the opening round of the 2020 Maui Invitational on Nov. 30 in Asheville, North Carolina.
“I’m just excited to get back out there and play the game that I love,” said Wills. “And not take any games for granted ever again.”
Contact Savanna Stewart at savnstew ‘at’ stanford.edu and Harper Hummelt hummelth ‘at’ stanford.edu.