Washington State travels to Stanford today for a lunchtime battle between two teams who open conference play with very different aspirations.
The game tips off at noon PT and can be found on Pac-12 Networks.
The Cardinal are coming off their first NCAA appearance since 2008, having saved Johnny Dawkins' job with a flourish last season by advancing to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. The Cougars, meanwhile, fired their coach and hired longtime coach Ernie Kent to rebuild a program that, in the wake of Tony Bennett's departure for Virginia, had plumbed depths not seen Paul Graham ran the program into the ground a decade earlier.
Both teams' accomplishments in the nonconference season underscored the standing of each program, as Stanford enters the game rated 40th by kenpom.com, while WSU enters the game rated 195th.
The Cougars are 6-6 and rebuilding, more focused on #TheProcess than immediate results, which have been mixed. They've looked horrible at times, they've looked OK at times, and they looked pretty good once - in their last game, a comfortable win over a pretty decent UC Davis squad that is one of the best in the Big West.
Stanford, meanwhile, is doing what seems to be an annual dance under Dawkins. Apparently poised to take a big step forward - the Cardinal returned three of their top five players, including star guard Chasson Randle - Stanford has delivered underwhelming non-conference results (again), even at 8-3. Yes, there is a nice resume-building win over Texas in overtime, but there also are losses to Duke (understandable), at BYU (decent team, but a resume miss), and DePaul (inexcusable, really).
And with that, the Cardinal enter conference play squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Although kenpom.com gives WSU just a 1-in-10 chance of winning today, it's that last Stanford loss to DePaul that should give WSU fans a little bit of hope today. The Blue Demons and Cougars are remarkably similar stylistically; they both are among the fastest teams in the country, they both shoot a lot of threes, and neither team rebounds particularly well. In that win, DePaul successfully sped up Stanford - the game was played at 73 possessions, tied for the fastest game of the season for the Cardinal, who typically like to play at 65 possessions.
A big part of that, though, is that DePaul was able to force turnovers on nearly 30 percent of Stanford's possessions. That was a severe outlier for the Cardinal, who are among the nation's best at taking care of the ball and typically turn it over at about half that rate. I didn't see the game, so I can't say for sure, but it's a good bet that those turnovers are a big part of why the Blue Demons were able to get out and run against the Cardinal. That's normal for DePaul, but unfortunately, WSU is one of the worst teams in the country at forcing turnovers. Perhaps the Cougars will take a few more chances to try and replicate the Blue Demons' performance.
The Cardinal's two high usage/high efficiency players are seniors Randle and Stefan Nastic; when they're on the floor, which is most of the time, the offense flows through the two of them. Nastic does his damage inside, while Randle is capable of scoring from anywhere in the halfcourt - he shoots the three well but not great, his two-point percentage is solid, and he gets to the free throw line with enough frequency to indicate he's capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim (although he's drawing fewer fouls than he was a year ago).
If you're looking for an x-factor, it could be freshman Reid Travis. He's and Nastic are both excellent offensive rebounders, and the Cougars are poor on the defensive glass, particularly when 6-foot-7 Junior Longrus is on the floor. This is a game where the new-and-improved(?) Jordan Railey could really make a difference; if the seven-footer can lean on the 6-11 Nastic while 6-10 Josh Hawkinson seals out 6-8 Travis (the Cougs tend to put Hawkinson on less stout players in an effort to save his legs), WSU might be able to prevent some easy put backs while also turning defensive rebounds into transition opportunities.
(Correction: Travis won't be playing. That's obviously good news for the Cougs.)
The Cougars' defense might also need a little good luck from the shooting gods: Stanford makes threes at a nearly 40 percent rate, which is practically identical to the rate the Cougars have allowed.
If you're stuck at work today and can't watch (or if you have DirecTV), you also can listen to the game via Tune-In Radio.