As Stanford’s men’s basketball team looks to continue its success in its pivotal early-season home stand, it’s hard not to think about the many implications of this game.
The Cardinal (13-4, 4-1 Pac-12) will take on the No. 7 Arizona Wildcats (16-2, 4-1 Pac-12) at Maples Pavilion on Thursday night, with the two teams currently even atop the Pac-12 standings along with No. 11 Utah.
For Stanford fans, it’s hard for this game to not bring up bad memories of the same matchup that took place 51 weeks ago. On Jan. 29, 2014, the Cardinal lost a nail-biter against then top-ranked Arizona at Maples, 60-57. Stanford led by as much as seven in the second half, but was unable to hold on to what would have been one of the biggest upsets in recent memory.
However, as anyone who has watched Stanford this year knows, big games mean something totally different to Stanford now.
One of the best examples of this came in the first game of this home stand, when Stanford cruised to a 72-59 win over the defending national champion UConn Huskies. While the offense delivered a solid performance, a big story was the tough defense that the Cardinal exhibited all night.
Stanford held Connecticut’s tournament hero Ryan Boatright to just 7 points and a 25 percent shooting percentage from the field. The Cardinal also destroyed the Huskies on the glass, out-rebounding UConn by a 48-24 margin.
“Our kids did a terrific job,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins after the win. “The energy was high. Especially the second half, I thought it was some of the best defense we’ve played all year.”
It was exactly the kind of performance Stanford needed to build momentum as it approaches one of its most important games of the year. It won’t be an easy one, as they face an Arizona team that is as deep as any in the nation.
Arizona may have lost freshman phenom Aaron Gordon to the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped them a bit. Six active players on Arizona’s roster average more than 20 minutes per game, but interestingly enough, not a single one plays more than 30 per game.
Stanford, on the other hand, has three players averaging above 30 minutes per game. And the Cardinal have only relied on those few players more since the start of conference play: Fifth-year senior forward Anthony Brown has averaged 39.6 minutes and senior guard Chasson Randle is averaging 38 minutes over their five Pac-12 matchups.
Leading the way for Arizona is freshman forward Stanley Johnson, who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Johnson was one of five freshmen to be named to the 25-man midseason watch list for the Wooden Award, presented to the top player in the nation at the end of each season.
Still, while Johnson is undoubtedly one of the most talented players on the Wildcats’ roster, only six points per game separate him and Arizona’s No. 6 scorer, underscoring the team’s balance under head coach Sean Miller’s system.
The Wildcats have retained a number of their veterans who have been with the team for its deep tournament runs. Senior T.J. McConnell and juniors Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are anchoring a team that has gotten used to high-pressure games.
The pressure might be especially high in Thursday night’s affair given the recent upswing in Maples Pavilion attendance. Despite the reputation Stanford fans have for not showing up to support, attendance has been a pleasant surprise in recent home games against UConn and Washington.
“It’s awesome to have Maples filled to the top like that. It gave us energy,” Randle said of the 7,104-person crowd at Saturday’s UConn game.
While Stanford may be at a disadvantage from a size perspective and may not be able to penetrate the Wildcats’ interior defense at all, there are a few areas in which the Cardinal are superior that can prove to be the difference.
Simply put, Stanford is a much better three-point shooting team: Its 40-percent clip from beyond the arc is currently the second-best in the Pac-12 and ranks 15th in the nation. If the sharpshooting abilities of Randle, Brown and junior forward Rosco Allen come out at just the right time, the Cardinal may be able to go on some great scoring runs.
Stanford has also protected the ball well all year, and will need to continue to do so in order to beat an unforgiving Arizona offense.
Tip-off is set at 6 p.m. Thursday at Maples Pavilion, and the match will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.