Stanford probably figures all it needs to do to improve to 2-0 in the Pac-12 and stamp itself as a contender in the conference race is to keep USC point guard Maurice Jones under control when the Cardinal hosts USC on Saturday.
The theory is probably sound, because when Jones doesn’t score, the Trojans usually can’t win because they are short on offensive weapons.
You would think that would play into Stanford’s hands because defense has been Stanford’s strength this season. But the Cardinal’s showing against UCLA suggests stopping Jones may not be as easy as it sounds. Although Stanford sneaked off with a 60-59 victory over the Bruins on Dec. 29, the Cardinal had no defensive answer for UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones, who had a career-high 26 points, nearly half his team’s total.
Obviously, Stanford needs to do a better job on the Trojans’ point guard to avoid an upset. Although Jarrett Mann is no longer a starter for the Cardinal and played just 11 minutes against UCLA, he may get more playing time against USC to defend Jones, especially if Jones gets on a hot streak.
The Cardinal is much better offensively with Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright in the backcourt instead of Mann, and if Stanford rockets out to a comfortable lead, Johnny Dawkins may not need to call on Mann to shut down Jones. But if Jones gets going, Mann could be the defensive answer.
In general, Stanford needs to play better than it did against UCLA, a team it should have handled on its home court. However, the UCLA game did show Stanford can win close games, something that was in question after close losses to Butler and Syracuse.
USC, meanwhile, lacks experience and has made a habit of losing close games, such as its 53-49 loss to Cal in its Pac-12 opener. USC made a game of that one only because Jones got hot down the stretch.
It’s good for Stanford to know it can win a close game if it comes down to it, but the Cardinal will be disappointed if the game against the Trojans is still up for grabs in the final minute.
The Trojans have lost five of their past six games, and because of their offensive deficiencies, they are a team Stanford (11-2) should handle rather routinely on their home court. Of course, Stanford figured to handle UCLA more easily than it did too.
Look for Stanford to get the ball inside to Josh Owens and let him work against Dewayne Dedmon, a 7-foot redshirt sophomore with potential and shot-blocking ability, but a player prone to foul problems as well.
A win against USC probably will not get Stanford into the top 25 rankings, but it could get it close.
–Freshman G Chasson Randle was far from great against UCLA in his first Pac-12 game, but he showed again he has no fear of pressure situations and can produce with the game on the line. Through the first 31 minutes of the game, he had just two points on 1-for-11 shooting. But he scored eight points in the final nine minutes, and he hit two big three-points. He was 0-for-4 on three-pointers before he nailed one from the corner with 6:38 left that broke a tie game. A little more than a minute later, Randle hit another three that gave the Cardinal a five-point lead.
–Sophomore John Gage is an unusual 6-9 center, because he spends most of his time beyond the three-point line. Because UCLA plays zone defense exclusively, Stanford needed Gage’s outside threat, and he played 20 minutes – eight minutes more than his previous season high. Three of his six shots were three-pointers and a fourth was an 18-footer from just inside the three-point line. He hit two of his three treys and the 18-footer to finish with 10 points. Twenty-one of his 31 shots this season have been three-point attempts. Don’t expect him to get 20 minutes of playing time against USC, though, because the Trojans are strictly a man-to-man team.
ON THE SPOT: Johnny Dawkins needs to show some progress this season after finishing no better than 7-11 in conference play in any of his first three season with the Cardinal. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby headed off talk about Dawkins’ job security by giving Dawkins a contract extension during the summer, but the pressure will start mounting if the Cardinal can’t finish high in the standings with this squad, which played well in the nonconference portion of its schedule and has every reason to believe it can challenge for the title in the weak Pac-12. But the Cardinal has started well before. It entered conference play 10-0 in Dawkins’ first season three years ago, and the team wound up ninth in the Pac-10. Last season the team started Pac-10 play 3-1, including an upset of Washington. But again the team faded, finishing 7-11 in the conference, tied for seventh. The Cardinal has a good chance to improve to 12-2 overall and 2-0 in the conference with Saturday’s home game against USC, which is 5-9. It’s the kind of game Dawkins can’t afford to lose.