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Basketball round table: Time for the tournaments

The Daily’s Daniel Martinez-Krams, Mark Lu, and King Jemison share their thoughts on the Cardinal’s chances in the upcoming Pac-12 championships in Las Vegas

Freshman center Keenan Fitzmorris (above) hasn't gotten on the court yet this season, but is the team's biggest cheerleader, leading the bench that supports the men's basketball team through every game. The team will need to be clicking on all levels to make an impact in this year's Pac-12 tournament. (ERIN CHANG/isiphotos.com)

There’s only one game left in the regular season for the Stanford basketball teams, when the men take on Berkeley this Thursday in Maples Pavilion. With postseason play kicking off, the nationally ranked No. 7 women have a spot in the NCAA tournament locked down, while the men head to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament with a hope and a prayer. With the women kicking off play this weekend and the men starting up next week, The Daily’s Daniel Martinez-Krams, Mark Lu and King Jemison take a look at the Pac-12 chances of both teams, and the possible tournament MVPs from the coming weekends.

 

The women’s basketball team enters the Pac-12 tournament as the second overall seed, earning themselves a bye through the first round, and a second-round matchup against either Washington State or Cal. Who do you expect to give the Cardinal the most trouble in the tournament, and what do you think the team will be able to accomplish overall?

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Preseason No. 24 ranked California. Cal will come into the matchup against Stanford after a resounding victory over the paltry Washington State Cougars, whom the Bears have already beaten by 14 and 22 points. In the first matchup between the Bay Area rivals, Kristine Anigwe had 25 points and 24 rebounds as Cal won on a buzzer beater by Asha Thomas. Of course, Stanford won the home matchup by 25 points, but traveling to Las Vegas for the first time, anything could happen. The Cardinal will come into this game well-rested, but the Bears will have the momentum. Although unlikely for a Tara VanDerveer coached team, Stanford could be caught looking ahead to a potential rematch against Oregon and be caught on their heels in the first game against their rivals.

Mark Lu (ML): The Cardinal better hope that they play the Cougars. The now No. 7 ranked Stanford women won both matchups against Washington State in the regular season. Stanford dominated the Cougars with 21 and 25-point victories. Junior guard Dijonai Carrington led the way in the most recent matchup, putting up 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists for Stanford. The Cardinal saw mixed success against California as in late January the Golden Bears handed Stanford its third loss in a 81-80 thriller. Asha Thomas took advantage of a switch from Kiana Williams to Dijonai Carrington and scored the game-winning layup for Cal. Stanford won the second matchup less than 48 hours later, but Cal’s Kristine Anigwe still had a double-double, with 20 points and 20 rebounds. Although Stanford will be well-rested coming off their first round bye, players like Thomas and Anigwe could still give the Cardinal a tough time in a potential Pac-12 tournament rematch.

King Jemison (KJ): I love Stanford’s chances to reach the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game with relative ease. Yes, Cal could give the Cardinal trouble in their quarterfinal game. Kristine Anigwe had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in each matchup with Stanford this regular season, and she’s coming off an incredibly rare “30-for-30” game where she had 32 points and 30 rebounds to carry Cal to a win over Washington State. Anigwe will gets hers in a potential matchup with Stanford, but she doesn’t have much help, and there’s no way Stanford lets Cal beat them twice in one season. The semifinal opponent would then most likely be the 11th-ranked Oregon State Beavers, who Stanford beat 61-44 in their lone regular season matchup. Once again, the Cardinal should be just fine in that one, which would put them in a possible championship game rematch with No. 6 Oregon. That’s where I think Stanford runs into trouble. The Ducks beat the Cardinal by 40 in Maples Pavilion earlier this season, and while I don’t think a rematch would be nearly as ugly, I still think Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu presents a major matchup problem for Stanford (and anybody, really). The probable Pac-12 Player of the Year is a walking triple-double, averaging 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.1 points per game. So my prediction is, Stanford reaches the Tournament Championship game but then succumbs to Ionescu and Oregon in a fairly tight game. No shame in that at all, and it would set up the Cardinal with some great momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament.

