Most Stanford fans' eyes this weekend will still be focused on the football team, which has one final hurdle to climb in order to reach Ye Olde Place From Whence Ye Disappointment Springeth, also known as BCS limbo, or simply "hell" to playoff advocates like myself. Fortunately, you can distract yourself with an actual tournament-- and Stanford is even in it! (Those of you who like Cal, such as myself, and those of you who hate it, such as... well, probably everyone here who actually went to Stanford-- by the way, if you want my story, ask about it in the comments-- can cheer them/their enemies in the Old Spice Classic, another ESPN-sponsored event happening on the same three days this weekend.)
I like these early season tournaments, partly because they are great for assessing the progress of a team, and partly because they're a welcome relief from the usual parade of patsy-pounding powerhouses pompously plodding through the early part of the season. Win a game and you actually (gasp) have to play a tougher opponent in the next one! Who would ever have thought of such a system?
Let's take a look at what we can expect this weekend.
The Name of the Game: 76 Classic
[Interspersed rant #1: Am I the only one left in this country who objects to something which has been made up in the last decade being called a "classic"? Classics are classic either because they're really great and everyone remembers them, or because they're really old and everyone remembers them. The 76 Classic is a made-for-TV event which is in its fourth season. Are we going to take this Orwellian linguistic nonsense lying down?
Okay, so we probably are. Sue us.]
The Venue: Anaheim Convention Center
Anaheim is no man's land. Not literally, of course, but if you've listened to the Billy Joel song, you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, well, you're missing out. Click the link and get back to me in five minutes.
Fortunately, it is in California and near lots of Californians, some of whom went to Stanford. It is not near Murray, Kentucky, nor Tulsa, OK, and is not filled with graduates of universities located in those cities. Although it is plausibly close to Las Vegas.
Bizarre trivia fact: Anaheim is geographically east of Reno. Who knew?
Based on what I saw of last year's edition, the Convention Center is not a great environment for shooting in. It's not an enormous barn like the Pontiac Superdome, home of so many ill-placed Final Fours and regional finals, but last year it seemed pretty rough going. Then again, I was mostly watching UCLA, and last year's UCLA team couldn't have hit a shot if you offered them a french kiss with Mila Kunis (warning: cheesecake) for making it, so take that for what it's worth.
Alright, here's the interesting part. The Stanford side of the bracket includes Murray State, UNLV and Tulsa. The opposite side? Oklahoma State, CSU Northridge, Virginia Tech and DePaul. Break out the whiteboards and annoying markers that dry out and you can never know whether they'll write or not!
Thursday's Opponent: Murray State
Murray State's mascot is the Racers. This is, in light of the team's consistently slow-paced style of play, ironic. The last time a Murray State team played at a fast pace was in 2004, when Chris Hernandez was awesome and Brandon Roy was still a sophomore role-player. Life is a strange beast.
So, we can expect a grind-it-out game. The Racers are defensively focused, and as usual for a small-conference school, are lacking in frontcourt size, with their tallest starter checking in at 6'6". Expect them to constantly hound the ballcarrier (so far this season, they are third in the NCAA in steal percentage, and were similarly good at that last year) to attempt to deny entry passes to Josh Owens and Dwight Powell. Their own offense is on the weak side, but Stanford must be wary of the very biblically named 5'11" Isaiah Canaan, who is a lights-out three point shooter if left unguarded.
Murray State is a quality program with an excellent track record. Last year, in the NCAA, they beat Vanderbilt (ok, so that's not much of an accomplishment; Vandy folds faster than a cheap accordion in the Tournament most years) and took Butler to the very edge of defeat, which by the transitive property of basketball, means they were apparently a Final Four quality team. Unfortunately, the transitive property of basketball is complete bunkum. The game is late, they'll be out of their element on the West Coast, and Stanford is a considerably deeper and taller team, while not too much less quick or athletic at the guard spots. This should be a win.
Because of the way these tournaments are set up, it's hard to predict who Stanford will face. According to the Ken Pomeroy predictions, there is approximately a 63% chance that Stanford will face UNLV, so let's start with them.
Nevada Las Vegas
The Runnin' Rebels (not to be confused with the Mississippi Admiral Ackbars) pose a formidable challenge for the young Cardinal team. A couple of minimal contributors departed, but overall the team is essentially intact from a group which won 25 games and nearly transitively beat Kansas in the NCAA tournament. (Damn it, I'm doing it again. Oh, transitive property. Why do you haunt me so?)
UNLV has a somewhat curious roster, in that they start just one player over 6'8", yet have so far been dominated by inside scoring. The team lacks a knockdown three-point specialist and thus relies primarily on penetration and passing to generate offense. They do not draw tons of fouls (last year UNLV was 320th in the NCAA in percentage of points earned at the free throw stripe), which is good news for the foul-prone bigs of Stanford, but the less athletic forwards may have considerable trouble staying in front of their defensive marks. Coach Dawkins may be wise to turn to a zone for extended portions of this game, because UNLV needs to beat people off the dribble to achieve maximum success offensively.
