Sports

A big game to open the Pac-12 men's basketball season

 
The Stanford men's basketball team relies heavily on freshman Daejon Davis to help run the team. Photo by Bob Drebin/isiphotos.com.

Stanford enters Pac-12 men's basketball action as one of two teams in the conference with an overall losing record. Saturday's opponent, California, is the other one.

Perhaps it's way too early to call it a must-win situation for both teams. Better to say the winner will be in a lot better shape than the loser moving forward.


Robert Cartwright/Stanford Athletics
The Cardinal (6-7), projected to finish fifth in a preseason poll of the Pac-12 coaches, hosts the Golden Bears (6-7), at 7 p.m. (Fox Sports 1). Cal is predicted to finish 11th.

Of course preseason polls are only worth the effort it takes to punch a few keys into an online ballot. After all, Arizona State was picked to finish sixth and Washington 10th.

And, as the frayed-at-the-edges cliche reminds us, everybody starts at 0-0.

So what condition is Stanford's condition in? Is it really a sub .500 team as the record would like you to believe or is it a ploy to detract from the real talent that lurks within?

Let's take the grueling preseason schedule, throw it into the blender, and see what comes out.

Three of the first seven losses have come to teams ranked among the top 15 in the AP Top 25 poll. The Cardinal survived, losing by an average margin of 22 points to teams which currently have a combined 29-8 record.

Two other losses were by fewer than 10 points to Ohio State and Portland State, both on a neutral court. Those teams are a combined 20-7.

What to make of the losses to Eastern Washington at home and at Long Beach State, teams with a combined 10-18 mark? Is it possible to dismiss them as 'that's the way the basketball bounces'? The 49ers went 2-2 against the Pac-12, also beating Oregon State and losing to the Beavers and Arizona.

Stanford's six victories to date, three versus schools with a winning record, are against teams with a combined 36-40 mark.

The schedule would indicate the Cardinal stands a darn good chance of being a .500 team. Stanford is capable of stealing a win or two and also capable of letting one or two slip away.

If the Cardinal should finish at least as high as fifth, it would be considered successful, a job well done. Stanford has its collective heart set on making the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. A fifth-place finish puts them in strong contention for just such an accomplishment.

Health is another consideration. Senior Dorian Pickens has been limited to two games due to a foot injury. Junior Marcus Sheffield has yet to play. Top recruit Kezie Okpala just saw his first action, scoring six points and blocking a shot in 28 minutes against Kansas.

Pickens is a solid player in every aspect and an important piece of the puzzle. He's capable of producing double-digit scoring efforts. He led the team in minutes played and was second in scoring last year.

Sheffield scored a career-high 35 points in a game against Arizona State, a glimpse of his extraordinary talent. He's averaged 6.4 points in 59 career games, nine starts.

Keeping Pickens and Sheffield on the court is important for the Cardinal, which relies heavily on freshmen Daejon Davis, Isaac White and Oscar da Silva.

While it's a team game, Stanford will go nowhere without Reid Travis, perhaps the most valuable player in the conference in terms of what he means to a team.

Travis averages 21.4 points a game thus far and has reached double figures in all 13 contests. he also averages 7.1 rebounds despite grabbing just 14 over his last three games combined. His season-high is 14. He's still working on his 3-point shot (7-27, 26 percent) but has a powerful move to the basket that gets him to the free throw line. The more aggressive (but not reckless) he is, the better for Stanford.

"He's best around the rim and making tough plays and getting fouled," Stanford coach Jarod Haase said. "We want to make sure that's still the end goal for the most part. But when he can balance that with some jump shots, some dribble penetration, he'll become even better. I don't think anybody ever thought that was going to be a part of his game, and now it may be the best part."

Michael Humphrey, one of two seniors on the team, will also have to play a big role both rebounding and scoring. He can draw attention away from Travis and is capable of a double-double.

Josh Sharma and Blake Pagon are two important role players, capable of energizing their teammates when in the game.

When everything is working, Stanford can play with the best. The Cardinal has to bring its 'A' game every time out or it will once again he on the outside looking in at tournament time.

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