By Andrew Tan
Without KZ Okpala, Stanford men’s basketball (14-12, 7-7 PAC-12) suffered a tough defeat in Tempe, Arizona, at the hands of Arizona State (18-8, 9-5 PAC-12), squandering an opportunity to jostle for seeding in the upcoming Pac-12 tournament in less than a month. Senior Josh Sharma was the Cardinal’s leading scorer with 17 points on perfect 7-7 shooting. The final score seemed to indicate a blowout, but this game could best be described as Stanford having its doors not-quite-blown-off, but annoyingly unhinged for most of the game.
In the first 10 minutes of play, the Cardinal kept the game competitive, going back-and-forth with the Sun Devils for the edge. This period of the first half featured eight lead changes, and Sharma led the team with eight points, dominating in the paint. After Stanford relinquished the lead at the 8:48 mark of the first half, the Cardinal would never lead again, though it kept the game close until the end of the first.
With three minutes left before halftime, the Sun Devils began to pull away. Led by Remy Martin and Rob Edwards, who had 16 points apiece, Arizona State shone too bright for a Cardinal team down its star player closing out the half on an 11-5 run. Missing its main source of offensive production in Okpala and his 17.5 points per game, Stanford looked to its second-leading scorer, sophomore Daejon Davis, to lead the effort against the full-strength Sun Devils. Davis shot poorly throughout the game, finishing with six points on 1-8 shooting and 0-4 from three. Having Okpala sidelined and Davis subdued, the Cardinal looked like a poorly-trained show dolphin whacked over the head with a wooden hammer, dazed and unable to put the ball through the hoop.
When the teams ran back out onto the floor at Wells Fargo Arena, Stanford tried to make a run and get the game back within a single possession. Arizona State played the role of older brother over the course of the entire second half, holding Stanford by its head while the Cardinal flailed their arms trying to grab the Sun Devils. The closest Stanford came to erasing the deficit was six points down, after a layup by freshman Cormac Ryan took the score to 48-42 Arizona State.
The Cardinal defense wasn’t outstanding nor was it deplorable. Stanford could have done a better job defending the perimeter but the ultimate flaw in its game was the lack of offensive rhythm and of a go-to option late in the shot clock. Any time the Cardinal would form a wall and prevent the Sun Devils from scoring, they would take bricks from that wall and shoot them at the other end. Stanford ended the night with an abysmal 9.5 shooting percentage from long range, a figure almost as appalling as the amount of support Zion Williamson’s left shoe provided to his size-15 foot.
Around the five-minute mark, Stanford began to play full-court press, as it had failed to piece together a run in the regular flow of the game. Running out of time, Stanford’s half-court defense was seldom set in the final minutes, allowing Arizona State to rack up easy points and build a comfortable lead that appears deceiving on the scoresheet. The game wasn’t out of reach until about three minutes remained, but the Cardinal did very little to capitalize on their opportunities.
Looking at the final score, Okpala seemed to be the difference in the outcome, as Stanford lost by a margin essentially equivalent to Okpala’s season average. Now, this doesn’t guarantee that Stanford would have won had Okpala played, but it is worth mentioning that last time the two teams played at Maples with Okpala, Stanford won 85-71. The fact remains that the Cardinal were without the services of their offensive leader and missed a golden opportunity to make up ground on teams seeded above them in the Pac-12 to improve their seeding for the tournament in March.
Next up, Stanford travels to Tuscon, Arizona, on Sunday to take on a wildly disappointing Arizona team, currently third-to-last in the Pac-12.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.