One would be remiss not to mention the importance of Chace Stanbeck to the team. Stanbeck, one of a sequence of players expressly or implicitly chased off by Ben Howland of late, transferred from UCLA after a freshman season in which he barely played and has turned into a bonafide star at UNLV. I'm thinking Howland wishes he had that one to do over.
Defensively, UNLV has been ferocious so far this year, allowing a ludicrous 30.3 shooting percentage on 2-pointers, easily the best in the country through three games. Offensive rebounding and outside shooting will be critical for Stanford to score enough points to defeat the Rebels.
Overall, this is a difficult matchup. UNLV is a veteran, athletic and tenacious team with a tremendous work ethic on defense and a good recent track record of success. They do have to play outside of the infamously tough Thomas and Mack Center for the first time this season, so here's hoping that the tenacity slips a bit without a partisan crowd egging them on.
Unlike UNLV, Tulsa fields a roster decimated by recent losses. Just four players on the current team carry significant scoring loads, three of them guards along with inside presence Steven Idlet at 6'11". Tulsa does nothing spectacular on offense other than draw fouls and hold the ball against turnovers. If Stanford faces off with the Golden Hurricane, getting quickly into the bonus may be Tulsa's best chance to win.
By contrast, Tulsa's lack of depth may be exposed. Idlet had serious issues last year with foul trouble, averaging better than 5 fouls per 40 minutes played. He's not quite in Matt Howard territory, but he's not far off, either. Tulsa has bigs to replace him, but those bigs cannot match his scoring ability around the rim. Turn Tulsa into a jump-shooting team and they are not likely to come out victorious; once again, they lack that sensational outside shooter capable of racking up five or six threes in a game and really exploiting Stanford's lack of perimeter quickness.
Overall, I'd rate this a favorable matchup. Tulsa lacks depth and versatility at the offensive end and does not play awe-inspiring defense. Stanford's wider variety of quality options and the presence of the best player on the floor, Jeremy Green, should prove the difference.
Sunday's Opposition: A Mixed Bag
It's almost impossible to figure out probabilities of facing any of these guys, given the bewildering number of different scenarios that can arise from the first two days of action. Let's go best to worst, instead.
Oddly, Stanford could end up playing the Cowboys twice. A trip to Stillwater for the Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Series, along with the right set of scenarios unfolding here, could see the rarity of two teams matching up twice in nonconference play. Last year's tormentor James Anderson is gone, along with sharpshooter Obi Muonelo, but Oklahoma State returns a powerful front line spearheaded by three rebounding machines, Marshall Moses, Matt Pilgrim and JC transfer Darrell Williams. Don't expect the Cardinal to make much hay on the glass in this matchup. Their guards are nothing to write home about, but Stanford may lack the scoring punch from the outside to make them pay unless Jeremy Green has a sensational game. Overall, a tough draw for Dawkins and Co.
One of those teams that always manages to disappoint, Virginia Tech is nonetheless looking up this year as they lose almost nothing off a team last year which narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. Last year's edition struggled offensively in the ACC, and one might doubt whether rising seniors really have that much improvement left in their games, but the experience level alone gives them a significant leg up in a matchup with Stanford. A balanced, generally tall roster and a ball-hawking defense are their trademark. Overall, also a difficult matchup, and a win here would speak volumes to the level of poise of one of the youngest Cardinal teams ever.
DePaul may have been the last independent ever to get a bid to the NCAA tournament, but since joining the Big East, they've been a complete basket case. In the last two seasons, the Blue Demons are 2-37 against Big East opposition and have one win over a team in the Ken Pomeroy top 100. If this was European soccer and not NCAA hoops, they'd have been relegated to Division II for that kind of showing. The current edition can't rebound or shoot from the outside. A loss to DePaul would be a serious blow to Stanford's Tournament hopes.
I once attended the Epicenter Classic debate tournament at Northridge (another non-classic Classic-- I'm plagued with the damn things, it would seem), way back in my halcyon years of college debate, and before I realized that card tournaments were just as much fun as debate tournaments and required infinitely less busy-work. That is the sum total of my entire experience with the school. They play in the Big West, they're ranked in the 250s in the Pomeroy ratings, and their all-time NCAA tournament record is 0-2. If Stanford is playing these guys, something has gone dreadfully wrong in the first two games.
Well, there you go. It's not a great field, but there are some quality games to be had here if Stanford can make a deep run. The Cardinal are definitely on the tougher side of the bracket, so winning it all would be a very impressive notch on the team's belt. However, a neutral-court win or two over quality opposition would be plenty to keep turkey-dazed fans excited about the season heading into the team's semester break.