By Samuel Curry
After starting conference play with a 5-1 record, Stanford men’s basketball has lost five out of the last seven games to slip to sixth in the Pac-12. What have been the reasons for the Cardinal’s slump?
Sam Curry (SC): A lot has factored into the Cardinal’s downward trend, but I think something interesting to look at is how the performance of KZ Okpala in particular seems to correlate with Stanford’s team performance. Okpala averages 12.6 points in games the Cardinal win (the games he has played in at least) and 5.1 points in games they lose. Obviously the Cardinal depend more heavily on guys like Reid Travis and Dorian Pickens, but I think Okpala is who takes this Cardinal team from mediocre to a Pac-12 contender, and he was a big reason why they went on that 5-game conference win streak after a brutal start to the season. He had just five points total last weekend, and we all saw the result. If the Cardinal can’t get a few solid performances from KZ then I think their struggles will continue.
Jose Saldana (JS): In the last four losses on the road, the Cardinal are averaging 27.5 points in the first half while their opponents are averaging 40.25 points. However, in the second half, Stanford is averaging 35.75 points and their opponents 34. The deficits the Cardinal put themselves at the beginning of ball games are too much to overcome in the second half and on the road. Why are they so bad in the first half and not in the second half? The players are just not shooting well enough. In those four road games, Stanford has not shot above 41 percent in the first half, including a couple of shooting halves of 30 percent and below. Narrowing, our search it seems that the offensive system is not lending itself to balance scoring. Around two players only experience any offensive success at times. I think Sam is correct in pointing out KZ as a significant offensive cog, but teams are not biting on KZ on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. However, the other Cardinal players aren’t doing enough to take on the scoring load. Unbalanced scoring, stagnant ball movement and the inability to finish in the paint contribute to the losses. It’s a shame since Stanford has been playing great defense on the road.
Now, in the back half of the conference, what are the Cardinal’s chances to make the NCAA tournaments? What do they need to do to give themselves a better a chance?
SC: An at-large bid is almost out of the question in my opinion. The good news for the Cardinal is they’re only one game behind 2nd in the Pac-12 standings despite being tied for sixth currently, a good indication of how brutal the Pac-12 has been this season. If they somehow manage to get a top-three regular season finish followed by a good run in the Pac-12 Tournament, a bid might be back on the table, but Stanford’s resume has a lot of tough nonconference losses on it (Eastern Washington, Long Beach State, and Portland State especially) with few big wins to make up for it. I’m afraid their bumpy start might doom the Cardinal in the end no matter what they do to finish out the season, and their only hope of cracking the field of 68 might be a very unlikely Pac-12 Tournament championship.
JS: The Cardinal are 92nd in KenPom and 98th in RPI. They can’t make significant ground during the regular season. Like Sam said, the bad losses early in the season are haunting Stanford. A Cinderella-run in the Pac-12 Tournament is the only hope the team has, and it looks unlikely given their recent play. Fans of the Cardinal should probably just admire the final games of Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey. They certainly deserve being cheered for good careers with Stanford. However, dancing in March with the current players would have been something.
Senior guard Dorian Pickens is averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 40.8 percent from three. He had been limited to 15 games due to a foot injury suffered at the beginning of the season. How has Pickens improved from last year? How has he affected this team?
SC: On a team with very few credible scoring threats on the outside, Pickens is essential to the wellbeing of this Stanford offense. He opens up the paint for guys like Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey, and is also quick enough to get to the rim and force the defense to give him an honest close-out. Not to mention the fact that that quickness and length he brings to the backcourt allows him to get it done on the other side of the floor. I mentioned earlier how Okpala’s performance is the key to pushing the Cardinal to the next level, which is true, but that is all null and void without Pickens. Stanford goes as he goes. As far as improvement from last season, I think he’s done a good job of being more consistent. There are still a few nights when his outside shot disappears, which is just the nature of being a shooter (just ask Trae Young), but Pickens has done a better job this season of minimizing those occurrences and impacting the game in other ways. He deserves an All-Pac 12 selection this postseason.
JS: After the Advocare Invitational in 2016, Pickens earned a place on the All-Tournament team by scoring 18.5 points in each game of the invitational. Everyone thought Pickens was primed to takeoff as a legitimate secondary offensive threat. But it never materialized, with Pickens often being lost in the offense. This season, he has looked like the player many people expected him to be last season. His very gravity forces a player to be attached to his hip at all times. This gives Travis and the rest of the offense space to operate inside the arc. Additionally, his own three point shooting has been stellar. His movement off-ball causes havoc, and he can rise and shoot over most defenders. His quick release and terrific outside shooting gives Stanford a chance at a comeback in any game. Not only is offense been great but Pickens defense was sorely needed. His athleticism and size (6-foot-5) give the Cardinal a size advantage against almost every backcourt in the country. He takes on the smaller forwards which allows KZ to guard the best guards on the team. Pickens has been a positive just by being on the floor, and it was shame he missed most of the nonconference slate.
Contact Sam Curry at currys ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.