Sampath: Stanford’s defensive prowess can spark a run in Pac-12 play

Dec. 28, 2022, 2:06 p.m.

It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Stanford basketball fans. The Cardinal (5-7, 0-2 Pac-12), who were projected to be the fifth best team in the Pac-12, have not performed up to preseason expectations. While there have been stretches of inspiring play, offensive droughts have continued to plague the team. The droughts, combined with numerous live-ball turnovers, have led to early deficits in games. Although the team often fights back valiantly, it’s never enough to ultimately overcome the dreadful starts. One just has to begrudgingly remember the UCLA game, where the Bruins got off to a 17-0 run in the first five minutes only to see a Cardinal comeback attempt that fell short.

However, there’s been a noticeable change recently. The Cardinal have gotten out to early leads in each of their past three games, including against No. 7 Texas in Dallas. These starts have been catalyzed by Stanford’s defense, which has allowed an average of 58 points in the last three games. For the season, KenPom ranks the Cardinal as the No. 47 overall adjusted defense in the nation. Increased ball pressure, better screen-and-roll defense and terrific rebounding have all married to create a suffocating defense.

Prior to the 2022 season, Stanford had back-to-back seasons of top-30 KenPom adjusted defense, showing that defensive excellence is not a novel phenomenon under head coach Jerod Haase. It also shows that the Cardinal can keep up or even improve their defensive performance as the season progresses.

But what does this mean for the rest of the season?

While Stanford probably doesn’t have the offensive talent to win shootouts consistently, the team just needs to piece together enough points so that the defense doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect night-in-night-out. If a couple starters can augment their scoring load by just a bit, it could spell trouble for the rest of the Pac-12.

Some fans may doubt whether this will be enough to make any meaningful run down the stretch. But my recent experiences following college basketball have told me otherwise.

The Arkansas Razorbacks, my favorite collegiate athletics program and hometown school, had a similar recipe for success last year. Lacking 5-star talent and explosive offensive pieces, the Razorbacks utilized their length and athleticism to form a smothering defense. After a slow start to the year that saw them lose to Hofstra in the non-conference, Arkansas earned a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament and was able to make a run to the Elite Eight, highlighted by their upset of No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga.

Admittedly, the Cardinal don’t have the same type of athletes that the Razorbacks had, nor do they have the home court advantage that bolstered Arkansas’ run toward the end of the year. But Stanford does compete in a much less competitive basketball conference, as the SEC is currently loaded up with terrific coaches and programs. The Cardinal also possess more outside shooting and an NBA talent on the wing in sophomore Harrison Ingram, a ball-dominant forward who could help take over games late.

While I don’t want to get ahead of myself and predict a deep tournament run, my point is to show that a total defensive effort can lead to results greater than the sum of their parts. And who knows? Maybe the Cardinal will find themselves on the right side of the bubble come March.

Kaushik Sampath is a desk editor for the sports section. He is a sophomore from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who's undecided on his major. You can catch him watching and ranting about his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks or hanging out with friends on campus. Contact him at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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