(Note: In analyzing the matchups, I have assumed that Justin Davis will be available and able to contribute, even if not at 100%.)
The Big Three. These teams will be the most difficult to beat if they bring their A games:
What Stanford needs to do to win: Coach K prefers to run an offense based on principles more than set plays, and as much as any team in the nation, Duke loves to spread the floor, penetrate and kick. Limiting Duke's transition opportunities and penetration is half the battle on defense. Do that, and keep a man on J.J. Redick at all times, and the usually explosive Blue Devils can be held to a reasonable point total. Of course, doing all those things is far easier said than done for most of Duke's opponents. On the other hand, the Cardinal is arguably as good as anyone at limiting opponents' transition opportunities, and Stanford has proven capable of controlling the interior and preventing slashers from getting to the hole when the frontline is healthy. On offense, the key for Stanford would be its front line. Duke does not have the depth and experience to match the Card up front, and probable foul trouble for Shelden Williams would likely be costly.
What makes Duke a dangerous opponent: For starters, Duke is obviously an excellent all-around team, and, like Stanford, the Devils match up well with anybody. One area of inconsistency for Stanford this year has been defending against the three. If Duke can demonstrate more patience than it is accustomed to, the Devils may get enough open looks to make Stanford pay from deep. Arizona demonstrated in its games against Stanford that patience is crucial to getting good looks and shooting a high percentage, as the Cats did at Maples. By contrast, Arizona demonstrated at McKale that jacking up quick shots is a recipe for disaster against the Card. On the defensive end, Duke's aggressive double-teaming on the perimeter could give Stanford real trouble, as the Cardinal has faced few teams that trap as frequently and effectively.
What Stanford needs to do to win: Keys to beating Connecticut include (1) stopping the Huskies' fast break, (2) limiting Ben Gordon's open looks and (3) preventing Emeka Okafor from getting the ball too close to the basket. Stanford has been able to stop everyone's fast break, and UConn's should be no exception. The tougher task for Stanford will be to limit Gordon and Okafor. Gordon is deadly from outside, but he can also penetrate exceptionally well. If Stanford were to play man to man defense, Matt Lottich and Nick Robinson would need to blanket Gordon on the perimeter and hope that if he beats them off the dribble, help defense will prevent him from taking it all the way to the hole for easy buckets. Okafor is probably less of a problem than Gordon. Rob Little should be far more capable of defending him than he was last year, as Little is now in phenomenal physical shape. It's worth noting that it wasn't until Little wore down in the second half that Okafor took over in the second round tournament game last year. Big Rob also has a chip on his shoulder, and takes personal responsibility for that loss. In any case, Stanford has proven again this year that it can contain any opposing post player with effective double-teaming. As good as Okafor is on defense, he's not better than, say, Ike Diogu on offense. The Cardinal's depth up front will also be a factor, as playing physical and even fouling Okafor is a good strategy, given the big man's weak free throw shooting. It shouldn't be necessary to employ the tactics used on Tim Duncan back in 1997, but it is an option.
What makes UConn a dangerous opponent: When he's on his game, Okafor can control the paint on the defensive end like no other college player. Officiating is often a wildcard. When the zebras swallow the whistle and give him the All-American treatment, Okafor can dominate for 30 minutes or more. On the other hand, he can be prone to foul trouble when the officials are less deferential. On offense, Ben Gordon is as dangerous a scorer as there is in college basketball when he's on his game. He shoots 44% from behind the arc, and if given space, can knock it down from NBA range. With his quickness and ups, he can get his shot off against just about anyone at any time. If he heats up, there's little an opponent can do (although Stanford might try to trap him out of the 1-1-3 zone to limit his looks). The Huskies are not the best team in college basketball day in and day out, but their one-two punch of Gordon and Okafor will make them a very tough out if both are on their games.
What Stanford needs to do to win: North Carolina has enough size and athleticism at the 1 through 3 spots to cause Stanford some problems on both ends, but lack of size and depth up front is a weakness the Cardinal should be able to exploit. Sean May is skilled in the paint, but he is the Heels' only quality post player, and at 6'8", is unlikely to disrupt the Cardinal frontline on the defensive end as some past ACC teams have. Stanford's inside game is likely to get the better of North Carolina, and the Cardinal should enjoy its usual advantage on the boards. On defense, Stanford's ability to prevent transition baskets would be key, as with Duke and Connecticut. Roy Williams' teams always look for fastbreak opportunities. The Heels are far less dangerous in their half court offense, and with their 35% three point shooting and 68% free throw shooting, they are likely to have some trouble scoring against Stanford's defense.
