By Jose Saldana
Stanford men’s basketball (17-14, 11-7 Pac-12) is at a critical juncture in the program’s history. It has been a decade, head coach Trent Johnson’s final year, since the last time the Cardinal have had a conference record this good.
Stanford has the opportunity to show how dominant it can be with a deep run the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas starting on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. PT.
Standing in the Cardinal’s way in the first round is Cal (8-23, 2-16). Stanford is responsible for half the Bears’ conference victories and it could have been more as Cal has played the Cardinal tough in both games.
“[Cal] puts a lot of pressure on us,” senior forward Reid Travis said. “They did a good job switching up defenses from man to zone and kind of keeping us on our heels.”
They first met in the first match of conference play in Maples Pavilion. Stanford dominated the entire game, leading by as much 11 with three minutes remaining, but then the wheels fell of the bus. That’s what happens when you let your opponent shoot 61.1 percent in the second half.
At the center of that Cal run was senior forward Marcus Lee, and particularly, freshman Justice Sueing. They combined for 37 points and 13 rebounds. These are two players the Cardinal will have to key on if they want to advance to the second round.
“[Lee] has a high motor,” Reid added. “There were lots of times we were giving him offensive rebounds. The more we can limit that and make every shot difficult we will be more successful.”
“[Sueing] has had a great season,”senior guard and Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year Dorian Pickens said. “He likes to be aggressive from the wing and get in the lane. He’s definitely one of the guys we are trying to key on.”
Aside from stopping Lee and Sueing, the Cardinal need to lower the large amount of turnovers they seem to generate game to game.
Stanford is tied with Cal for dead last in the Pac-12 in turnovers (14.8 per game) and second to last in turnover margin.
In the last game of the season against Arizona State, the Cardinal built a 19-point lead in the second half, but it quickly fell apart thanks to 15 second half turnovers (21 overall) and Stanford nearly lost.
Some of the chaos was caused by freshman Daejon Davis’ absence. Whenever Davis subbed out, it seemed like the Cardinal faltered against the defensive pressure. This is a far cry from earlier in the season when Davis was turning the ball over too much.
“The area [Davis] has grown the most is managing the team,” Travis said. “It’s tough to come in as a freshman and be given the keys to the offense.”
Travis was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team for the second year in a row, which was deservedly given. However, against Cal this season, he averaged 14 points per game: five fewer points than his season average. Getting a prime Travis performance, especially against Lee, would assure a Cardinal victory.
However, a subpar performance from Travis doesn’t mean death as players such as Davis, Pickens and freshman forward KZ Okpala can all take over the game.
Pickens is averaging career-highs across the board and has been lights up from deep in conference play (45.5 percent). He dropped 20 points in the second half against the Sun Devils on 6-10 shooting.
Okpala, who missed most of nonconference play due to academic ineligibility, makes his presence known on defense. His 6-foot-8 frame and long wingspan are the nightmares of elite guards throughout the Pac-12. His offense has been in development, but he has flashed a knack of getting into the paint.
But even if they make it past Cal, the Cardinal will need all hands on deck if they want to make it past second round.
The Cardinal begin their postseason dreams with a matchup versus rival Cal in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m in T-Mobile Arena. The game will be broadcast by the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.