Northern Arizona (3-5) at Stanford (5-0)
Weds. Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m. PT
Northwestern (7-1) at Stanford
Sat. Dec. 20, 7 p.m. PT
Note: Statistics may have changed slightly since the article was written.
As an '08 Stanford grad, I saw football lose to Cal-Davis and beat Cal. I saw football blow a 21-point fourth quarter lead to UCLA – and win as 41-point underdogs at USC. I saw basketball lose to Montana, and I saw Brook Lopez block 12 shots in a game. I saw basketball lose to UC-Davis too -- and saw them come this close to winning the Pac-10 at Pauley Pavilion. Suffice it to say, I've learned the hard way never to take anything for granted. That's doubly true given the youth and low expectations surrounding this year's basketball squad.
With that disclaimer out of the way though, on paper, this should be Stanford's most lopsided game of the season. Northern Arizona is 3-6, with their wins against schools I thought were fictional towns in TV sitcoms (Haskell, Utah Valley, and Northern New Mexico), and not actual basketball programs. In its two games against actual competition, the Lumberjacks have lost sizably, at UNLV (87-71) and at an Arizona squad (74-57) that's a shadow of its former self.
Stanford should have its fun offensively as NAU opponents are shooting 48% overall and 43% deep. I'd look for guys like Kenny Brown and Drew Shiller to be given the minutes (and unobstructed looks at the basket) to show what they can do. NAU's stats are otherwise pretty par for the course for a struggling team, but the 57.8% free throw shooting bears mention. If everything goes wrong and the game's somehow close coming down the stretch, put forward Shane Johannsen on the line, where he's just 6-of-17 (35%) this season. Shaqtastic!
Guards Matt Johnson and Josh Wilson lead the way with 13 and 10 points per game respectively. Let Wilson shoot deep, where he's just 5-of-22 (23%). Forward Zarko Comagic, the Lumberjacks' third-leading scorer at 9.6 points per game, deserves special mention for his name alone. As a Detroit boy, Zarko obviously makes me long for Darko Milicic, the former Pistons #2 overall draft pick, human victory cigar (only used when the game was safely out of reach), and ironic fan favorite.
I'm left scratching my head in wonder at what co-magic might be. Things that people think can't be real but actually have a scientific explanation, like the aurora borealis? The inverse, like intelligent design? We should all have plenty of time to ponder thoughts like these Wednesday…
Prediction: Stanford 82, Northern Arizona 58
Fearless prediction #1: Stanford scores what turns out to be its season-high in points here.
Fearless prediction #2: Shiller and Brown both reach double digits. One of them comes within a few points of the game's leading scorer.
This could very well be Stanford's first loss of the season.
The Wildcats are a coach's dream. They're not the most athletic team, but they are fundamentally sound and win with their defense.
In terms of fundamentals, the Wildcats' assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4 is nothing to scoff at, especially compared to their opponents' assist-to-turnover ratio of .44. Stanford is lucky that their starting backcourt is experienced, but Mitch Johnson's propensity to force a pass (a team-high 2.8 turnovers per game in 2008) could hurt him here.
Strangely, Northwestern does not shoot that well. You'd expect a winning, relatively unathletic team to be lights out from the three-point and free-throw lines, but Northwestern only has half that equation down. They're 41.5% on three-pointers, but just 65% on free throws. Overall, Northwestern shoots 47.6%, good but not spectacular.
So far then, we have a picture of Northwestern as an okay offense team solid in the ball-control department. What then explains the gaudy 7-1 record? Well, an easy schedule for one for one, but an outstanding defense is unquestionably part of the equation. Facing this unit could give Stanford fans the headaches the Card's defense gave opponents last year. What comes around goes around, I guess. Opponents are shooting just 28.3% deep and 36.7% overall against Northwestern, and averaging just 49.4 points per game. The Wildcats held DePaul to 36, Florida State to 59, and in their only loss of the season, a host (and darn good) Butler team to 57. Much has been made, rightfully so, of Stanford's defensive questions heading into this season, but it will be the Card's offense that will be put to the test by the Wildcats. Countless times last year, when the rest of his teammates could not score, Brook Lopez carried Stanford's offense on his back. Is there someone on this roster that can be that same go-to scorer?
For Northwestern, guard Craig Moore and forward Kevin Coble, both Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last year, are those go-to scorers. At 15 and 14 points per game, respectively, they're the only Wildcats in double figures. Moore is dangerous deep, where he's shooting 52.1% this season.
The teams haven't played any common opponents, but did play last year, with Stanford winning 71-60 in Evanston. Robin Lopez scored 19, while Anthony Goods and Landry Fields added 16 apiece. Coble didn't play for Northwestern, but then-freshman guard Michael Thompson scored all 16 of his points in the second half. He averages nine points per game this year.
Schedule-wise, Northwestern has beat some cupcakes en route to 7-1, but did knock off Florida State 73-59 in the Big Ten-ACC challenge and played Butler hard before losing, 57-53, in Indianapolis. Those results, and the dominant defense Northwestern has displayed against the cupcakes, suggest the Wildcats are on their way to one of their best seasons in years and a finish in the middle of the Big Ten. Stanford fans can't say the same for their school, which, along with the Wildcats' D, is why I'm going with a surprise pick here…
Prediction: Northwestern 65, Stanford 61
Fearless prediction: The game reminds of one of those 53-51 Washington State thrillers. Specifically, Stanford has a stretch of offensive futility, something like two points in seven minutes, that leaves fans fuming.
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