Big Thursday

We are just hours away from tip-off, and Stanford fans are still wrestling with the notion that their Cardinal have so much on the line against a visiting Washington State squad. The Cougars controlled the Card completely when they last met, and Stanford has to find a way to turn the tables tonight. If they don't, it could be a difficult Selection Sunday to swallow in 10 days...

In a typical year for Stanford Basketball, this would be a sleepy Thursday in Palo Alto.  But tonight when the Cardinal host the Cougars from Washington State at Maples Pavilion, more will be on the line than for any Stanford-WSU game in the last decade.  Washington State is currently fighting their way into Pac-10 respectability, holding down the 7th place in the conference and having an excellent chance at earning their best Pac-10 Tournament seed since the post-season event was revived three years ago.  The Cougs failed to make the tournament the first two years and last year landed the eighth seed, only to be dismantled by top-ranked Stanford, 68-47.  Washington State would almost surely clinch a return to the Staples Center if they can upset Stanford tonight at Maples; only an improbable set of outcomes elsewhere in the conference this week could then keep them out (i.e. Oregon sweeps UCLA and USC while Cal upsets Washington tonight).  If WSU wins tonight and then Saturday at Haas Pavilion, they could be seeded fifth or sixth next week in Los Angeles.

For Stanford, the range of seedings in LA is more narrow: either #3 or #4.  A win tonight locks up their third seed because UCLA could do no better than tie Stanford at 11-7 for third place in the final regular season standings, and the Cardinal would edge the Bruins for that #3 seed by virtue of sweeping them home and away this season.  Seedings this time of year are a consuming mathematical exercise, but Stanford has even bigger fish to fry.  The Card are currently projected as a #8 or #9 seed in the NCAA Touranment, and their remaining games could lift their seed and thus the difficulty of their probable bracket path... or they could find themselves knocked out of the Big Dance, ending a heralded 10-year streak of NCAA berths extending back to the 1994-95 season.

Most of the talking heads and prognosticators see Stanford as "in" the NCAA Tournament if they pick up one win in their two games this week, though it is hard to discount what damage could be done if they do not also pick up a first round win next week at the Staples Center.  But a win tonight would be a big boost, no matter how you massage the RPI projections.

"I think if we win these two, we're in," opines junior Matt Haryasz.  "If we split, we probably need to win our first game in the Pac-10 Tournament."

The affable and easy-going big man is one of the rare Cards who will talk to you about bracketology, however.  The Stanford coaches and players are more focused on the difficulty that Washington State presents.  To refresh your memory, the last time these two teams met, it was the Pac-10 opener for both schools on New Year's Eve.  The Cardinal were completely outclassed and never had any appearance of a chance at winning the game, which the Cougars controlled in Spokane on both ends of the court.  While Stanford has excelled through the years in a halfcourt game, they met a new level of mastery in Dick Bennett's squad that cold and dark evening.  It was a shocking game, considering the one-sided mastery by the team that had lost 17 straight games in the series.

Most notable and appalling for Cardinalmaniacs that day was Stanford's offensive ineptitude.  Dan Grunfeld was the only Cardinal who scored in double digits, with 18 points.  Tim Morris tied with Chris Hernandez for second on the team in scoring, with nine points.  Both Grunfeld and Morris are gone for Stanford this rematch, which tightens your throat as tonight's tip-off approaches.  Stanford has had problems throughout this season scoring, simply lacking the offensive firepower and skill level to consistently put points on the board, but Washington State has the ability to take even an average offensive team and humiliate them to tears.  The Cougars are #1 in the conference in both scoring defense (56.9 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (40.8%).

Traditionally, the defensive teams that give Stanford fits are those who employ presses or elevate the tempo and frenetic level of the game to initiate a rash of turnovers.  Think of USC's teams the last several years, or what Arizona has done at times.  But WSU is on the opposite end of the spectrum, operating almost exclusively in the halfcourt on defense and playing the most disciplined matchups you can imagine.  Dick Bennett does at Washington State what he did in Wisconsin: apply one-man ball pressure and keep all four other players in their matchup, rotating pressure to the respective man as the ball moves.  They minimize their mistakes and force you to execute at a high level to have any chance at high percentage shots.

