With last season’s NIT Championship packed away, the Stanford men’s basketball team is kicking off this year with a blank slate. The Cardinal returns four players from that championship squad, but is taking the idea of a new beginning to heart in opening Maples Pavilion for action this year by taking on a team it has never played before, Cal State Fullerton.
Stanford, picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 in the preseason coaches poll, opened the regular season in style, taking down the University of San Francisco 74-62. The game was played at Oracle Arena, home of the NBA’s Oakland Warriors, and provided a glimpse of the court several Stanford players might have a chance to play on later in their careers.
Junior Dwight Powell, in particular, broke out for the best game in three years on the Farm. Coming in as one of the nation’s top recruits from IMG Academy in Toronto, Powell has dealt with several injuries that often had him shuffling between the starting lineup, the bench and the training room.
All of those were things of the past on Friday night, however, as Powell dropped a career-high 27 points on the Dons mostly as part of Stanford’s half-court attack. At 6-foot-11, Powell’s prowess comes in large part because of his length, athleticism and the resulting versatility that allows him to play either forward position and create serious matchup problems.
Although the Dons weren’t lacking for size, the struggle to contain Powell, who finished 9-14 from the floor and 7-9 from the line.
Noticeably bulked up (he says he has added 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason), Powell also pulled down seven rebounds and altered several shots.
“We worked out a lot during the offseason,” Powell said after the game. “Right now everything feels good.”
It wouldn’t have felt nearly as good, however, if Stanford hadn’t picked up the pace after halftime. After taking an early 14-point lead over USF midway through the first half, the Cardinal looked ready to run away from the Dons.
Junior forward Josh Huestis hit a three-pointer on the first possession of the game and Stanford’s defense forced the Dons into several ill-advised shots, particularly from behind the three-point line as the Cardinal’s interior defense was swarming.
“Offensively we were inept,” San Francisco coach Rex Walters said. “Guys were trying to do too much and we got away from what we wanted to do.”
But Stanford didn’t take exactly take advantage on offense, scoring just five points in the first five minutes. Slowly, however, guard Aaron Bright had four assists in the half, and a three-pointer by Powell had Stanford up 21-7 with nine minutes to play before the break.
The Dons proceed to go on a 24-9 run from that point, with freshman Avry Holmes hitting four of his first five shots off the bench to take a brief 31-30 lead before a late driving layup by sophomore Chasson Randle in the waning seconds sent the Card to the locker room up 32-31.
It was a heightened defensive push by Stanford after the break made all the difference. The Dons scored three points in the first five minutes as the Cardinal went on a 14-3 run to bump the margin to double digits.
USF threatened a few times, but never seriously, as Powell took over the game. He scored 18 points in the second half before departing with a few minutes to play with leg cramps.
Bright chipped in with seven points and three more assists while the offense finished 13-26 in the half and four of eight from beyond the arc. Huestis finished with 11 points and nine boards, and Randle had eight points and three assists.
But perhaps the most intriguing storyline of the night was the emergence of senior Andy Brown as a potential boost off the bench. Three ACL tears have wreaked havoc on his Stanford career–he saw his first action in nine games last season since first coming to the Farm–but the forward scored eight points in 10 minutes off the bench.
After watching the starters all playing at least 29 minutes, coach Johnny Dawkins will have to find key contributors from outside the first five if Stanford is to contend in the conference or NCAA Tourney.
With the Titans in town, watch out for D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaugh, the only returners from last season and by far the most dangerous players for Fullerton.