By Stephen Ren
With a crew full of young talent, the Stanford men’s basketball team (15-16, 8-10 Pac-12) set out with high hopes at the beginning of this season. However, plagued by injuries and the occasional shooting slump, the team ultimately showed it was capable of great feats but lacked the maturity and discipline to consistently play up to its potential.
With an underclassmen-heavy roster, the Cardinal game was heavily centered around sophomores Daejon Davis, KZ Okpala and Oscar Da Silva. Point guard Davis was the general on the floor driving the Cardinal offense, though he would miss several games due to injury. Okpala was the scoring machine for the team, leading the Cardinal with 16.8 points per game on 47 percent from the field. He also nabbed 5.7 rebounds a game and used his 6-8 frame to frustrate opponents on defense.
Despite much of the focus being on the young players, the impact of senior center Josh Sharma cannot be understated. Having demonstrated tremendous improvement in his game and versatility, Sharma transformed from a role-player last season to a dominant center who reliably produced buckets and led several games in scoring towards the end of the season. Sharma is also a menace on defense, and his spectacular dunks always put on a show for the crowd.
“For young guys like me, and a lot of other guys on the team, to see the work that [Sharma] puts in every day, noticing the growth in the season — you have to be tough-minded to keep working. He’s become everything to our team,” Okpala said of the seven-footer’s presence on the team.
Stanford started off the season with three easy wins against Sonoma State, Seattle and UNC Wilmington. Though no one could have expected Stanford to struggle against these teams, these early contests provided invaluable insight to how the team might look on the floor and helped develop the chemistry between new and returning players on the team. It was also the first look at members of the freshman recruiting class, including sharpshooter Cormac Ryan.
“Dude can really light it up,” commented Okpala after the opening game. “I saw it [the] first day he got here in pickup; this kid is coming in with no fear.”
However, the Cardinal were tested soon afterwards against some of the most elite programs in the country: No. 7 UNC, No. 25 Wisconsin and No. 2 Kansas. North Carolina handed Stanford its first loss of the season, with a humbling score of 72-90. Stanford’s inexperience was exposed in the face of UNC’s discipline. Poor execution led to forcing up bad shots and stolen passes, and on the other end of the floor the Tar Heels’ combination of talent and athleticism proved too much for the Cardinal to handle. Stanford played Wisconsin to a similar result.
Having not proven themselves against top-ranked opponents, the matchup against No. 2 Kansas seemed like a nightmare waiting to happen for the Cardinal. The Jayhawks were undefeated at this point in the season, with big wins against No. 10 Michigan State and No. 5 Tennessee under their belt. However, the Cardinal came into the game with an intensity they had not shown thus far into the season. They were unstoppable from three — an area they have struggled with — sinking a total of 12 from distance, and every Cardinal player stepped up into their roles. With just seconds left in the game, Stanford was up 75-72 and was poised to pull of the upset of the century, but the Jayhawk’s LaGerald Vick hit the game-tying three to send the contest into overtime. Though Stanford ultimately fell 90-84, it was a strong sign moving forward that this Stanford squad had much more to give than they have showed thus far.
After picking up a few more wins against Eastern Washington, San Jose State and Long Beach State to finish off 2018, hopes were high that Stanford would perform well in conference play. However, the year did not start off as well as many would have hoped, and the Cardinal proceeded to drop three straight against USC, UCLA and Arizona. Though individual players put on stellar performances, including Ryan’s six threes against USC and Okpala’s 22-point double-double against UCLA, the Cardinal simply lost too much ground at the start of these games to be able to make it up later on.
“We have to find a way to work on our interior defense right now,” remarked head coach Jerod Haase following the losses. “Our guys need to figure out a way to get bigger, fast and stronger and as a coach I need to figure out different schemes to defend the basket better.”
Stanford picked up its much-needed first Pac-12 win against Arizona State the following game. Okpala again provided a bulk of the scoring for Stanford, finishing with 21 points and 9 rebounds. However, the win also showcased a demonstrably improved case of chemistry and sharing of the basketball, as the Cardinal finished with 18 assists, nine of which came from Davis.
“It felt good, I found my flow offensively pretty early, my teammates kept finding me,” said Da Silva. “I got a lot of open, easy shots, and that gives you confidence throughout the game.”
After splitting the following four games 2-2, the Cardinal had cross-bay rival Berkeley in their sights. Though Cal is unequivocally the worst team in the Pac-12, having lost nine in a row up to this point, the Golden Bears always played their best when facing Stanford. Finding themselves in a hostile Berkeley stadium against a scrappy Bears team, the Cardinal trailed for much of the second half.
The game came down to the wire, and for a moment it seemed all was lost for Stanford when Sharma was called for a blocking foul in the closing minutes of the game because he was believed to be in the restricted zone. This was his last foul to give and sent a Cal player to the line. Upon review, however, it was revealed that Sharma was in fact outside the restricted zone and had taken a charge with textbook form, clearing him of wrongdoing and awarding the ball to Stanford. The Cardinal ultimately took the win 84-81 and handed Berkeley its tenth consecutive loss. Okpala recorded a career-high 30 points in this feat and Bryce Wills and Daejon Davis added 16 and 14, respectively.
“It always feels good when you can silence an opposing crowd in their home court,” recounted Sharma. “Road wins are hard to get, especially against your rivals.”
Stanford went on to secure the win against Oregon State, evening its conference record out to 5-5. The following weekend, however, Stanford put on what may have been the worst shooting performance in recent memory against the Oregon Ducks, unable to find the bottom of the net until seven minutes into the game. The Cardinal returned to Maples still with a lot to prove.
Up next were Southern-California rivals USC and UCLA, but this time Stanford had the home-court advantage and sought to avenge its season-opening losses. The Cardinal managed to claim victory in both contests in spectacular manner.
Against USC, Stanford found itself down four with a minute left in the game, and to make matters worse freshman guard Bryce Wills dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds in the ensuing possession. Then, magic seemed to strike Maples. It started with Stanford being forced to play the foul game, which despite its common practice is something that rarely tends to actually provide any real result. This was one of those rare occasions, as USC’s shooter missed both awarded free-throws, and Marcus Sheffield hit a clutch three down the other end for Stanford. Big man Josh Sharma then managed to get a steal on the perimeter.
Wills proceeded to steal the show, getting an and-one layup the other way. He secured the rebound on the next possession and hit two clutch free-throws to ice the Trojans. In this flurry of action, Stanford finished off the game on a 7-0 run and claimed the win, 79-76.
Stanford then proceeded to blow out UCLA 104-80 the next game. Five players found themselves in double-digit land, and Josh Sharma notched himself a 22-point double-double.
This was the highest point in the season, and for the most part everything was downhill from here. Stanford would end the season losing four of the last five games, including its senior night game against Berkeley, when Cal’s center inexplicably turned into 2011 Dirk at the start of the game. This was a shame, because Sharma, the only senior on the Cardinal squad, finished the season with a meteoric rise in production, picking up a lot of the scoring slack for the Cardinal.
Though there was some slim sliver of a gleam of hope for Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament, the Cardinal ultimately fell to UCLA in the first round.
Despite losing Sharma to graduation and Okpala to the draft, most of the Cardinal core will return next season, with the addition of a promising recruiting class.
Contact Stephen Ren at rensteph ‘at’ stanford.edu