After a hard-fought first four games for Stanford men’s basketball (2-2, 0-0 Pac-12), the Cardinal will search for a winning record as they open Pac-12 conference play on the road against the USC Trojans (4-1, 0-0 Pac-12).
Stanford returns to the west coast after playing all of its opening games in North Carolina. The first three were part of the Maui Invitational and the fourth came after the team decided to remain in North Carolina due to increasingly restrictive mandates in Santa Clara County.
The tournament began with a decisive 18-point victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide on Nov. 30. It was freshman guard Ziaire Williams’ flawless 19-point debut that helped the Cardinal secure the victory, which punched the team’s ticket to a semifinal matchup against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The semifinal and final were far more turbulent than the opening round. After a strong first half gave the Cardinal a 33-29 halftime lead over UNC, subpar rebounding and cold shooting helped the Tar Heels earn a four-point victory. The Cardinal’s woes carried into the third-place game against the Indiana Hoosiers, and were seemingly amplified by the fatigue of three straight days of play. Indiana came out with a resounding 16-point victory, as the Cardinal offense again struggled to find any sort of rhythm.
Stanford then finished off its stint in North Carolina with a non-Maui Invitational game against North Carolina A&T, winning by 32 and carrying some momentum into the Cardinal’s matchup against USC. The meeting with the Aggies marked Stanford’s first time traveling to an HBCU for competition as well as North Carolina A&T’s first time hosting a Power Five opponent. Against the Aggies, Stanford dominated early, but whether the Cardinal will be able to do that against a challenging conference opponent is yet to be determined.
Stanford’s Southern California foe is unpredictable given the high number of newcomers it features, but the team’s potential was on full display in a 79-53 rout against BYU earlier this season. On the defensive end, USC held BYU to 7-of-30 from long range and 19-of-69 from the field overall — statistics that are very uncharacteristic of the sharp-shooting team from Provo. On the offensive end, four players finished in double figures as USC shot over 50% from the field.
Among the many newcomers that have helped this USC team be successful is freshman forward Evan Mobley, who towers high at seven feet, just two inches above his brother and teammate sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley. Evan Mobley has been a nice replacement for Onyeka Okongwu, USC’s star freshman forward from last season who opted to leave USC for the NBA. Evan Mobley will prove to be a dangerous presence down low against a Stanford team that has struggled on the boards. The Cardinal will be reliant on 6-foot-9 senior forward Oscar da Silva, who’s the closest thing Stanford has to a “big man” in its starting five.
Another Trojan newcomer to watch is graduate guard Tahj Eaddy, a transfer from Santa Clara University. Eaddy is a versatile guard with explosive scoring ability, and he will be an integral part of a USC backcourt that is undoubtedly weaker than its frontcourt. This could be an issue for the Trojans as they face off against Stanford’s defensive powerhouse duo of senior guard Daejon Davis and junior guard Bryce Wills.
There are three keys to this game for both teams. For Stanford, rebounding is the first. The Cardinal will have to learn from being out-rebounded 43-to-23 against UNC and find a way to secure boards over the Mobley brothers. In Stanford’s victory over North Carolina A&T, the Cardinal picked up 21 second-chance points, compared to just seven against UNC.
The second key is sophomore forward Spencer Jones. Last season, Jones shot 43.1% from behind the arc, but through four games this season he is sitting at just 20%, including a 1-of-9 performance from three against UNC. Jones needs to step up if the Cardinal want to beat the Trojans.
The last key for Stanford is da Silva. USC will be reliant on its frontcourt, and it will largely be da Silva’s job to keep the Mobley brothers from taking over the game. The senior currently leads the Stanford squad in blocks, with six to his name after four games.
For USC, opposite to the Cardinal’s need for strong play from da Silva, the first key is to utilize size. A number of Cardinal forwards stand as tall as da Silva, including freshman Max Murrell, juniors Jaiden Delaire and Lukas Kisunas and sophomores Neil Begovich and James Keefe; however, the latter five average just six and a half minutes on the court a piece — with Delaire having sat out due injury for the past three games — while da Silva averages 27. Both Mobley brothers are capable of putting up double-figure scoring and rebounding performances if they utilize their size advantage.
The second key for the Trojans is guard play. If USC’s backcourt plays to the level of Stanford’s backcourt, they will likely win. Lastly, the third key for the Trojans is to shut down Williams, who has shown an unwillingness to drive to the hoop in his first few games, perhaps demonstrating his nervousness at the collegiate level. He scored just four points against Indiana when being guarded closely along the perimeter, which allowed the Hoosiers to gain distance and never turn back.
Tip-off against the Trojans is set for 6:30 p.m. PT on Sunday.
Contact Teddy Solomon at tedsol ‘at’ stanford.edu