One: The 2011-12 Non-Conference Schedule
If you played a game of word association and the phrase "November 11" came up, you'd probably answer with "Veterans Day". In most cases, that would be my answer too.
year, I might say something like "basketball", or "Central Arkansas", or even
"Corliss Williamson", because Veterans Day this year happens to be the 2011-12
season opener for the Card.
The 2011-12 Stanford Men's Basketball schedule has been out for a little more than a month now, and I've found myself saying two things in my head over and over again: 1) I really need to pump out on article for The Bootleg and 2) 11-1. I'm attempting to take care of No. 1 right now by stating that I think No. 2 is an achievable goal for Stanford in their non-conference slate this year.
Sure, there are 18 other games in the schedule that are almost certainly more important than the 12 that precede them, but it's these non-conference match-ups that can dictate the trajectory of a season (provided enough tests are sprinkled in with the guarantee games). Take care of the cupcakes and get a couple of big wins in November and December and you give yourself a little more wiggle room come the New Year. Go .500 in autumn and you pretty much need to win the conference regular season title to get an at-large bid.
So let's take a look at what the Farm Boys have ahead of them before their Pac-12 opener against U…C…LLLLL-A.
It starts off on Veterans Day against Central Arkansas, led by former NBA player Corliss Williamson. The Bears went 5-24 last year and only two of their wins came against D-I opponents. They did give a few BCS teams a game for a bit (they lost to Oklahoma State by 12 and Oklahoma by only three), but if Stanford can't take care of this Southland Conference opponent, they are in for a long season. No disrespect to Scottie Pippen's old stomping collegiate grounds, of course.
Then it's time for the NIT Season Tip-Off. The immediate goal here is to just get to Madison Square Garden. The last time Stanford played host in a pre-conference tournament- the CBE Classic in the 2006-07 season- the Card lost to Air Force by 34 (had Stanford won that game, they would have faced Johnny Dawkins' Blue Devils in Kansas City).
It's not going to be a cakewalk to get out of the Maples pod, either. Assuming Stanford beats Fresno State in the first round (I'd say a safe assumption, as the Bulldogs are a team in transition with first year head coach Rodney Terry, but Fresno State did only lose to our Sweet 16-bound 2007-08 team by 7), the Cardinal would most likely face Colorado State with a trip to New York on the line. This isn't the same Colorado State team Trent Johnson & Co. embarrassed four years ago and Johnny Dawkins' bunch handled with relative ease in Fort Collins three years ago. Under the watchful eye of Tim Miles, the Rams have gone from 7-25 in his first year in 2007-08 to a 19-win season last year that included a trip to the NIT. They went 9-7 in a Mountain West Conference that was at least as good as the Pac-10 last year (probably better). Stanford will still be the favorites to win (and should win), but Colorado State is no longer a team to look over on the schedule.
Obviously getting out of Maples and to MSG is a must. Not only because it would equal a couple of wins, but it would give the Cardinal an RPI-boost by putting them in a four-team tournament with other BCS schools, instead of having to play consolation games against low majors with RPIs of high 100s and above. Assuming everything goes chalk in the other three pods, third-seeded Stanford would be joined in the Big Apple by Syracuse (the No. 1 seed), Oklahoma State (#2) and Virginia Tech (#4, though the Hokies have to get past George Mason first, and that's no guarantee). If Stanford gets to this stage, a split has to be the minimum goal. It's achievable, too. The Cardinal's first opponent would be Oklahoma State- a team they lost to by one point two years ago and 11 last year (though the Card had the lead for most of the first half and kept it relatively close throughout the second). Stanford is better than they were last year, and they've shown they can hang with the Pokes. This will be a close game.
If they win, then it will be a date with Syracuse for the championship. The Orange are close to unbeatable in their home state and will be a very tall order for the Cardinal, but anything short of an embarrassment at the hands of Boeheim will be a positive for this bunch. And hey, Stanford damn near beat then-fifth-ranked Kentucky in Cancun with a less-talented team (with the exception of one Landry Fields), so who knows?
If Stanford loses to Oklahoma State, then it's a bout with either Virginia Tech or George Mason. The Hokies were once again one of the first four out of the NCAA tournament last year and George Mason posted 26 wins and a thrilling "second" round victory over Villanova (Thursday and Friday will always be opening round games in my eyes). That will also be a tough game and more of a must-win than the prior. I almost like Stanford's chances against Oklahoma State better than against the Hokies or Patriots just because they have seen the Cowboys the past two years and know for sure they can hang tough, but Virginia Tech or George Mason is a winnable game - the Hokies have a history of missing out on non-conference opportunities to boost their resume for March and George Mason loses two of their top three scorers from the squad that won the CAA regular season crown in 2010-11. Bottom line: Stanford can go 1-1 in New York. I'd consider that a successful trip. An 0-fer would give the Cardinal's at-large hopes a decent-sized blow.
