When opportunity comes a-knockin’, it’s usually best to open the door. The Stanford men’s basketball team finds itself on the verge of a breakthrough, winners of three straight conference games and possessors of some newfound confidence. The Cardinal (12-5, 3-2 Pac-12) will travel to UCLA (14-4, 3-2) and USC (9-9, 0-5) this week with a chance to extend that winning streak, and in the process, do something the team has never done during head coach Johnny Dawkins’ tenure on the Farm: win four straight conference games.
The last time Stanford won four straight in conference play, it was late February 2008, and a pair of 7-foot-tall trees named Lopez roamed the paint for the Cardinal. That edition of the Men of Maples was well on its way to the school’s fifth — and most recent — Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament. It hasn’t even been back to the tournament since. In other words, four-game conference winning streaks should be treasured and highly sought after.
Despite the team’s recent disappointments, there is renewed hope for the Cardinal faithful, even ahead of a trip to the house of horrors that Stanford basketball knows as Los Angeles. Despite having dropped 15 of its last 16 games against the Bruins and Trojans in Los Angeles, the Cardinal stands a solid chance of extending its winning streak in the days ahead.
The main reason why is the play of junior guard Chasson Randle, who has been nothing short of scintillating through the first half of the season. The Illinois native ranks third in the conference in scoring at 19.5 points per game. He is the only guard from a major-conference team to rank in the top 40 in the country in scoring while shooting better than 50 percent from the field (52.2) and 40 percent from three-point range (42.0).
“He’s been aggressive, and he’s playing like the young man we recruited,” Dawkins said. “He’s a young man that can score; he can find guys and make guys better, and he’s done that for us this year.”
Randle has been the star of a starting lineup that has been forced to carry Stanford so far this season, due in large part to season-ending injuries to several key contributors. All five starters will have to be at their best if the Cardinal is going to knock off UCLA, which is playing its first season under head coach Steve Alford.
Stanford’s back line of seniors — Dwight Powell, Josh Huestis and Stefan Nastic — must do a good job of protecting the rim and securing defensive rebounds against the high-scoring Bruins, who at 84.4 points per game rank second in the conference in scoring.
Stanford’s fifth starter, senior guard Anthony Brown, will be tasked with the unenviable challenge of guarding UCLA’s leading scorer, sophomore Jordan Adams. If last Saturday is any indication, Brown should be up to the task. He successfully held the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer, Washington’s C.J. Wilcox, to nine points on 4-of-13 shooting in the Cardinal’s game against the Huskies, marking Wilcox’s lowest scoring output of the season.
The Bruins, much like the Cardinal, feature four double-digit scorers in Adams, all-everything Kyle Anderson and guards Zach LaVine and Norman Powell. Given the plethora of perimeter scoring talent UCLA possesses, Stanford must avoid the defensive lapses that have plagued it at times this season.
Regardless of the outcome against the highly talented Bruins, Stanford must come ready to play to avoid a letdown against USC. It can be argued that the Cardinal’s two inexplicable losses to the Trojans last season were the difference between reaching the NCAA tournament and not doing so, the latter being the fate that eventually befell Dawkins and company.
Despite having dropped all five of its conference games by double digits, USC is still good enough to pull off an upset, as evidenced by the Trojans’ victories over Xavier and Boston College earlier this season. Junior guard Byron Wesley has been a stud for first-year coach Andy Enfield so far this season, averaging 16.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, both tops on the team.
The Cardinal will look to keep its hot streak rolling at 8 p.m. on Thursday night and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Both games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Daniel E. Lupin at delupin ‘at’ stanford.edu.