Stanford Looks to Pad the Record

If you figure Stanford needs 18-20 wins to make the NCAA Tournament, it's hard to imagine the Cardinal dancing without grabbing two this weekend. The host Card will be heavy favorites over Oregon and Oregon State – what does The Bootleg foresee? Read Daniel Novinson's preview, along with his look at how the Cardinal are faring midway through the 2008-09 season.

Stanford Midseason Report
Preseason, if you'd have told me Stanford would be sitting at 12-3 overall, 2-3 in the Pac-10 and with the #43 RPI in the country, I would have said you were crazy. (Well, except for the 2-3 Pac-10 mark, which I figured would sound about right for a likely losing season.) But here the Cardinal are at the season's halfway mark (plus or minus a postseason game or two), not only in contention for an NCAA berth, but actually in better shape than they were with the presumably superior rosters of years past.

Through 15 games last year, with two Lopez twins, Fred Washington and Taj Finger also at Trent Johnson's disposal, the Card were 13-2, or just one game better. Plus, that's actually the only year Johnson started out hotter than this season – the Card were 11-4 two seasons ago, and 8-7 in 2005-06 and 2004-05.

But it's not just a contrast with recent Stanford history that deems the first half of this season a phenomenal success. Consider that the Cardinal were picked to finish ninth in the preseason Pac-10 media poll.

Or, most saliently of all, note that Stanford is 11-3 against the spread this year. (There was no line on the Hartford game). Even as Vegas realizes how well Stanford is playing and adjusts their lines accordingly, the Card have still outperformed the experts' expectations in 11 of 14 games. That's simply unreal. Kudos to Johnny Dawkins and the squad.

Now, the million-dollar question is can the hot streak keep up. If I were a newspaper columnist paid for my ability to write punchy lines, no matter how devoid of substance they are, I could say something like "If Stanford outperforms expectations (scratch that, too precise) stays as hot (check, sufficiently punchy yet nebulous) as they have thus far, there's no doubt (check, self-evident) they'll be dancing (check, punchy) come March."
(Seriously, count the number of self-evident statements in your next local newspaper sports column. Still, to truly sound like a newspaper columnist, I'd need to write snappy, one-sentence paragraphs.
Like this.
And this.
Okay, no more rants, I promise.)

Anyways, my best guess is Stanford is favored in all four Oregon games, both Washington home games, maybe vs. USC, maybe at Arizona and against CSU Bakersfield. That leaves the Card as underdogs in L.A., Berkeley and Tempe, and vs. UCLA, which I consider wholly reasonable. So if Stanford plays to par, (splitting vs. USC and at Arizona), they would finish 19-10 overall and 8-10 in the league. The Pac-10 is currently the No. 2 rated conference in the country (behind the ACC) and the bubble's been getting weaker in recent years, but still, the Cardinal would have to pull an upset or two in the Pac-10 Tournament to slip in.

So here's my bottom line: Stanford's played well enough that if they win all the ones they should, they'll finish just a game or two short of the NCAA Tournament. Thus, the Card is going to need to continue to outperform the spread (though not by as much) and pull one or two more upsets -- whether in the regular season or in the Staples Center – to sneak into the Big Dance.

All this is moot, of course, if Stanford doesn't clean up against the teams it should. Given the Cardinal's thin margin of error, and given the RPI hit another loss to a poor team would entail after the Washington roadie, all the remaining should-wins are now must-wins for Stanford.

Can they do it? The test starts this weekend.

Scouting Oregon
Tip: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. PT (No TV)

Oregon (6-12, 0-6 Pac-10) is a poor No. 118 in the RPI. In addition to an 0-fer-Pac-10 run, they are also 0-for-top-100 teams, though not for lack of opportunity: the Ducks are a whopping 0-10 against top-100 squads by RPI. Oregon's best wins came against BCS-conference opponents Kansas State and Alabama, but, make no mistake, it's been a disappointing season in Eugene. The Ducks have lost six straight and are now just 5-11 against the spread. They weren't supposed to be good, but, my goodness, they weren't supposed to be this bad.

In contrast to their offensively-impotent rivals, the Ducks run into all sorts of trouble on D. Neither Oregon school has great inside size (wonderful news for the Card, given their paint defense in recent outings), but opposing offenses have obliterated the Ducks with particular relish. Oregon loses its average game 77-71, getting outshot 47 percent to 41 percent, and outrebounded 38-34. Josh Owens, Law Hill, Will Paul – today is your day.

As always, the Ducks are skilled on the perimeter, where their two double-digit scorers, 5-6 (cough, cough) junior guard TaJuan Porter (Detroit represent!) and 6-5 redshirt sophomore guard LeKendric Longmire (11 points), reside. Porter (14 points) takes nearly double the threes of any of his teammates (he's an average 35 percent from deep). No Duck averages over seven boards per game, and Oregon has only 61 blocks on the season.

Vegas: Stanford 81, Oregon 68. (Stanford -13, Total: 149)
The Bootleg: Stanford 75, Oregon 65

Scouting Oregon State
Tip: Saturday, 7:00 p.m. PT (Comcast Bay Area, FS Northwest, FCS Pacific)

Oregon State (4-12, 1-5 Pac-10) has a worse record and a worse RPI (#223) than their in-state rivals, yet it's been a pleasant surprise of a season, if anything, for the Beavers. They are 0-3 against top-50 opponents, but sport home wins against Nebraska and USC, the latter of which earned Coach Craig Robinson a congratulatory phone call from his brother-in-law, a man by the name of Barack Obama. (Robinson has been in Washington D.C. for the Inauguration, so perhaps his team will be more distracted or worse-prepared this week.) Oregon State also took Washington State to overtime last week, before falling 61-57.

The Beavers' season has roughly played out to form, as OSU is 5-7 against the spread thus far. The most interesting note on Oregon State is that since Nov. 30, they are undefeated every time they've broken 60 points. Of course, Oregon State is 4-6 since Nov. 30 and has lost four straight, which speaks volumes about the offensive struggles in Corvallis.

Sophomore guard Calvin Haynes doesn't start, but leads the Beavers with 33 minutes and 15 points per game. Sophomore forward Omari Johnson adds 10 points per contest.

Most of the Beavers, Haynes and Johnson included, aren't particularly good shooters, with Oregon State averaging just 59.5 points per game on 46 percent overall, 32 percent three-point, and 63 percent free throw shooting. The one exception is senior guard Rickey Claitt, who scores seven points per game on 59 percent overall and 48 percent three-point shooting.

The Beavers get outrebounded by two boards per game, so Stanford's Achilles heel shouldn't crop up here. The Beavers also have a -2.4 turnover margin, so Dawkins' defense should have a chance to force steals. (Opponents average 6.5 swipes per game).

Like with Oregon, no further analysis is necessary. Stanford's the clear favorite for myriad reasons, and if they play to their potential, they'll win comfortably.

The Bootleg: Stanford 75, Oregon State 58. [The under-60 streak continues for the Beavers.]

Pac-10 Predictions:
Predicted: Stanford 65, Arizona State 60 Actual: Arizona State 90, Stanford 60
Predicted: Arizona 69, Stanford 67 Actual: Stanford 76, Arizona 60
Predicted: Washington 78, Stanford 65 Actual: Washington 84, Stanford 83
Predicted: Stanford 57, Wash. State 53 Actual: Wash. State 55, Stanford 54
Predicted: Stanford 76, Cal 72. Actual: Stanford 75, Cal 69
Predicted: Stanford 75, Oregon 65
Predicted: Stanford 75, Oregon State 58

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