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Men’s hoops to start final NCAA tourney push during homestand

Six games. That’s all that’s left in the regular season for the Stanford men’s basketball team to make its case as a worthy NCAA tournament participant. At 16-8 overall and 7-5 in Pac-12 play, the Cardinal would probably sit on the right side of the bubble if the season ended today. ESPN and CBS currently project Stanford as a No. 9 seed, while USA Today sees the Card as a No. 10 seed in March Madness.

Regardless, the Cardinal can hardly afford to rest on its laurels. Four of Stanford’s final six games are against teams currently ahead of it in the Pac-12 standings, a difficult stretch that simultaneously provides a lot of opportunity for the Cardinal. A concerted late-season push could mean the difference between a healthy seed and missing out on the tournament altogether for the sixth consecutive season.

Senior forward Dwight Powell (right)

Senior forward Dwight Powell (right) will look to replicate his performance against USC earlier this season, when the Canadian native filled the box score with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. (MICHAEL KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

The crucial stretch of games commences this weekend, as the Cardinal plays host to USC (10-15, 1-11 Pac-12) today before No. 23 UCLA (21-5, 10-3) comes for a visit on Saturday. Stanford split its earlier matchups with the Los Angeles schools this season, losing 91-74 at UCLA while escaping USC 79-71 in overtime back in late January. Although it certainly wasn’t one of the Cardinal’s better road trips of the season, the win over USC managed to give Stanford just its second win in its last 18 road tries against its southern California rivals in Los Angeles.

Simple focus and execution against USC should be enough for the Cardinal to get past the Trojans, who are losers of six straight, a streak that began against Stanford. Although USC has come up short recently, Stanford can ill afford to take them lightly. During the losing streak, the Trojans have certainly been competitive, never losing by more than 12 points. USC has also taken two games to overtime and lost two others by single digits.

A loss at home to the Trojans is the kind of loss that could bump Stanford out of the tournament field and set up a disastrous end to the season. As far as “gimme” games go in the Pac-12 this season, this would be it. Stanford’s final five opponents have a combined record of 101-30 and comprise five of the top seven teams in the Pac-12 standings, along with the Cardinal and Cal.

Assuming that the Cardinal can get past USC, a team it beat on the road despite shooting just 41 percent and turning the ball over 14 times, Stanford will face a much stiffer test on Saturday.

In the last meeting between the two teams, UCLA absolutely took it to Stanford, holding the Cardinal to 38.6 percent shooting while forcing 19 turnovers. Forward Tony Parker scored a career-high 22 points in the rout, and the Card was sent away from Pauley Pavilion with its fourth straight loss to the Bruins.

If Stanford is to make this next meeting between the two teams more competitive, the Cardinal will have to greatly improve its offensive execution. Although a lot of credit must be given to the Bruins’ defense, it is also difficult to envision the Cardinal executing its offense quite as poorly once again, particularly at home. Junior guard Chasson Randle suffered through his worst shooting night of the season in the two teams’ last meeting, and the 19 turnovers by the Cardinal are easily a season-high.

Obviously, Stanford’s objective is not just to keep the game close, but to win. To do that, the Cardinal will have to find a way to solve a terrific UCLA offense that averages 83 points per game and shoots better than 49 percent from the field, both good for second in the conference.

Keep an eye on Stanford senior front-court players Josh Huestis, Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell, who will each have something to prove after having been bullied on the low block by Parker the last time around. Huestis should also have plenty of motivation to perform. Entering the USC game, the senior is just two blocks away from passing Tim Young ’98 as Stanford’s all-time leader in blocks.

Nastic and Powell also have their bones to pick. Nastic managed just four points and one rebound in 13 minutes in the previous meeting with UCLA, while Powell turned the ball over a season-high six times.

Tipoff against USC is at 8 p.m. on Thursday, which will be aired on Pac-12 Networks. The game against UCLA begins at 3 p.m. on Saturday, and will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

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