Stanford women’s basketball is having its best season in years, only dropping two games and dominating opponents at all levels of the game. Stanford men’s basketball has been far more up and down, but still has a .500 record on the year, and continues to show promise on the floor. But both teams still have large questions looming over their seasons, questions that will need to be answered before the year is over. The Daily’s Sally Egan, Bobby Pragad and Andrew Tan take a stab at answering some of those questions, weighing in on the men’s chemistry with and without KZ Okpala, the women’s quickly vanishing bench depth and the way each of the Cardinal seasons seem to be playing out.
In the men’s basketball comeback against Colorado, the team was led by Bryce Wills, Oscar Da Silva and Daejon Davis. Prospective NBA draft pick KZ Okpala was once again held scoreless in the first half, and in the second half, the offense operated primarily through other players. With the Cardinal’s past two wins coming with reduced or no contribution from Okpala, it’s time to ask, is the Stanford team better without their superstar?
Sally Egan (SE): No, I don’t believe that taking a superstar talent like KZ Okpala out of the lineup is ever going to produce a better line up. First of all, the past two wins have come against Washington State and Colorado, two of the three worst teams in the Pac-12 right now. Stanford didn’t need a ton of production from Okpala in order to win, which is fine. Consider their most recent loss against Utah — the Utes are third in the Pac-12 right now, Okpala scored 22 and Stanford almost won but fell 70-66. Stanford wouldn’t have come close to beating Utah without Okpala in the lineup. A balanced offense is better than relying solely on Okpala, but that doesn’t mean taking him out of the game entirely. As long as Okpala is in the game, he is a threat that other teams have to account for more than any other Stanford player and that automatically makes it a better lineup.
Bobby Pragada (BP): I dislike when these sorts of conversations are generally brought up; obviously a team is at its best when it’s most talented players on the floor. Stanford has the lineup to challenge every single team in the Pac-12, it’s just about how Jerod Haase uses them. However, I think that for the moment, the team would be better off making Okpala a de-emphasized part of at least their offensive movements. Basically, don’t force him to carry the entire offensive load. If that requires him to be off the floor entirely, so be it.
Stanford’s greatest strength lies at the forward position, not just in Okpala, but in Oscar Da Silva as well. Da Silva and Okpala’s length and athleticism gives the Cardinal an unparalleled defensive flexibility in the half-court; they can switch onto most positions and guard the outside as well as they can guard the paint. But on offense, this double forward mentality tends to clog up space, and prevent both of them from getting going. When KZ is force-fed the ball and told to make a play, the possession usually ends up in a turnover or a double team. In the Colorado game, Stanford spaced the floor far better, with Daejon Davis and Da Silva hitting clutch three-point shots, and moving the ball for assists. The Cardinal appear better without KZ in the lineup because they have to make plays for themselves, they have to play off of each other and they play a more aggressive, more dynamic style of basketball when the action doesn’t funnel through Okpala.
Andrew Tan (AT): Sometimes, when you’re making a meal, especially for someone with a limited palate, the spices and seasonings are not the most important. Most people are not generally going to freak out if you forget to add coriander to your fish as long as the fish is still well-cooked. This piece of fish would be acceptable to serve to the common man; no peasant would complain about such a meal. But think about some of the top food critics in the world: Gordon Ramsay, Paul Hollywood or the mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri. A fish with no seasoning? Absolutely unacceptable. This is how you have to think about the Cardinal’s situation with Okpala. Sure, when competing against the peasants of the Pac-12 or the rest of the NCAA basketball world, a steady diet of Wills, Davis and others could be enough to grab a win. Against bigger opponents, however, the Cardinal need Okpala to even stand a chance or risk getting run out of the kitchen while the other team screams “donkey” at them.
The Cardinal women were out-hustled by a hungry Utah team on the road on Sunday, dropping their second game of the season and their first Pac-12 contest. The Cardinal had only 10 points off the bench in the contest, all from Lexie Hull. With the midpoint of the Pac-12 season approaching, it’s time to ask, is the Cardinal’s lack of depth behind their Big Three (Smith, Carrington, Williams) a concern moving forward?
SE: It’s no secret that both Stanford’s offense and defense runs through Smith, Carrington and Williams, but I think there is reason to believe that other players will pick up their production heading into the final stretch of Pac-12 play. As pointed out, Lexie Hull had 10 points in the contest, and in the game before that against Colorado, she had eight points. Both were season highs in Pac-12 play. In that Colorado game, Anna Wilson came off the bench and contributed nine points, her season high in Pac-12 play. Starter Alyssa Jerome had nine points in the Utah game, a season high, and Lacie Hull has had two steals per game in several games. All of this is to show that the key players behind Smith, Carrington and Williams are starting to impact the game more and this will definitely help in this last month of Pac-12 play.
