Good teams play through adversity, and Stanford (7-3, 3-1 Pac-12) is trying to prove just that as it takes on Washington State (9-1, 2-1 Pac-12) on Saturday.
Stanford’s recent obstacles have included injuries to key players. Senior guard Daejon Davis hasn’t played since Dec. 19 due to a lower leg injury, and his status has since been considered “day-to-day.” Junior guard Bryce Wills went down on Monday with a knee injury, and he is currently “week-to-week,” with a seemingly more uncertain return than that of Davis. One or both of Davis and Wills could very possibly be out for Saturday’s matchup.
Davis and Wills have made a name for themselves as a defensive duo, arguably the best in the Pac-12. They have also both been vital on the offensive end, averaging 13.8 and 9.3 points per game, respectively, with Davis leading the Cardinal in assists.
Another hurdle Stanford has been forced to jump is a lack of true “home” games. Due to Santa Clara County’s restrictive COVID-19 guidelines, the Cardinal has yet to compete on the Farm this season. Saturday’s matchup will be no exception, as it will be played in Santa Cruz at Kaiser Permanente Arena in what is effectively a neutral court game. It will be Stanford’s fourth game at the home court of the NBA G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.
Despite these challenges, Stanford has persevered, albeit against low-level Pac-12 competition, thus far. In the Cardinal’s recent matchup against Washington (1-8, 0-4 Pac-12), Stanford secured a 16-point victory in the absence of Davis and Wills. The freshmen were among the most important players of the game, with guard Michael O’Connell embracing his starting role and scoring 11 points, and forward Ziaire Williams delivering the second triple-double in program history.
Junior forward Jaiden Delaire, who has missed key games due to back spasms, was spectacular on Thursday. In 24 minutes, he tied a career-high 21 points and secured nine rebounds. At 6-foot-9, Delaire adds important size and rebounding ability for the Cardinal, and his success will be essential moving forward.
Washington State enters Saturday’s game with something to prove. Despite holding an impressive 9-1 record, the Cougars are still overlooked by many. As of Jan. 8, the team sits at 114th in KenPom, emphasizing its weak strength of schedule. Many continue to believe that Washington State belongs in the bottom of the conference with teams like Oregon State, Cal and Washington.
The Cougars’ strongest win is likely their recent road win against Cal — which is currently in last place in the Pac-12 — but Washington State has shown glimpses of brilliance throughout the season. Against Arizona, the Cougars gave Wildcats head coach Sean Miller and his squad all they could handle, forcing double overtime as a distinct underdog. Though Washington State failed to come out on top, the Cougars looked as good as anyone in the conference in moments of that game.
While the Cougars lack flashy wins, their freshmen have stepped up, their senior leadership has outperformed and the team’s coaching is near impeccable.
After losing star guard C.J. Elleby from last season, Washington State knew it had to rely heavily on its top-35 recruiting class. Freshmen like center Efe Abogidi and forward Andrej Jakimovski have proven to be vital parts of the core Cougar lineup.
In the senior leadership position is guard Isaac Bonton, who has proven to be a dangerous scorer, averaging 17.7 points per contest. In conference play, Bonton has demonstrated that he can compete with power-five players, scoring an impressive 25 points against Arizona and 22 against Cal.
At the helm of this Washington State team is head coach Kyle Smith, who has continued to show that he is one of the best coaches in the Pac-12. Before coming to Washington State, Smith rebuilt the basketball program at the University of San Francisco, and in Pullman, he is seemingly replicating that success. Smith and his staff’s analytical approach and top-notch recruiting creates unprecedented achievement for struggling programs.
Keys for success
For Washington State, the first key is free-throw shooting. In the double overtime loss to Arizona, the Cougars shot 19-of-37 from the charity stripe. In contrast, Washington State shot 18-of-23 from the line in its road win over Cal. Free throws make-or-break games, and for the Cougars, it could be the difference maker against a beaten up Stanford squad.
The second key for Washington State is points off of turnovers. With Wills very likely out of Saturday’s matchup and Davis possibly out as well, Stanford will be operating with an extremely youthful backcourt. Against Washington on Thursday, the Cardinal turned the ball over 22 times, with seven coming from Williams. If the Cougars can capitalize on Stanford’s inexperience and recklessness with the ball, an upset victory will be well within reach.
For Stanford, the first key is freshman contribution. With one or both star upperclassman guards likely out, freshman guards O’Connell and Noah Taitz will have to step up on both ends of the floor. Even in the frontcourt, it will be important for freshman forwards Brandon Angel and Max Murrell to supplement senior forward Oscar da Silva and Delaire’s work.
The second key for the Cardinal is to limit turnovers. As of Jan. 6, Stanford was 281st in the nation in turnovers per game, and that ranking got worse with the 22 turnovers against Washington and will continue to get worse without Wills and Davis handling the ball. Williams especially, who averages 3.4 turnovers per game, needs to manage the ball better. If Stanford wants to win against top-notch teams, it needs to limit points off turnovers and have more effective offensive possessions.
Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. PT on Saturday.
Contact Teddy Solomon at tedsol ‘at’ stanford.edu.