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Stanford seeks consistency against confident Cal

Recent performances by the Stanford men’s basketball team have provided a basis for cautious optimism amongst Cardinal faithful and a possible winning blueprint moving forward. Was the near-miss performance against No. 1 Arizona a sign of good things to come? Does dispatching Arizona State, another hungry bubble team, mean the Cardinal has turned the corner? Is the stingy defense and physical rebounding sustainable?

Josh Huestis #24

Senior forward Josh Huestis (24) is averaging 13 points and 8.8 rebounds over his last six games. A win for the Cardinal at Cal will put it in a pole position for a top-four Pac-12 finish. (FRANK CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

A win today over archrival Cal (15-7, 6-3 Pac-12) would provide some more evidence in the affirmative, and in turn, create a few more believers out of the legion of naysayers. More importantly, Stanford’s (14-7, 5-4) NCAA tournament resume could certainly use the boost.

The Cardinal will travel to Berkeley tonight in an attempt to exact revenge on its archrivals after having suffered a 69-62 defeat at the hands of the Bears on Jan. 2 at Maples Pavilion. Cal is also riding high after having accomplished what Stanford could not: an upset of Arizona.

Behind the big-time play of fifth-year senior point guard Justin Cobbs, who hit the game-winning jumper as time wound down, the Bears pulled off the stunner in a game that had a lot of similarities to the one the Cardinal had played against the Wildcats just a few nights earlier. It was a low-scoring, physical battle down to the wire, but as opposed to Stanford’s offensive struggles down the stretch, Cal made just enough plays to come away with the victory. Cobbs was particularly terrific, scoring 16 of his 19 points in the second half, including all 12 of the Bears’ points over the final 11:30 of the game.

The last time Stanford and Cal met, Cobbs was effective, scoring 18 points and tallying five assists in the Bears’ victory. Stanford will certainly focus its defensive game plan on stopping Cobbs, the key cog in an otherwise balanced offensive attack. The Bears feature four starters who average double-digits in points, much like the Cardinal. Unlike Stanford, however, Cal’s bench can pack a punch, thanks to highly touted freshman Jabari Bird and senior Ricky Kreklow. Neither played the last time these two squads met, meaning Stanford will have to deal with a plethora of offensive weapons that it didn’t see the last time out.

If the Cardinal bench can step up and make some substantial contributions similar to those in each of Stanford’s two most recent victories, things could be different this time around. Cal’s bench outscored Stanford’s 7-0 in the earlier meeting between the two teams this season, and those seven points proved to be the final difference in the game.

“We’re going to trust our bench through the remainder of the season, because they’ve earned it,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “The one thing I’ve seen for us is that they’ve defended for us every night.”

Today’s contest figures to be a close affair thanks to the implications of the outcome for each team. The winner emerges as a surefire contender for a top-four finish in the Pac-12 as the second half of the conference season begins, while the loser moves back towards the league’s large middle class.

Stanford will seek to control the paint like it did against Arizona and ASU. If it can outrebound the Bears and outscore them in the paint, Stanford’s chances for victory will be greatly improved. Cal won the rebounding battle the last time out and scored more second-chance points, two factors that helped offset Stanford’s 30-20 advantage on points scored in the paint.

The Cardinal must do a better job of capitalizing on all of its scoring opportunities. Blown layups cost Stanford the win against Arizona, and a 10-for-20 performance from the free throw line against the Bears the last time out was a huge contributing factor, if not the difference, in the final outcome.

As always, the Cardinal will look to its senior leaders, forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, to set the tone for this game and convert the opportunities Stanford is given. There is reason to believe that the duo will perform, considering Powell is coming off of a 28-point outburst against ASU, his best individual performance of the season, while Huestis averaged a double-double in the two games last week.

Tipoff tonight is at 6 p.m. in Berkeley, with the game televised on ESPN2.

Contact Daniel E. Lupin at delupin ‘at’ stanford.edu.