Stanford looks to end skid against Utah, reaffirm spot in Big Dance

With one regular season game left to play, the 2013-14 rendition of the Stanford men’s basketball team finds itself in an unfamiliar position, as it tries to secure the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2008.

The Cardinal (18-11, 9-8 Pac-12) have lost three straight contests for the first time this season, and those defeats could not have come at a worse time. The losses have dropped Stanford from third place in the conference to a four-way tie for fifth, and more importantly, severely jeopardized the team’s NCAA tournament chances. Luckily for the Cardinal, they still have time to make amends for their recent struggles, and that must begin tomorrow when the Utah Utes visit Maples Pavilion for Senior Day.

(JIM SHORIN/stanfordphoto.com)

Senior forward Dwight Powell (right) and the Cardinal have slid into a three-game losing streak at the wrong time. They will be looking to right the ship in their regular-season finale against Utah tomorrow morning. (JIM SHORIN/stanfordphoto.com)

One of the three teams tied with the Cardinal for fifth place in the conference, the Utes (20-9, 9-8) are trending in the opposite direction as Stanford. Utah has won three straight and six of its last eight, overcoming a slow 3-6 start during the first half of the conference season. It posted its best road victory of season on Wednesday night when it defeated Cal 63-59, suggesting that the Cardinal better come prepared if they hope to snap their current three-game losing streak.

With the Utes’ strong performance during the second half of the conference season, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak has certainly entered into the conversation for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Despite featuring just one senior on the roster — and no academic seniors amongst the team’s top six scorers — the Utes have surged back into the NCAA tournament conversation with their outstanding play down the stretch.

Since a Jan. 12 defeat to Washington State, Utah is 8-5 in conference play, and none of its losses have come to any team currently lower than third in the conference standings. The Utes have wins against the likes of UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal during that time period, and pushed Arizona to the brink in an overtime loss.

During its hot stretch, Utah has been powered by all-everything Delon Wright, the younger brother of current Portland Trail Blazer Dorrell Wright. The junior college transfer is one of the most well rounded players in the conference, as his averages of 16.2 points, 5.3 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks lead the Utes, while his 59.3 percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds per game each rank second on the team.

Despite Wright’s excellent play thus far this season, the Utes are not a one-man show. Sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge figures to draw the attention of Stanford’s Josh Huestis when Utah is on offense. A Utah native, Loveridge ranks second on the team in scoring 15.4 points per game and is first in rebounding at 7.4 boards per game.

Sophomore guard Brandon Taylor is Utah’s third and final double-digit scorer at 10.8 points per game.

If the Cardinal are going to salvage their season, Stanford is going to have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. After 37 turnovers in the team’s past three games, Johnny Dawkins’ crew will be searching for answers on the offensive end of the floor against a Utah squad that ranks second in the conference in scoring defense and third in the conference in steals.

The renewed focus must start with senior forward Dwight Powell, Stanford’s all-conference performer from a season ago. Powell’s struggles over the past three games have been most exemplary of the team’s problems, as he has accounted for 27 percent of Stanford’s turnovers during that stretch.

The second point of emphasis that should help the Cardinal get back on track will be on the interior. Despite having one of the largest front lines in the conference with Powell, Huestis and senior Stefan Nastic, the Cardinal have been outrebounded by 17 total rebounds over its past two games. That led to too many second-chance point opportunities for both Arizona and Colorado, points compounded with Stanford’s turnover problems that it simply could not afford.

Stanford must also produce an offensive threat besides junior guard Chasson Randle, who accounted for 43 percent of Stanford’s points on Wednesday. That extra scoring punch either needs to come from Powell, Nastic or a member of Stanford’s inconsistent bench. No time like the present for seniors Robbie Lemons and John Gage.

Tipoff at Maples is at 11:30 a.m., and the game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.

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