By Jacob Jaffe
For the first time in several years, Maples Pavilion on Sunday resembled the Maples Pavilion of old as the Stanford men’s basketball team held off archrival Cal on Senior Day.
Sure, this wasn’t anywhere near undefeated Stanford stunning Arizona on The Shot, nor was it even a game with national implications. But considering where this program has been for the past few years, a tough win over the best team in the conference in the final game of the regular season was still a momentous achievement.
The Cardinal’s win was even more impressive considering the team had to play most of the contest 5-on-8. Despite playing at home, Stanford couldn’t catch a break from the officials, and to say that the calls were questionable is a drastic understatement. There were 24 fouls called on Stanford compared to 16 on the Golden Bears, and three of those fouls came in Cal’s desperation mode in the final minute.
But the sheer numbers don’t tell the full story. There were charges called as blocks, blocks called as charges and several phantom fouls that the players themselves didn’t seem to understand. The Cardinal’s starting frontcourt of seniors Josh Owens and Andrew Zimmermann was in foul trouble early and at least half the calls were perplexing. On the other hand, the Bears had almost no foul issues, particularly in the second half.
As frustrating as the officiating was, the response from the Maples crowd was encouraging. Despite the presence of a substantial Cal contingent, the crowd responded to the questionable calls by raining boos louder than I’ve heard in my four years on the Farm.
I’ve been fairly disappointed with Stanford men’s basketball in my time here because this program has been underachieving for years. I haven’t been convinced that Johnny Dawkins is necessarily the right coach to lead the Cardinal, and one game hasn’t changed that. But for 40 minutes, you could see the potential of this squad, and as the team improves, maybe the fan base will as well.
Back when I started watching Stanford basketball as a kid, Maples Pavilion was known as one of the tougher environments for opposing teams to enter, and Sixth Man was among the nation’s most intimidating student sections. Go back and check out The Shot on YouTube. Look how insane that atmosphere was. Heck, Tiger Woods was celebrating right there with the students.
These days, Sixth Man has had to lower its price from cheap to really cheap to free to the current state of needing to bribe students with raffles and prizes just to get them to come to the arena. There was a time when people with no interest in basketball would come out to Maples just to be a part of the atmosphere. Now, plenty of basketball fans skip games to watch others on television.
Sunday’s game wasn’t quite like the old days, but it was a start. Maples was near capacity, and the place was rocking from the get-go. Yes, some of the noise came from the Cal section (which still feels the need to yell lame cheers during the national anthem), but that only helped spark the Stanford faithful into even more raucousness.
Of course, it all comes back to the team. On a campus with world-class athletes in virtually every sport, where multiple other top-five teams also play home games at Maples Pavilion, the fan support will always struggle if the team isn’t competitive.
And that is exactly why Sunday’s win was so encouraging. The Cardinal’s 20th win of the season didn’t get close to putting Stanford in NCAA tournament contention, but it did give the team some much-needed momentum before this week’s Pac-12 tournament.
Zimmermann played perhaps his most inspired game in his final home game, and the Cardinal backcourt of freshman Chasson Randle, sophomore Anthony Brown and sophomore Aaron Bright combined for 39 important points to make up for a subpar game from Owens, the team’s second-leading scorer. Fellow seniors Jarrett Mann and Jack Trotter had highlights of their own, as each had a crowd-thrilling dunk to keep the momentum on Stanford’s side.
And, oh yeah, it stopped the Cardinal’s biggest rival from winning a share of the conference title.
Moving forward, the team’s short-term and long-term paths are very much up in the air. This win showed that the Cardinal has the ability to beat any team in the conference, but last week in Utah, the team showed it can lose to any team in the conference as well. The Pac-12 is wide open, and Stanford has a legitimate shot at contending for the title, but also has a similarly legitimate shot at losing to Arizona State on Wednesday.
The future is unknown, but Sunday could be a good start to getting Stanford men’s basketball where it once was.
Jacob Jaffe almost slipped on a referee’s uniform for the second half to help call the game, but recent Pac-12 football history convinced him otherwise. Suggest a classier way for Jacob to streak at the Cardinal’s postseason games at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.