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Men’s basketball roundtable: Can Cardinal prevail away from home?

Freshman Okpala has begun to prove himself as a player early on in his career, serving the team well in a tough match against the Ducks. (CASEY VALENTINE/isiphotos)

While the Cardinal have certainly turned their season around since conference play began, they have still yet to prove themselves on the road, going 2-7 in games not played at Maples Pavilion this season. What is the difference between the Stanford team we see at home and the one we see on the road and will the Cardinal break that trend this week with trips to Utah and Colorado?

Jose Saldana (JS): The away/neutral record is a bit misleading since five of the losses came in nonconference play where the Cardinal were without freshman KZ Okpala (the team’s best perimeter defender) and senior Dorian Pickens (best outside scorer). Since the team has gotten them back, Stanford has gone a more respectable 2-2 in away games, including a win over a solid Washington team in Seattle. The two losses came against the Los Angeles schools, which are very solid programs, but the Cardinal disappointed in both games. Against USC, Stanford started out slow, as it fell behind by 15 at halftime. Then, the Cardinal kicked it into high gear and outscored USC by 10 in the second half. They lost the game by five. A slow start almost doomed Stanford against USC at home earlier in the season, but it couldn’t complete the comeback on the road.

Then, in Pauley Pavilion, Stanford and UCLA were competitive for the first few minutes of the game. The Bruins went on a tear and ended the game with over 50 percent shooting from the field and from beyond the arc. They also hit 23-25 free throws in a crazy offensive performance. A reason for the loss could be attributed to bad luck, but it really was just effort. The team didn’t play with any energy besides freshman Daejon Davis, who ended with a career-high 23 points in the game.

Starting slow or not playing with energy could prove fatal for the Cardinal against Utah and Colorado. Sporting a 9-2 and 8-2 home record, respectively, the Buffaloes and Utes are troublesome to defeat in their home turf. The Cardinal will need to have a good start and maintain a productive offense against both teams throughout the game. If Stanford could repeat its performance against Washington in Salt Lake City or in Boulder, then it should be in great shape.

Quinn Barry (QB): A common theme in both Cardinal wins and losses is falling behind early, facing around a double digit deficit at the half, then storming back in the final period to make the game close. That strategy simply does not work on the road, in which you have far less leeway and need to maintain control of the crowd to notch a win.

Stanford’s seven game stretch earlier in the year against USC, UCLA (each twice), Washington State, Washington and the Arizona teams (during which they went 4-4) strengthened this ball club. They were incredibly prepared against both Oregon State and Oregon, jumping out to a 27-7 lead against the former and beating the latter by more than 30 points.

That’s the difference between Stanford now and the team that lost on the road earlier in the season. Even the recent road loss against USC came down to the final minute, with Davis missing an opportunity to tie the score from three.

Colorado and Utah are closer in caliber to the Oregon teams than the So-Cal or Arizona ones, and I expect Stanford to handle them similarly.

 

Colorado does not seem to have found its identity yet this season, losing to the likes of Colorado State and Oregon State but also boasting big wins against Arizona and Arizona State on their resume. Would a win in Boulder on Sunday carry much weight for the Cardinal and overall, do you like how the Cardinal matchup against the Buffaloes?

JS: The selection committee now uses KenPom rankings on top of the well-known RPI rankings. Both have the Cardinal ranked in the 80s but there is a disparity when it comes to Colorado. The Buffaloes are 63rd in RPI but 109th in KenPom, so a victory, aside from moral, doesn’t carry a lot of weight. However, at this point, the Cardinal can’t worry about which victories matter more, they just need to win. A tournament berth is unlikely at this point, so they need as many wins as possible.

Colorado has two great guards in McKinley Wright IV and George King. They both average over 14 points per game and King is a sniper from deep at 41 percent from three. The Cardinal cannot let them go off like they let Bruins Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday dominate a couple of weeks ago. The Buffaloes don’t have much size, as every starter is under 6-foot-8 except for Dallas Walton, who is listed as 7-foot-0. This is a game primed for Reid Travis to take over. If Travis can impose his will, then the Cardinal will see plenty of efficient baskets and a win.

QB: If you watch a Buffaloes game, it’s extremely apparent how much of a difference home court advantage makes for their squad. The incredibly engaged Boulder faithful have helped Colorado post a 9-2 record at the Coors’ Event Center. The Buffaloes are just 1-7 on the road.

Colorado is not a better team than Oregon, but a win in Boulder would continue to distance the Cardinal from their poor start to the season. With dominating wins over the Oregon teams, Stanford is clearly a top-five Pac-12 team. But those early losses to the likes of Portland, Long Beach State and Eastern Washington State still count and contribute to the Cardinal’s relatively weak 81 RPI ranking. If Stanford wants to best position themselves to make a Pac-12 and NCAA tournament bid, each road win they can muster against decent competition is crucial. The Cardinal already used up all their missteps during non-conference play. They cannot afford any more on this trip.

 

Utah has the second-best scoring defense in the Pac-12. Can Stanford maintain the level of offensive production they had last week or will it have to be a defensive battle in Salt Lake City?

JS: In conference play, Utah has the sixth best scoring defense, so it isn’t as dominant as it appears. However, Stanford is averaging 72.3 points per game on the road and only averaging 84.4 points per game at home. Clearly, the Cardinal are an inferior offensive team away from Maples, so I don’t expect a ton of points against Utah, but that doesn’t mean Stanford will lose. The Utes are not a great rebounding team, whereas the Cardinal are second in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin and first in total rebounds per game. This is crucial in a game with potentially a lot of missed shots (Utah is 10th in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and Stanford is second) and second-chance points are huge. It won’t be a pretty game but the Cardinal should matchup well against Utah.

QB: I think the most exciting development in Stanford’s offense over the weekend is Okpala’s breakout performance against the Ducks. The freshman posted 20 points, along with 5 rebounds and four assists. If Okpala continues contributing on the offensive end, the Cardinal will have little trouble putting the ball in the basket, even against a talented Utes front.

That’s because Stanford’s offense relies upon each player being able to contribute from any part of the floor. They constantly swing the ball around the perimeter until they find an opening. With seniors Reid Travis and Pickens playing at peak level, increased contributions from guys like Okpala, freshman Isaac White, and the continued strong play of Davis create a depth that Utah will not be able to match.

Look for the Cardinal to leverage their size and athleticism advantage in Salt Lake City on the break.

 

Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford and Quinn Barry at qmbarry ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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