OAKLAND – Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins and Washington State’s Ernie Kent both have a tendency to refer to their first dozen or so games, the ones played against nonconference opponents, as the “preseason.”
As in, those games are primarily to serve as preparation for the real show: a January to March grind when the Pac-12 schools duke it out twice a week.
So the regular season officially begins today at noon when Dawkins’ and Kent’s teams tip off in Palo Alto, California. The nonconference games are also materially useful in that they provide a baseline perception of the relative strengths of the various teams and conferences and clarify what actually happens in conference play. The Pac-12 is perhaps not as strong as originally thought and while No. 8 Arizona and No. 10 Utah have shown that they can compete with the country’s best teams, the conference is unlikely to send six teams to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year.
No. 21 Washington has greatly exceeded its preseason expectations, already beating two teams ranked in the top-15, thanks largely to the emergence of Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw, who is easily the best shot blocker in the school’s history.
But all that people will remember of UCLA’s preseason are the seven first-half points in an embarrassing 83-44 loss to Kentucky, the second game in UCLA’s current three-game losing streak. Colorado has been disappointing and conference bellwether schools like Arizona State and Oregon are in rebuilding mode. But history says that those rebuilding teams are likely to steal a few games from the contenders.
“Every year I’ve been in this conference it’s been extremely competitive from top to bottom and I don’t see that changing this year,” Dawkins said. “There are some teams at the top that have separated themselves in terms of rankings, but I think whether you go on the road or at home, you’re going to play teams that are going to give you 40 minutes of hard-fought basketball and you’re going to have to earn your victories.”
Fortunately for the Cougars (6-6), their preseason opponents gave them a good look at what they should expect from Stanford. When asked how freshman point guard Ny Redding might respond playing his first Pac-12 road game, Kent pointed out that WSU opponents like Texas-El Paso and UC Davis run similar defensive schemes, which should make things easier for Redding and the Cougars. “He’s going to look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s what UC Davis ran. Oh, this is what we’re going to run,’ ” Kent said. “The jump is going to be the competitive nature and the mental (toughness) you have to have. This is conference play now and you’re going to get opening weekend on the road.”
Stanford is coming off a run to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 last season. From a personnel standpoint, the Cougars and the Cardinal are somewhat similar. Guards that were premier scorers in the conference last season and have continued to play well lead both teams and the matchup between Stanford’s Chasson Randle and WSU’s DaVonte Lacy will be second in importance only to the one between Stefan Nastic and Josh Hawkinson. Arguably the two most improved post players in the conference, both Hawkinson and Nastic have emerged as the No. 2 scorers for WSU and Stanford, respectively. The Cougars will then face California and new coach Cuonzo Martin on Sunday. The Golden Bears are without talented swingman Jabari Bird but fellow sophomore guard Tyrone Wallace has picked up the slack, leading the team in points (19.2), rebounds (8.8) and assists (4.1).
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