With their tournament happening a week later, the standings for Pac-12 men’s basketball are still massively in flux. With an 8-9 record and one game left to play (against Cal), the Cardinal men could somehow wind up with anything from an incredibly, incredibly unlikely first round bye, to the 10th overall seed (where they currently sit). What do you think will happen to the team next week? Will they fall victim to a first-round exit or make some unexpected noise in Las Vegas? Do they have any shot of winning the tournament whatsoever?

DMK: To be clear, the win against Cal is certainly not guaranteed. That is what Washington, who had not lost a Pac-12 game all year, found out last Thursday. The Bears will be riding in with their first two-game winning streak since December 15, and a lot to play for against their rivals. Not only did Cal lose to Stanford by three points on a hotly contested overturned charge call, but the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band certainly invoked some rage with a chorus of “hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” Also, the Cardinal could win by thirty, and I would not be surprised. That is to say that I have no idea what will happen in Las Vegas. With the standings so in flux, and without an idea of a first-round opponent, the Cardinal could face a team such as UCLA who they have both beaten and lost to by 20 points, an Oregon State team they beat by 23 or a team in Oregon they lost to by 25. The only thing I am sure of is that if Stanford does not clinch a first-round bye, they will not win the tournament. It would take four consecutive victories to win the title without a bye, which Stanford has not done all season. In fact, the Cardinal only have two three-game winning streaks, to start the season against Sonoma State, Seattle and UNC Wilmington and in Pac-12 play against Colorado, Cal and Oregon State. If Stanford is going to win the title, they will need four consecutive victories against opponents far better than any they faced during either of those runs.

ML: The Stanford Men’s Basketball team has been inconsistent this year. There have been flashes of greatness in Pac-12 play, such as their double digit win over UCLA and 98-50 rout of Washington State. Sophomore Forward KZ Okpala has attracted the attention of NBA scouts, averaging 17 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists so far this season. Freshmen Cormac Ryan and Bryce Willis have shown tremendous promise. Yet, the majority of Stanford’s signature wins happened at home. The Cardinal is 10-3 at home compared to a 4-9 away. Stanford suffered its worst Pac-12 loss on the road at Oregon, where they finished the game shooting just 27.3 percent from the field. That’s why playing in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament will be tricky. Stanford is 1-2 this season playing on neutral courts but since fans from other schools travel well, it might as well be an away series. The Thursday matchup against Cal will be a good opportunity for Coach Jerod Haase get his team ready for the tournament. While the Golden bears are 7-22 overall, Cal is coming off its only wins in the Pac-12 against Washington and Washington State, and so should not be underestimated.

KJ: I have to agree with both Daniel and Mark. Stanford has been wildly consistent all season, they haven’t ever won four games in a row, and they have struggled mightily away from home. All of that adds up to an early exit in the Pac-12 Tournament. That being said, Stanford has the talent to make a deep run in Vegas. If KZ Okpala plays like the best NBA draft prospect in the Pac-12 (which he is), and Cormac Ryan catches fire, and Josh Sharma continues his underratedly awesome senior season, and Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills dominate opposing backcourts, and Oscar Da Silva averages 15 and 10, and Stanford’s bench provides big minutes… then, maybe Stanford has a chance. But only then, and we haven’t seen the Cardinal put it all together more than a couple games this season. Still, as Coach Haase said after the Washington game, maybe Stanford can put together something magical.

Both Cardinal teams have had incredible contributions from a variety of players throughout the course of this season. Imagine, for a second, that both Stanford programs manage to pull rabbits out of their hats and win both Pac-12 tournaments. In this insanely unlikely scenario, who would be the tournament MVP for the men and women?

DMK: On the women’s side, there is no question that it will have to be senior forward Alanna Smith. Not only is she the most poised and the most versatile, but she has the most fire to spark a tournament run. A title will most likely take wins over Oregon State and Oregon, and that is exactly where Smith fits in. In the thrashing of the Beavers, Smith went 8-14 for 17 points and seven rebounds. In the rout at the hands of the Ducks, Smith disappeared with 3-14 shooting, six points and four rebounds. The Cardinal will need their leader to step up in order to come home with hardware. She has been the MVP all season long, and there is no doubt she needs to be in the playoffs.

