On the eve of Stanford men’s basketball’s 2015-16 season opener, much uncertainty looms about exactly how competitive this year’s team will be.
With many key players having departed, a lot of new faces will need to shine on the court for the Cardinal to equal or surpass last season’s results. Stanford enters its campaign without three players that combined for nearly two-thirds of the team’s point total in their final year, leaving behind big shoes for the current generation to fill.
To make matters worse for Stanford, many of the players expected to carry the mantle this year will miss extended periods of the season due to injury. Sophomore guard Robert Cartwright will miss the entire year with a compound fracture, and juniors Marcus and Malcolm Allen and senior Grant Verhoeven will all miss games as they recover from various ailments.
This leaves just eight of Stanford’s 12 players available for the team’s first game – and three of them are true freshmen. For those who remain, last year’s run to the NIT Championship must feel like an eternity ago.
Yet as bad as things seem, Johnny Dawkins’ closet isn’t completely bereft of talent. The Cardinal frontcourt in particular has the potential to rise amongst the best Pac-12 on the shoulders of sophomore phenoms Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey. Both players saw moments of real success in their injury-ridden freshman years, and should they remain healthy, they figure to make up for many of the scoring gaps left by the departures of last year’s senior class.
Senior Rosco Allen and freshman Josh Sharma should also see serious action in this rotation. Allen, who has the height of a forward but should also be the team’s best 3-point shooter, will likely be asked to play in a number of positions while others return to health. Stanford plans on turning to the big man when it needs to create offense, a role that Allen has not often played but which many feel he is prepared to take on.
“I think if you’re looking at something where you need versatility or bring someone off to shoot the basketball, I’m very confident in what Rosco can do,” Dawkins said at Pac-12 Media Day.
Sharma, a four-star recruit and the only player on Stanford’s roster to reach the 7-foot mark, has serious potential to develop into an elite shot-blocker and defensive anchor for the Cardinal as he grows into Dawkins’ scheme.
The backcourt situation for Stanford seems a little more dire. A group that had already lost All-Pac-12 First Team guard Chasson Randle and NBA Draft pick Anthony Brown now has three more players out to injury. As a result, Stanford’s active roster now boasts just one pure guard, a figure which alone may spell doom for the Cardinal in some of their early matchups.
The Allen brothers are both expected to return later this season to shore up this number. In the meantime, senior Christian Sanders will presumably be counted on to lead the Cardinal offense, perhaps in combo with true freshman small forwards Marcus Sheffield and Cameron Walker. Sanders has yet to make a serious impression on the team’s attack, though his quick defense and ability to create turnovers were quietly impressive in the limited action he saw last season.
Sophomore Dorian Pickens, who enjoyed sporadic success as a freshman last year, will also need to take the next step in his progression for this unit to excel. Should his 36 percent mark from behind the arc hold as his number of attempts increases, Pickens could become a second threat from distance to complement Rosco Allen.
Stanford’s schedule isn’t particularly amenable to this tough injury situation. After starting out in a potential trap against fellow 2015 NIT team Green Bay, the Cardinal will have just a single tune-up game before they face a SMU side that was ranked for most of last season. They will also need to prepare for a contest against 11th-ranked Villanova at the Barclays Center in the 2015 NIT Season Tip-Off one week later.
After the showdown with the Wildcats, Stanford gets to stay at Maples until a Jan. 6 matchup against Oregon State. The Cardinal will get the chance to score a revenge victory against DePaul and a second consecutive upset of Texas during that stretch before they face their first Pac-12 opponent, No. 16 Utah, on New Year’s Day.
Conference play should be an even tougher challenge for the team, albeit one in which the Cardinal may have more tools to handle. Stanford did not receive a particularly fortuitous draw for its in-conference opponents, trading a trip to Los Angeles for one to Utah and Colorado and a homestand against the Washington schools for one with Oregon and Oregon State.
The upside of this challenging agenda is that the Cardinal will have plenty of opportunities to draw some national attention against quality opposition. The question will be whether they can couple any success in these games with enough consistency in the rest of their schedule. If everyone executes perfectly, it wouldn’t be a tremendous stretch to see the Cardinal back in the NCAA Tournament at the end of this season. Failure to perform at that level, however, could land them out of the postseason altogether.
At the end of the day, the biggest task for Dawkins and Stanford will be to show the many onlookers of this program that progress is being made. Most teams are faced with the prospect of rebuilding every once in a while. The goal for the Cardinal will be to prove that, even if things get tough at times, a brighter future lies ahead.
Watch Stanford tip off its 2015 season against Green Bay this Friday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.