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Wednesday roundtable: Is Stanford basketball a tournament team?

Men's basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins (center) will need to push his team hard down the stretch in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. (Stanford Daily file photo)

In this week’s men’s basketball roundtable, with the final stretch of the regular season fast approaching and the Cardinal firmly on the bubble, the question is simple: Is this a tournament team? We asked basketball writers Andrew Mather, Irving Rodriguez and Sanjay Srinivas for their thoughts.

Andrew: In theory, Stanford seems to be “tournament caliber.” With experienced seniors who have won in March and exciting freshmen who can add some depth off the bench, the Cardinal seem wholly capable of putting themselves in the driver’s seat as they secure a spot in the postseason and beyond.

Men's basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins (center) will need to push his team hard down the stretch in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. (Stanford Daily file photo)
Men’s basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins (center) will need to push his team hard down the stretch in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. (Stanford Daily file photo)

That’s all well and good … in theory. The problem is that Stanford has to convert this theory into real, tangible results — something the team seems to have forgotten since it beat Connecticut back in January. The Cardinal have some catching up to do, and they must do it quickly. Here are the three things Stanford could do to prove to the selection committee that its potential won’t go untapped, each unlikely to occur on its own but possibly just enough when put together for Stanford to have a shot:

Case 1: Upset No. 7 Arizona on March 7. This one’s not going to happen. It’s particularly sad because it probably will almost happen — Stanford will jump out to a substantial lead early in the second half, giving dejected Cardinal fans a fleeting sign of hope — but Arizona will eventually prove to the world that the outcome was never in doubt. If it did happen, Stanford could probably split its other games and still shoot through to a moderate ranking, but there’s just no way it actually works out. I’m sorry I even brought it up.

Case 2: Make a splash in the Pac-12 tournament. We have to do a lot of elegantly nontechnical forecasting to determine the likelihood of this more romantic option. Let’s start this process by hugely overgeneralizing and predicting that all teams will enter the conference championship with their current seedings. In this case, life doesn’t look good for the Cardinal — they would get one chance to beat an average team like Oregon State before moving on to face Arizona and certain defeat.

There are plenty of ways in which this gross simplification will turn out differently — maybe Utah will blow out the Wildcats on Feb. 28 and take the No. 1 seed, or perhaps Oregon will lose two of its last three to give the Cardinal a shot at taking third in the conference. None of these alternate outcomes look too much rosier for the Cardinal, however, so let’s mark this possibility as unlikely and leave it in the back of our minds in case the regular season ends in disappointment.

Case 3: Just squeak by. This is an option that Stanford fans are all too familiar with. If the Cardinal cruise by Oregon and Oregon State at home this week, take care of potentially dangerous Arizona State on the road and win at least one game on their trip to Vegas, it just might be enough to make Stanford one of those teams that every rational American picks to lose in the first round. Johnny Dawkins always seems able to get his team to do the absolute minimum of what they need to in order to be seen as a success, so perhaps he can work his magic one more time to sneak Stanford through the selection committee’s back door.

Unfortunately, the bare minimum is a little less bare this time. Winning the requisite games would require the Cardinal to come out on top in four straight conference matchups, something Stanford has astoundingly been unable to do in the Johnny Dawkins era. Therefore, as much as it seems like this option is the perennial fate of the Cardinal, it’s a little too early to bet our hopes and dreams on it.

Overall, these possibilities leave me with a queasy optimism that Stanford can make the tournament. Even if each individual case is unlikely, the chance that the Cardinal cannot manage even one of them would seem to be bad luck even by Stanford’s standards. Here’s to hoping that something turns out right and that the Cardinal’s season is still going strong four weeks from tomorrow.

Irving: From a basketball perspective, I firmly believe this Stanford squad is a March Madness team.

There is certainly some work left to do. The Cardinal are probably on the outside looking in at the moment, but there is plenty of time to change that before Selection Sunday. The good news for Stanford is that it belongs to a major conference. It’s hard to envision a tournament with only two Pac-12 teams, though four may be a stretch given how average the conference was this year. In that sense, Oregon and UCLA seem like the other contenders for that third at-large bid.

Stanford plays Oregon, who is a game and a half ahead of the Card for third place in the Pac-12, on Mar. 1. The matchup with the Wildcats at the end of the season also provides an opportunity for another signature win, though going to Arizona and stealing a win from one of the hottest teams in the country is a tall task. Even so, Stanford launches itself into serious contention by winning three of their last four. Assuming the Ducks cede the third seed, the resume would include:

  • A road win against ranked opponent (Texas)
  • The third seed in Pac-12 Conference
  • 20 wins
  • A top-50 RPI

That’s surely compelling enough for a 12-seed or, at the very least, a play-in game. Of course, Stanford could win the conference tournament outright, but that seems unlikely given the way Utah has been blowing teams out in their last 10 games and Arizona’s peak form.

There is, however, a lesson that might haunt the Cardinal: Not all losses are created equal, and Stanford had its share of bad ones this season. RPI doesn’t paint a pretty picture, and it carries weight with the selection committee. The Card is only 1-5 against RPI top 50 teams, and has three losses to RPI 101-150 teams (DePaul, Wazzu, Colorado). Because of these glaring missteps, UCLA could usurp the third Pac-12 bid based on their strength of schedule.

The number of at-large bids that are up for grabs is thin thanks to buzzing mid-major teams like UC Davis, Florida Gulf Coast and Murray State. As a result, Stanford has a very small margin of error going forward.

That being said, I believe the Cardinal controls its own destiny. Win out the regular season or knock off Arizona/Utah in conference tourney, and an at-large bid is probably close to guaranteed. I have no doubt that the potential is there, and I expect to see Stanford on my bracket come March.

Sanjay: While Stanford certainly has the talent to make the tournament and possibly win a game or two, its resume needs some work. Road wins over Texas and Connecticut looked great at the time but have lost their luster as the Longhorns and Huskies have struggled down the stretch. The win over the now-flailing Longhorns represents the Cardinal’s only victory over a team in the RPI top-50. In order to secure an at-large bid, Stanford likely needs either a signature win over Pac-12 giants Arizona and Utah or a deep run in the Pac-12 tournament.

Of the Cardinal’s remaining four regular season contests, the first three are almost definitely must-win games. Losses to either Oregon State, Oregon or Arizona State would be crippling to both Stanford’s conference tournament seeding and its regular season resume. The last, a trip to Tucson to face seventh-ranked Arizona, is almost unwinnable for the Cardinal. Since beating Stanford on Jan. 22 at Maples, the Wildcats have dominated their opponents, winning six of their eight games by 20 or more points. Arizona is particularly nasty at the McKale Center, where they boast a 36-game winning streak. Although a Stanford win would almost guarantee a NCAA tournament spot, the Cardinal’s prospects of victory are bleak.

Like last year, Stanford can also secure their spot with a good showing in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. If the Cardinal manage to stay in the top four in standings (which they should if they win three of their final four games), it can secure a first-round bye in the tournament. From there, Stanford would likely have to win its first game to stay on the tournament bubble. If the Card then win their semifinal match, likely against Arizona or Utah, they can punch their ticket to the tournament.

In the Johnny Dawkins era, the most probable result seems to be the one in which Stanford does not control its own destiny. If the Cardinal manage to only win the games they are favored to win, their tournament future is in someone else’s hands.

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu, Irving Rodriguez at irodriguez ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sanjay Srinivas at ssri16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Andrew Mather

Andrew Mather

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.