In the other Maples’ locker room, it would have to be Keenan Fitzmorris. Not that the seven-foot gentle giant who has played zero minutes will take off his redshirt to play in the Pac-12 tournament, but Stanford will need its biggest hype man. He is the first person off the bench after every timeout, first to high-five his teammates coming off the court and first to jump wildly after a made three. If Fitzmorris is busy, that means Stanford is playing its best. It means Okpala is showing off his first round talent. It means Davis is driving with purpose, Sharma is dunking inside, Da Silva is working inside out, and Ryan has found his outside stroke. Stanford will not win unless everyone makes significant contributions. There will be no one MVP in the game, it will have to be everyone. It will have to be Fitzmorris.

Honestly, I have wanted to talk about Fitz all season long. I met him at the University Ave Yogurtland during the summer, and immediately found him online by looking at the Stanford men’s basketball roster. Soon thereafter, I knew all about his All-American volleyball-playing sister, his exceedingly athletic family and his recruiting profile. He wears number 12 in honor of his older sister, who gave him the advice to make sure he had a bike before he came to campus. But I had no idea about anything else, because he has absolutely no social media. Named College Basketball’s Anti-Social Media Unicorn by Stadium, Fitzmorris doesn’t use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. It is a distraction, and he is much more focused on bulking up, already weighing in at 227 after coming in at 204. He is already immensely talented and his upside is expansive. In the coming seasons, there is no doubt he will be the team’s on-court MVP as well.

ML: The tournament MVP on the men’s side would have to be Josh Sharma. The senior center will play his final game at Maples on Thursday and cap off a great career. A four-year starter for the Cardinal, Sharma’s experience and leadership will shine through in the tournament. So far this season, he is averaging a career high 9.9 points per game, with 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. His presence is felt on both sides of the ball. On offense, his post play is excellent, and the Cardinal can alway rely on him to grab the offensive rebounds. On defense, he deserves more credit as the creates pressure and come up big with blocks and rebounds. Sharma is proof that four year veterans can still be just as impactful as highly touted freshmen.

On the women’s side, I would have to put Dijonai Carrington as the tournament MVP. She plays with great effort and intensity. I am particularly impressed with her defensive skills as she is able to get steals and contest shots. Offensively, she is a great weapon. Coach Tara Vanderveer gives her a great deal of responsibility, but as a result she put up career high numbers, averaging 13.7 points a game this year. Her ball handling means that she can slice through defenses while driving to the rim but she can just as easily step back and take a three pointer. Carrington is shooting a career best 32.2 percent from three point range this year. The versatile skill set Carrington possesses makes me confident that she will be an impact player in the tournament and next year as well.

KJ: Nobody will be able to top Daniel’s answer, and I absolutely agree that Fitzmorris is the unquestioned Bench MVP this season. I guarantee that he goes out and plays hard every single day in practice, and his energy has been infectious and invaluable for this young team. If Stanford goes on to somehow win the Pac-12 Tournament, Keenan Fitzmorris and his bench energy will be a big reason why. I can’t wait to see what he can do on the court next season.

That being said, if the men somehow go on to win in Vegas, it will be because KZ Okpala takes over. KZ is the most talented player in the Pac-12, and he has often played like it this season. But he has struggled with consistency, especially once teams have cranked up the defensive pressure on him throughout Pac-12 play. If he is able to find more consistency and dominate teams in the tournament, not only does Stanford have a chance to win, but he will rocket up NBA Draft boards even further. KZ is capable of leading Stanford to glory in March. We’ll see if he can do it.

For the women, I agree that both Alanna Smith and DiJonai Carrington will have to play huge roles in order for Stanford to get past Oregon and win in Vegas. But they will need help from the the third face on the Cardinal’s Three-Headed Monster, Kiana Williams. The speedy sophomore is averaging 14.0 points and 4.7 assists per game, and she has the ability to take over games. If Smith, Carrington and Williams are all clicking in the same game, I don’t think anybody can beat Stanford, including Oregon.

 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu, Mark Lu at markgmlu ‘at’ stanford.edu and King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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