What makes North Carolina a dangerous opponent: Although they lack the size to completely neutralize Stanford's big men as they have in the past, the Heels have as much quickness and athleticism as ever. They have the potential to disrupt Stanford's set offense. Roy Williams is somewhat familiar with Stanford and its tendencies, even if this year's Cardinal squad is far more dynamic than past editions. Williams has had some trouble inspiring his players to get after it on the defensive end, but if they step up their intensity in March, the Heels will be far more difficult to beat than their current ranking or likely seeding would suggest.
Other Notable Teams
St. Joseph's: With the nation's best backcourt, the Hawks are capable of torching any team that doesn't defend the perimeter well. Stanford has been inconsistent in defending the three, and if it doesn't put the clamps on Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, the Card could find itself in serious trouble as it did when the teams met back in 2001. On offense, Stanford should be able to handle the Hawks' typical early fullcourt pressure with its effective press-breakers and ability to pass over the top of shorter opponents. The Cardinal's frountcourt advantage should give Stanford an overall edge against the Hawks in a fun matchup of contrasting styles.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers play tough, physical defense and like to play grind-it-out basketball. They have a chance at beating Stanford if they can limit the Cardinal's transition game and turn it into a half court affair. On the other hand, Stanford is not likely to lose a half court game to a team that averages just 32.5% from three and 63.5% from the line if the Card brings it's A or B+ game.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in points per game, despite mediocre outside shooting (33.6% from three) and free throw shooting (65.9% from the line; 9th in the SEC), thanks to a tenacious defense that leads the SEC in steals. Stanford should be fine against the Bulldogs if, but only if, they take care of the ball. If Stanford turns it over, watch out.
Gonzaga: Stanford and Gonzaga are quite familiar with each other, as they have squared off this year and last at the Newell Challenge in Oakland. The strength of the Zags is their solid, if unspectacular, play from their point guard (Blake Stepp) and post players (Corey Violette and Ronny Turiaf). Unfortunately for Gonzaga, Stanford can match the Zags at the 1, 4 and 5 spots, while the Cardinal has a significant advantage at the wings. The rotation of Tony "Principal" Skinner, Kyle Bankhead and Erroll Knight is not on par with Stanford's big three of Matt Lottich, Josh Childress and Nick Robinson. Adam Morrison leads an unusually deep Gonzaga bench that nullifies some of the advantage Stanford usually enjoys in that department. The Card handled Gonzaga in Oakland without Childress, and there's no reason to believe the result is likely to be different if the teams face off again. Odds of beating Stanford: 5 to 2
1. Stanford. #1 seed in the West if the season were to end today.
2. Arizona. The Wildcats would be a #6 seed if the season ended now, although bracketologists differ considerably on the proper seeding for Arizona.
NCAA Tournament Bubble
1. Oregon. Should have to win 5 more down the stretch and 2 games in the
Pac-10 tournament to make the dance, but despite a 12-7 record and no quality
wins, the selection committee's track record suggests the Ducks could get back
on the bubble.
2. Washington. The Huskies have a shot at third place, although one point home win over Beavers raises questions about whether the Dawgs' recent surge is to be taken seriously.
3. Kal. Despite suggestions to the contrary by Bay Area media, the weenies aren't in nearly as strong a position as the Ducks because (1) they don't have Phil Knight's backing and (2) they don't have a significant injury as an excuse for their poor record. If the Bears don't win at least one of two in SoCal, they'll be in jeopardy of missing the NIT, as well.
4. UCLA. Home game against Stanford on Saturday could be the Bruins' last chance to save face this year.
5. Washington State. Still have a chance to finish .500 overall and ahead of UCLA in the Pac-10 standings. Go Cougs!
1. Arizona State. There's a month left in the season, but the Ike Watch has
begun. If he leaves, Evans might as well pack his bags, too.
2. Oregon State. With three conference wins and a near upset of Washington on the road in its last game, things could be much worse for OSU.
3. USC. Despite current tailspin, the Trojans' effort against Stanford tomorrow is likely to be off the charts (at least by their lowly standards).
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