Grinding Out a Good Win
Predicting Stanford's fate in Round One against New Mexico promised to be a fool's errand, one whose correctness hinged on which version of the Cardinal showed up: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.
In the end, both Stanford characters showed up. The good guy, though, held control longer than his bad counterpart, and that was enough for a gritty 58-53 victory over a top-15 RPI opponent and a ticket to the round of 32. This was a formidable Lobos team, one whose skilled bruisers inside had dismantled most of their competition this season. Cameron Bairstow (24 points) did take his best swing at the Cardinal, but that alone was not enough: Since the Farm Boys decisively won the battle in the backcourt (New Mexico shot only 4-for-19 from downtown), Stanford was able to choke off the rest of the floor and wear the Lobos down into submission.
By game's end, Bairstow's legs were exhausted. Jumpers that once stroked the net clanged as bricks off front iron. The Cardinal's length and athleticism on the perimeter had allowed them to overcome their own foul trouble down low. By forcing the Lobos to work Bairstow into the ground, they stifled New Mexico to the tune of only eight points over the final 10 minutes of the game. Turnovers and gaffes down the stretch took away any potential style points, but when it comes to NCAA Tournament wins, those are essentially irrelevant. The Cardinal had netted their first one since 2008 while again showing that they have an arsenal of offensive and defensive firepower to be reckoned with.
That much had already been established. Now, it's time for Stanford to demonstrate that they've finally found the second indispensable ingredient: consistency.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Stanford had demonstrated an epic knack for the opposite -- so much so that the Cardinal assembled both their best and worst games of the season within a 26-hour stretch at the Pac-12 Tournament the weekend prior.
An excellent showing followed immediately by a bad one won't cut it in one-and-done March, when just a single slip is enough to derail a championship chance. The Farm Boys now have a golden opportunity to exorcise the demons of inconsistency that have plagued them since that last NCAA Tournament appearance. A chance to beat consecutive top-end teams awaits. Kansas, one of college basketball's perennial powers, is the next opponent.
The Jayhawks are undoubtedly weakened by the loss of seven footer Joel Embiid (11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds), but they're still stocked with capable offensive weaponry. Fellow six-foot-eight man Perry Ellis has had to pick up interior slack left behind by Embiid, and he did a fine job of that in the Jayhawks' first round win over Eastern Kentucky along with six-foot-eight Jamari Traylor and six-foot-nine senior Tarik Black. The three combined to shoot 19-for-25, score 43 points, and grab 32 rebounds.
So just like New Mexico, Kansas presents a very viable frontcourt challenge. But it's unlikely that Stanford will be able to overwhelm the Jayhawks in the backcourt in the same fashion that they suffocated the Lobos. That's because Bill Self's squad features at least one elite talent on the perimeter whose length and athleticism rivals the Cardinal's at the positon. Andrew Wiggins (17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds) came to Kansas as the top recruit in the nation, and his six-foot-eight height makes him a match-up nightmare all over the floor. Wiggins is dynamite; he has the potential to blow up any Stanford defensive strategy. Six-foot-five guard Wayne Selden, Jr. (9.9 points) and point man Naadir Tharpe (5.1 assists) help also make the Jayhawks tick around the horn.
Anthony Brown has done an excellent job defending opponents' best players at vital junctures this season, and it's likely he'll be tasked with containing Wiggins for at least part of tomorrow's contest. Since that may be the game's most important task, Stanford may also be well-suited to test the zone defense waters for at least portions of the contest.
When it comes to three point shooting percentage, Kansas is ranked no. 158 in the nation (34.5 percent). The Jayhawks don't feature a single truly prolific long-range shooter. Sagging defense may help avoid the foul trouble that nearly derailed the Cardinal versus New Mexico, and Stanford may be able to get away with such a strategy if Kansas shoots in accordance with its season-long averages.
Offensively, Stanford's good side will be counted on to show up. The Cardinal began their tilt with New Mexico in confident, decisive fashion. Maintaining this demeanor is key for this club's scoring efficiency, and staying out of foul trouble is essential in that regard.
A Golden Opportunity
The Jayhawks are very good, but there are cracks here that Stanford can exploit. The Cardinal has proven that it has the talent to compete tomorrow and re-establish the consistent backbone that it's been missing for quite some time. Sunday morning's contest will be about finding that elusive even keel, the one that can take Stanford's excellent talent and legitimize it in the form of a Sweet 16 team that can perform consistently on college basketball's most competitive stage. At 9:15 Sunday morning, it'll be time to seize this prime chance. It's do-or-die time against an elite program.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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