"I just remember, every time I caught the ball, there was a guy there with two hands," Hernandez remembers of Stanford's last meeting at WSU.

"I'd like to get to the point where we're that solid defensively - where the ball goes, you go," praises Trent Johnson of the Cougars.

"Defensively they guard you.  Offensively they make you guard them.  Their style kills me," the Cardinal head coach adds.

It was excruciating to watch WSU's defense stymie Stanford in Spokane, if not outright embarrassing.  But there is little hope that the Card will turn a dramatic corner with some genius plan to slice Bennett's defense.  Instead, the focus for this game turns to the other end of the floor.  As obvious as Washington State's defensive control was in that December 31 game, the more incredible feat was their offensive execution against Stanford.  The Cardinal have been a proud defensive team throughout their years of success, but they looked like France circa 1940 with their inability to stop the Cougars in the halfcourt.

Washington State scored at a 45.2% clip in that game, including 53.8% from behind the arc - both marks that stand as some of the worst Stanford has allowed in the Pac-10.  Jeff Varem went for 18 points and 12 boards, doing everything he wanted in the game from all spots on the floor.  The athletic forward was a Card killer when they played up North last winter as well, scoring 14 points and grabing nine rebounds in the near-upset.

"Jeff Varem is a very difficult matchup because he's skilled and he plays hard," Johnson comments on the 6'6" senior from Nigeria.  Varem has the athleticism and strength to dominate around the basket on both sides of the floor, as seen by his team-best 7.8 rebounds per game, but he also has the skills and shooting touch to take bigger defenders away from the basket and hurt them.  Earlier in the week, it was discussed that Stanford might put Haryasz on the wing/forward, given some of their similar abilities and attributes, even though they have very different bodies.  But the Cardinal do not have the frontcourt bodies to necessarily handle the remaining WSU post players if Haryasz moves away from the basket on defense.  Don't be surprised if Nick Robinson gets the call on Varem tonight, with Haryasz on 6'7" forward Chris Schlatter.  If those assignments stick, then that would put the weight on Fred Washington's shoulders to contain Thomas Kelati, who leads the Cougars in scoring (13.5 ppg), three-point shooting (39.3%) and assists (3.0 per game).

More than matchups, the Cardinal need to step up their defensive intensity to stop and disrupt Washington State's patient and deliberate offense.  As anemic as Stanford's offense looked in Spokane, it was their defense that lost them the game.

"They do have players who are capable of executing," says Hernandez of the WSU offense.  "They key for us is being more aggressive defensively.  They lull you to sleep."

Stanford would like to turn the tables and be the team that has two hands in the face of every Cougar ballhandler, but they may also look to mix things up on defense.  Trent Johnson floated the possibility this week of rotating some zone and man defenses on made/missed basket situations, and a disciplined zone on paper looks viable.  Washington State comes into tonight ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in three-point shooting percentage, at just 31.9%.  Only California (31.7%) is worse, and Stanford has tremendous success when they zoned the Bears at Maples a few weeks ago.

The Cardinal also may have their best chance of improving their offensive production in this rematch if their defense succeeds.  The Cougars excel in their halfcourt defense but can be beaten in transition, where Hernandez, Haryasz and Washington can do some damage.  Stanford had negligible opportunities to run in Spokane given the sloth tempo and the high percentage Washington State scored, but the Card would love to run the break off their defensive stops in the comfortable confines of Maples Pavilion.  Get the home crowd and Sixth Man Section rolling.

That is a best-case scenario, but most probably this will be a slow and deliberate game where both defenses outshine the opposing offenses.  In conference games this year, the top two defensive teams in the league have been Stanford (41.0%) and Washington State (41.7%).  With that in mind, it may be a good thing that tonight's tilt will go untelevised.  The absence of TV cameras doesn't change just how big this game is tonight.  Ugly or not, it has an unusual "must win" feeling for the Cardinal that is undeniable and compelling.  We'll bring you the full recap afterward, so stay tuned.

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