Going into Sunday’s game against Oregon in Maples, Stanford occupied a position squarely in the middle of the bubble. On Friday, Joe Lunardi listed the Cardinal as one of the Last Four In and an 11-seed overall.
Although Stanford had no truly bad losses (their worst being in Chicago to a DePaul team that has also beat tournament-caliber Xavier and St. John’s), their lack of good wins served as the knock against them. Oregon presented an opportunity for the Cardinal’s second top-50 RPI win of the year.
Alas, though, the team squandered this opportunity, as they have done with others throughout the season. After opening the game on 8-15 shooting, the Cardinal let Oregon go on a 17-6 run over an 8-minute stretch to end the half in which they made zero field goals. Despite Chasson Randle’s 12-point second half, Stanford never recovered en route to their fifth loss against a top-50 team.
After that loss, Stanford slid out of the bubble and now occupies a spot on Lunardi’s Next Four Out, with 6 teams between them and a tournament spot: Miami, Pittsburgh, Illinois, UCLA, Texas, and Davidson.
However, thanks to a season-ending trip to Tucson to play the Arizona Wildcats (# 7 RPI), the Cardinal have a unique opportunity to dramatically improve their bubble positioning and maybe even crack the field. The Wildcats own the nation’s longest home-winning streak (36 games dating back to a February 10, 2013 loss to Cal) following BYU’s takedown of Gonzaga in Spokane last Saturday, meaning that it would take a miracle for the Cardinal to get this win.
They’re truly one of the best teams in the nation, with the 11th best offense and 3rd best defense according to KenPom.com. Stanford would have to play their best game of the season -- and then some. For starters, Randle would have to shoot better than the 29.2 field goal percentage he has amassed since the beginning of February. As a team, they can improve on their 39.5 shooting in that time frame, and get their 30.7 three-shooting closer to their conference average (38.4). Stanford needs to continue to get to the line and rebound, perhaps the two biggest factors in keeping the team from completely imploding over this shooting slump, but that will be hard against one of the most disciplined, glass-crashing teams in the country.
Honestly, if I could tell you how the Cardinal could win in McKale Center, I’d have every major program with a coaching vacancy knocking on my door. Perhaps some hope can be garnered from the Cardinal’s close playing of the Wildcats earlier in the year, when they held the score within a basket until 8:48 in the second half before letting Arizona go on a 13-2 run over the next five minutes.
A lot of that comes down to 55 percent shooting in the first half, though, coupled with foul trouble with Arizona standouts Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, who combined for only 39 minutes, well below their combined season average of 54.2. Unless Stanford shoots significantly better than it has of late and keeps Arizona’s best players off of the court, it could be a long game for the Cardinal.
Given how Stanford has played recently and the raucous environment they’ll be playing in, a victory would top BYU-Gonzaga and Rutgers-Wisconsin for the biggest upset this year. Fortunately for the Cardinal, even if they cannot pull off the upset on this attempt, they could have another crack against the Cats in the semifinal of the Pac-12 Championship at the MGM Grand Arena in Vegas a week later.
With a diminished crowd volume and no Zona Zoo fan section, that game could very much be easier than the one this weekend. But they have to win one of those two games as Stanford’s road to the tournament looks more and more like it goes through Arizona. So if you’re a fan hoping to watch the Tree dance come March, start praying for magic in McKale.