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Stanford expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Arizona at Stanford Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats open Pac-12 play against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at 5 p.m. MST, easily their toughest opponent to date.

Ranked 34th in KenPom, Stanford is 3-2 with wins over Alabama, North Carolina A&T and Cal State Northridge and losses to North Carolina and Indiana on neutral sites.

Stanford has the No. 78 offense and No. 13 defense in the country per KenPom, which gives the Cardinal a 57% chance of beating the Wildcats with a projected score of 69-67. Arizona has won 20 straight in this series.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County, this game will take place at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz instead of Maples Pavilion on the Stanford campus.

We wanted to know more about the Cardinal before Saturday’s game, so we caught up with Grant Avalon of Channel Tree Sports to get some insight.

Here’s the Q&A. (We also answered their questions about Arizona, which you can find here.)

Ryan Kelapire: What are the expectations like for Stanford this season and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this team so far?

Grant Avalon: Stanford returned essentially every rotational player from last year’s bubble team outside of one-and-done Tyrell Terry. Add in the top ranked recruit in program history in Ziaire Williams and expectations are certainly high. This is a program that has not spent a single week in the Top 25 since the Lopez twins were around, and the hope is this is the year that ends that drought. We shall see. Jerod Haase has them playing terrific defense once again. The starting five are all long, athletic, and switchable, which caused serious havoc for Alabama and North Carolina. Oscar da Silva and Daejon Davis are playing their best basketball as seniors. But the same issues from last year have persisted. If a key player is out with fouls or injury, they struggle to find offense. And as stout as they are defensively, they have been susceptible to second chance opportunities due to a lack of a true center.

RK: From a statistical standpoint, Stanford’s defense has been elite this year and last. What makes it so?

GA: The backcourt of Bryce Wills and Daejon Davis are among the best defensive units in the country. Wills has been called upon to stop the other teams’ top scorers regardless of position, whether that be a point guard or a 6’10” forward. He was on the Pac-12 All-Defensive team a year ago and many around the program feel that Davis was unfairly snubbed by that list. But then you look at the other three starters, da Silva, Williams, and Spencer Jones, and the length and versatility is off the charts. The same goes for sixth man Jaiden Delaire. They are well-coached, disciplined, disrupt passing lanes, and offer rim protection 1 through 5. Now, there are some lineups that are less elite, and there are plenty of new faces on the bench. But the starting unit is top notch.

RK: Oscar da Silva is off to a ridiculous start. What has been working for him and how much has he improved since last season?

GA: Jerod Haase has repeatedly emphasized that he needs to touch the ball. Even when he is not scoring, he tends to make the right play. If you have watched a Stanford game on tv over the last four years, you will have heard how cerebral Oscar is in the classroom, speaking 6 languages and doing stem cell research. But that applies to the hardwood, too. He has been excellent catching the ball in the high post and using his quickness to best traditional big men. He has polished footwork, is a crafty finisher, and can make plays for others. The facet that is looking the most improved from last season is his shooting. Oscar put in a lot of work this offseason to become more of an outside threat, and it seems to be paying off. He has made 5 of his 9 three point attempts, and 24 of 25 shots from the charity stripe. Those will come back to earth some, but they will be valuable for a high usage five like him.

RK: Ziaire Williams was obviously a big-time get and a guy Arizona recruited heavily. What’s been your impression of him so far?

GA: Ziaire came out in the opener and looked otherworldly. His shot-making ability is clearly elite, but he was also making smart plays in the pick and roll game and showed serious defensive potential. He has had his bumps though. Turnovers and foul trouble have been a problem early on. He can also fall in love with less efficient shots. But I would not read too much into his low percentages, considering he is getting the majority of late shot clock prayer touches as the top iso threat. Haase says he is as talented as any freshman he has been around, which is high praise from a guy who spent time at Kansas and UNC. But the coach also says he needs to continue to get more and more reps, and he is right. I think Ziaire will be a lot better by the end of the year than he is now.

RK: What have you seen from Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills this season? They seem like great glue guys that always get overlooked.

GA: Like I said, they are as good of a one-two defensive punch as you will see in college basketball. Daejon has moved back on the ball this year with Tyrell Terry leaving and he has excelled. His turnover rate is down from his past forays into running the offense, but he has not lost any of his dynamism. I personally would not call him a glue guy; he is so much more to this team than that. The team did not look the same without him against CSUN. The thing for Bryce has always been finding ways for him to contribute on the offensive end, because he has NBA level defensive and athletic abilities. His shooting has unfortunately never materialized, but they have found ways to get him interior touches. Over the end of last year and the beginning of this one, he has proven surprisingly adept at scoring inside. He also is good for a handful of floor burns each game.

RK: Now in his fifth season at Stanford, how would you grade Jerod Haase’s tenure so far? What do you want to see moving forward?

GA: Like his predecessor Johnny Dawkins, he has struggled to get this team into the tournament. Last year’s group had a chance, and I did a bracketology simulation with Joe Lunardi over the offseason where they were selected as the final team in the field. Each season he has unexpectedly lost a key player. Arizona as a program has withstood that due to bringing in a new crop of top talent and adding in some transfers for good measure, but that is not really possible at Stanford. Losing Rosco Allen, Reid Travis, KZ Okpala, Cormac Ryan, Tyrell Terry, and others early has made things tricky. But this year’s and next year’s class feature five-star talent, and it feels like things are trending in the right direction. These next 18 months will tell a lot.

RK: How much do you think this game being played in Santa Cruz will impact the Cardinal?

GA: This is actually the closest they have been to home since the week of Thanksgiving. Santa Clara County instituted a mandatory quarantine period for anyone returning to the county from greater than 150 miles, so they stayed in North Carolina after completing the “Maui Invitational.” They traveled to southern California with hopes of playing USC, then snuck in a game with CSUN after the Trojans fell ill. Turning into “road dogs”, to borrow the moniker being used by Stanford football, does not intuitively seem conducive to success. But they have made it work. And in a weird way, it might be advantageous for the Cardinal. Maples Pavilion is all too often packed with raucous chants of “U of A” during these matchups, in what feels like a neutral or even road atmosphere. A little peace and quiet cannot hurt.

RK: What does Stanford need to do to finally beat Sean Miller?

GA: If the two teams attempt a similar amount of field goals, I think Stanford gets the win. They have the talent and experience to break the curse, and will more than likely enter this game as betting favorites. Their two achilles heels (to take some mythological anatomical liberties) are defensive rebounding and turnovers. Most likely those will be a bit of an issue in this one, particularly the rebounding, but the key is to not let them be glaring problems. Stanford is at their best when they can set their half court defense. If they make the Wildcats work for every bucket, I think they come out on top.

RK: Score prediction?

GA: Stanford 71, Arizona 64