BP: Tara VanDerveer’s system isn’t one to focus too heavily on one person, which is why it’s slightly surprising to me that Alanna Smith is putting up the numbers that she is. I guess that’s just a testament to how talented of a player she is. Regardless, Tara’s style of play functions at it’s best when she can plug in players and rotations in response to the flow of the game. The Cardinal’s recent comeback win over Colorado is a good example of this. Stanford came in after being down and exploited the Buffaloes three-point defense with their shooting. I worry about the contributions of the bench players going forward, I truly do, particularly because Stanford hasn’t played a top team in a long time. My attention is toward the approaching Oregon games, as those will be the best indicators of the team’s ability to hang with deeper benches and top offenses. I don’t think anyone should get it confused — the expectation for this team should be a national championship, and they won’t win the tournament with five people playing 40 minutes and only a single Hull twin functioning off the bench.
AT: A perceived lack of depth after a disappointing loss to Utah is an overblown concern, considering the dynamics of basketball. Sure, depth can be essential in the regular season because it allows teams to rest their best players, but Stanford is not a regular season team. The Cardinal are really playing for a chance at the NCAA Championship and it’s your stars that have the ball in crunchtime in the tournament. Basketball, more than any other team sport, is a star-driven game, where single players can dominate and carry their teams to victory. With the 11th-leading scorer in all of NCAA basketball, the Cardinal have one of those stars and as long as they can snatch a top-two seed in the tournament, they should be sitting pretty.
There are ten games left in the regular season for the Stanford men, and they will likely need to win at least eight of them (for an 18 win season, and an optimistic chance) to make it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 (though a strong performance at the Pac-12 tournament will also help). Meanwhile, the only question for women’s basketball’s qualification is how high of a seed they’ll grab this March. It’s time to ask, how do you see the rest of these teams’ seasons playing out?
SE: For the women’s team, it all comes down to performances against Oregon. Stanford is currently ranked No. 8 while Oregon is up to No. 4 and the showdown at Maples on Feb. 10 will go a long way in determining Stanford’s NCAA tournament seeding. If the Cardinal wins in the regular season and then wins the Pac-12 playoff, likely by beating either Oregon or Utah, I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to grab the final No. 1 seed. The men’s team definitely faces the tougher road. It’s not unthinkable for them to get hot and go on a run, as they still have 3 games left against Cal and Washington State, the two worst teams in the league. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA are all winnable games for the Cardinal, but they will likely have to win all of them to reach an 18-win season, as they also still have to face Washington and USC. My prediction is they will win six of their next 10, but do well enough in the Pac-12 tournament to garner some attention for one of the final spots in the NCAA tournament.
BP: I’m a senior at Stanford now, and I’ve suffered through a few years of particularly painful men’s basketball seasons. Every year I tell myself, “I will not get excited” but I inevitably do anyway. All I want, in the whole world, is for the men to make the tournament just one time while I’m here, so I pray that they can do the impossible and claim a 16- or 15-seed come March. It will be incredibly tough to make it there, as they’ll need to score wins against the top teams in the Pac-12, teams that have already destroyed them in Washington, UCLA and USC. Luckily for the Cardinal, the games are in Maples, so there’s always hope. I believe the season will come down to the road trip to Oregon and Oregon State that is rapidly approaching. Without a 2-0 weekend in Eugene and Corvallis, I can kiss the tournament goodbye.
As far as the women are concerned, we’re just waiting for Oregon. That will be our first chance to see how good this team actually is, against other top competition. There’s very little room for reference in a particularly weak Pac-12 conference, but like I said earlier, the expectation should be that of a national championship. The Oregon games will provide a glimpse into the future of the team.
AT: Growing up as a local and following the Stanford basketball teams, I remember when the Cardinal men used to be good. The glory days of Brook and Robin Lopez dominating the glass and just generally being tall and good at basketball seem so long ago. My expectations of the men’s basketball team are no higher than my expectations of myself to make the men’s basketball team. Hate to disagree with Sally, but it’s literally unthinkable that Stanford win enough of their remaining games to even have a shot of sniffing the tournament. Gear up for another NIT run if that and just enjoy the ambiance of Maples Pavilion if you happen to find yourself at another game.
The women, on the other hand, are a totally different story, led by one of the legends of coaching in any sport, Tara Vanderveer — I’d put her in the sphere of Bill Belichick, Gregg Popovich and Chubbs Peterson. The Cardinal have always had a legitimate shot at the title, with several Final Four trips in recent years and the burden of carrying the full weight of Cardinal fans’ hopes for a national championship. The Cardinal will, at worst, be a top-three seed in the dance, and at best a number-one seed, and the success of their season will be determined by how long of a run they make in the playoffs.
Contact Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu and Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu