Dwight Powell is an excellent athlete. At 6-10, 235, Powell excels on the glass, but only recently did he emerge as an elite scoring threat. The junior enters the Friday road game at Northwestern on the heels of three consecutive 20-point performances. An intimidating interior presence with a solid mid-range jump shot, Powell is the breakout Pac-12 star.
In his fifth year at Stanford, Johnny Dawkins has built a team with depth. Twelve Cardinal players average at least 10 minutes per game. They have an abundance of three-point threats and strong frontcourt athletes. Alongside Powell, forwards Josh Huestis and Andy Brown can challenge opposing big men with their size and skillsets.
While the offense has struggled in the early season, Stanford runs an effective inside-out game. Perimeter specialist Aaron Bright and standout sophomore Chasson Randle patrol the perimeter, and when Powell lures double-teams inside, he can kick the ball out to his teammates. In addition, Stanford attacks the offensive boards and focuses on off-ball screens.
The performance against North Carolina State on Tuesday exposed Stanford as a poor team in transition. While the talented Wolfpack succeed in pushing the tempo, outside misses from the Cardinal typically translated to fast break points the other way. Stanford has ample athleticism, but limited speed. N.C. State converted 15 fast break points, though that number could have been much higher.
Stanford relies heavily on its three-point shooters. Of late, the results have been alarming. Bright and Randle each shot 44 percent from behind the arc last season. This year, the two have combined to make just 18 of their 84 attempts – a 21 percent clip. The duo needs to improve that production to compete against elite Pac-12 opponents.
Stanford runs an aggressive man defense – which has its clear downfalls. Against a consistent outside scorer in Scott Wood on Tuesday, the Cardinal fell victim to a lack of defensive focus as a result of quick ball movement. Wood often came off screens to find himself wide open, and with space. Expect Dawkins to encourage improved perimeter defense before the team travels to Evanston.
Northwestern Game Plan
The team can only hope to slow down Dwight Powell. The junior poses an extreme matchup difficulty, particularly on the defensive end. Freshman Alex Olah has struggled at times as he adjusts to the college game. Now, the starting center will face a quick, athletic player who can knock down shots. Powell also averages 5.3 free throws per game, and connects at an 85 percent rate. NU needs to cut its damage by preventing second-chance opportunities. Powell will likely make baskets, but it is especially imperative that Olah, Jared Swopshire and Mike Turner avoid foul trouble.
To contain a solid group of bigs, the Wildcats might sacrifice open looks from Bright and Randle – though Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn have proved to be capable of playing solid defense. Tre Demps is sidelined with a sprained ankle, which places even more responsibility on Sobolewski. If he gets two early fouls, NU is in for a long game. Otherwise, the Cats expect to compete. The Cardinal yield open looks and suffered – at least on Tuesday – from defensive miscommunication that tends to doom teams against the Princeton offense.
For Northwestern, it is time to return to program-defining fundamentals. The nearly 15 turnovers per game in the last four contests is an unacceptable statistic. The Cats went 14-of-25 from the free-throw line against Texas State, which almost ruined an impressive comeback effort. This figures to be a close game, but if NU continues to play sloppy basketball, Stanford has the clear advantage.
Both teams are experienced against difficult opponents. Stanford maintained its composure in a tough environment at North Carolina State, and holiday attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena is unlikely to create much of a home-court advantage.
Northwestern seems to have the edge in guard play. Hearn continues to perform at the highest level of his career, while Sobolewski may be the team's most valuable player of the early season. NU cannot win this game in the frontcourt against Powell, but instead will knock down open shots.
Expect Kale Abrahamson to settle down in his second college start. He can fire from behind the arc, and with another scoring threat missing (Demps), contributions from just about everyone will be necessary.
With its numbingly slow tempo, NU has no ability to exploit poor transition defense from the Cardinal. But they can eke out a solid home non-conference victory by dominating in the backcourt. Desperate for a confidence-building victory, Sobo and Hearn drive the Cats with leadership and the three-ball.
Northwestern 70, Stanford 64