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Men’s basketball opens conference play against struggling Cal

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Men’s basketball (11-2, 0-0 Pac-12) opens conference play at home Thursday night against cross-Bay rival Cal (6-7, 0-0 Pac-12). Stanford will be trying to bounce back from a tough 56-72 loss on Dec. 29 to then-No. 5 Kansas (10-2, 0-0 Big 12) and continue building the positive momentum the Cardinal had for most of December. 

In Stanford’s most difficult matchup of the season yet, the Jayhawks came to Maples determined to win in sound fashion after nearly being upset by Villanova in their previous game. Stanford continued its strong defensive play against Kansas, but never found an offensive footing, going eight minutes before even scoring a point in Sunday’s matchup.

While the Cardinal forced 21 turnovers from the Big 12’s best offense and limited star player Udoka Azubuike to two points, Stanford allowed him an astonishing 13 rebounds while only grabbing 25 rebounds as a team. This, combined with 19 turnovers of their own and needing 11 minutes and 48 seconds to score a field goal, was too much for the Cardinal to overcome.

On the bright side, the Cardinal will have many opportunities in conference play to show their ability to hang with tough opponents — seven of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 have double digit victories, with another three at nine victories a piece.

Stanford’s first Pac-12 game, however, will not be one of those marquee conference matchups. The Golden Bears are one of the clear basement dwellers of the Pac-12. At 6-7, Cal is the only team in the conference with a losing record, and while they started the season 4-0, the Bears have lost five of their last six.

Unfortunately for the Bears, this mediocrity could turn into misery fast — if they can lose to the likes of Santa Clara and Boston College, they can certainly lose to No. 4 Oregon, No. 25 Arizona, Washington, Colorado or Stanford. Cal is ranked dead last in the league in points scored, points allowed, rebounds, steals and turnovers forced per game. 

It’s hard to say which of these statistics is most telling of the reasons behind Cal’s struggles. Is it the team’s utter lack of ability to score points, averaging a mere 65.8 points per game, an average so ghastly it’s over five points per game lower than the next lowest scoring offense in the Pac-12? Perhaps Cal’s inability to stop opponents from scoring 69.8 points per game is the key to its issues. Clearly, significant work remains on both sides of the ball for the Golden Bears to stop this season from snowballing further.

There is, however, one factor working in Cal’s favor, providing the Bears with a single beacon of hope — history. Stanford has not won a Pac-12 opener since 2016 and Cal has won the last three matchups between the two teams in Maples. Thus, while Stanford’s conference-leading defense has the potential to bully Cal’s weak offense, this game’s outcome is far from decided yet. Both teams will be hungry for a victory following losses, and both teams will want to claim bragging rights over a historic rival. 

Stanford has consistently had two key players to watch this season. Junior forward Oscar Da Silva leads the team from experience and statistical standpoints. He ranks first on the team with 17.7 points per game and 18th nationally with a 61.8 field goal percentage, and was the only player to start all 31 games for the Cardinal last season.

It has been the addition of freshman guard Tyrell Terry that has TV announcers most excited, though. Tied for the team lead in steals and second in points per game and rebounds, Terry is one of those players that lifts the play of everyone around him.

Sophomore guard Matt Bradley leads Cal in points this season and scored 14 against Stanford in their last meeting. Senior guard Paris Austin currently leads Cal in turnovers forced and scored 15 in each game against the Cardinal last season.

Thursday’s game has potential to be entertaining, but it also might be wrapped up by half time. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. PT at Maples Pavilion.

Contact Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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