Although the home loss to Butler last week provided reason to doubt Stanford, the Cardinal remains one of several teams with a chance to finish first in a Pac-12 conference devoid of outstanding teams.
The Cardinal, which is 10-2 heading into its conference opener Thursday against preseason conference favorite UCLA, is the only Pac-12 team getting votes in either top 25 poll, and the Cardinal had Syracuse, now the No. 1 team, on the ropes before letting the Orange get away.
Stanford is using its athletic, long-armed bodies to play outstanding defense, and guard Chasson Randle, who is challenging Washington’s Tony Wroten as the conference’s top freshman, seems to be the missing piece.
However, in Johnny Dawkins’ first season at Stanford in 2008-2009, the Cardinal entered conference play 10-0 amid similar suggestions that Stanford might be the conference’s surprise team.
The Cardinal proceeded to lose its Pac-10 opener by 30 points and finished ninth.
And although the conference is not as good as it was then, the Cardinal has some issues. The team lacks a star, which does not make it unique in the Pac-12, but raises questions.
Stanford does not have a single player among the top 15 in the Pac-12 in scoring, rebounding or assists, a statistic that applies to no other conference team.
The lack of a go-to player may have contributed to Stanford’s shortcomings in close games, as the Cardinal let Syracuse and Butler get off the hook in the closing moments.
“They made winning plays. We didn’t necessarily make the winning plays we needed,” Josh Owens, Stanford’s leading scorer and rebounder, said after the loss to Butler.
The Cardinal’s defense should keep it in every game, so this team that starts a freshmen and two sophomores needs to learn how to finish off tight games.
Sophomore guard Aaron Bright has improved significantly from last season, and Owens has become a reliable inside threat.
Randle has more turnovers (31) than assists (25), a bad statistic for someone who spends time at the point, but his court presence in tight situations has stamped him as a future star.
The key may be 6-9 sophomore Dwight Powell, who was the most highly rated of Stanford’s outstanding freshmen last year. He was penciled in as a starter, but sprained his ankle just before the season began and has contributed little. If he begins to realize his potential, the Cardinal could win the Pac-12 – or at least have a winning conference record for the first time since Dawkins arrived.
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