Sprinkled in between the opening rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off and the hopeful trip to New York is a road game at UC Davis on Nov. 18. Anyone who loves Stanford basketball knows what happened the last time the Card made the two-hour drive to Davis (not a good road trip - Stanford also lost by 20 to eventual Round of 32 participant Montana in Big Sky country), and I'm sure Coach Dawkins will hammer that point home to his squad. It's a good first road game for this team, too - the Aggies are bad enough where Stanford should be able to win somewhat comfortably, but there will be a couple of moments in the game where the Card will have to overcome a little bit of adversity without there being too much on the line.
After the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Cardinal has a real shot to win out. Out of the remaining six non-conference games, the one at Seattle scares me the most. They might be the fourth-best of the remaining six teams, but Stanford has to play the Redhawks at Key Arena and the Card only beat them by 11 last year in a pretty sloppy game. Plus, Seattle is one of those teams that can lose to anybody or beat anybody: they have beaten Oregon State two consecutive years (including once by 51) and knocked off Virginia last year on the road. Former Bruin Cameron Dollar has a couple of dudes that can just ball up in Aaron Broussard and Cervante Burrell, and sometimes those types of players are the most dangerous. Don't get me wrong, Stanford is still better than Seattle and should win eight or nine times out of ten, but this could be a very dangerous game for the Card. I'll still place my bets on the pride of Palo Alto though.
Other than that, it's home games: Pacific, NC State, San Diego, Bethune-Cookman and Butler. Pacific is good by Big West standards and could contend for a spot in the CIT (a tournament they played in a couple of years ago), but it should be a double-digit victory for the Cardinal.
Stanford has feasted on third-world ACC teams (well, actually just Virginia), and NC State for the moment is just that. New head coach Mark Gottfried (of Alabama fame - he took the Tide to the Elite 8 in 2004) will make the Wolfpack much more than a mere afterthought in the ACC and the state of North Carolina, but he won't be able to re-build Rome in a day.
San Diego is coming off a 24-loss season, including a 16-point defeat at Maples last year and had the gambling scandal over their head this past off-season. Not that the actions of Brandon Johnson are going to affect the Toreros' on-court performance this year (I'd like to think not, at least), but USD is a far cry from the team that knocked off UConn in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
Bethune-Cookman went to the NIT last year as a result of winning the MEAC regular season crown, but had their best non-conference win against the Stetson Hatters of Atlantic Sun glory. Any BCS school has serious issues if it loses to a MEAC school outside of Morgan State (love him or hate him, former Cal coach Todd Bozeman is doing a heck of a job in B-More with a that Bears squad).
And then there's Butler. Yes, Butler has gone to the NCAA Title game the past two years. And yes, the Bulldogs absolutely ROCKED Stanford last year in Indianapolis. But this isn't the same team. No more Shelvin Mack-daddy. No more Matt Howard. And it won't be in Hinkle Fieldhouse, which will be a huge bonus for Stanford. Brad Stevens will probably find a way to get this team back to the NCAA tournament, and they still have plenty of good options (Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith, or should I say "that big white guy, whatever the hell his name is", as Bill Walton called him at halftime on the radio call of the Butler-VCU game last year), but Stanford can win this game this year. Dawkins will certainly have his team pumped for this game, and I'm sure there will be a huge crowd on hand in the Card's favor. Plenty of people will show up just out of pure curiosity of getting a chance to see Butler play in person.
When I wrote that Seattle gave me more nerves than Butler did this year, it's not because I think Seattle is a better team than Butler (the Bulldogs still have the Redhawks by a mile). It's that if Stanford loses to Butler, it's not all that big of a deal. Even if Butler turns out to not make the Big Dance, their name is big enough to where a selection committee will say a loss to Butler won't be a big knock. If Stanford loses to Seattle, on the other hand, well let's just say that same committee wouldn't have the same reaction. Seattle is plenty dangerous, but they lost 20 games last year and are conference-less until they join the WAC next year. A loss to the Redhawks would not be a good look.
It won't be an easy non-conference schedule by any stretch of the imagination- it's the right mix of guarantee games and challenges (assuming the Cardinal make it to Madison Square Garden, otherwise our non-conference might not look too hot). But for the most part, our challenging games are all winnable. I'd be happy with 10-2, and 9-3 wouldn't be the worst thing in the world (though I'd see it as a disappointment), but 11-1 is attainable. So, me being the eternal optimist of Stanford men's basketball, I say 11-1.
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