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Cal basketball at Stanford: Previewing the Lobsterbacks

The Bears should be desperate for a road win in Palo Alto to end a painful two game skid

That's a Rosco if I've ever seen one.
That's a Rosco if I've ever seen one.
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

When: 8:00 pm PT
TV: Fox Sports 1

I am a Cal fan, and as a result, I like to make fun of Stanford. I enjoy that the Cardinal appear to be stuck with a coach, Johnny Dawkins, who will survive perpetually because being the 69th best team in the country without doing anything to embarrass Stanford as an institution isn't enough to get fired. I enjoy that Stanford has made one NCAA tournament in the last seven years, and that they were something of a bubble team that year anyway. I like decidedly mediocre Stanford.

But there's a problem with this calculus. Cal is 7-8 against Johnny Dawkins.

7-8, against teams led by goofs like Mitch Johnson, Stefan Nastic, and Andrew Zimmermann. This is entirely unacceptable. Cal has finished higher than Stanford in the Pac-10/12 standings in five of the last seven years, yet has lost more than they have won.

We have multiple factors coming to a head this week. We have Cal's relative struggles against an inferior program that also happens to be our biggest rivals. We have Cal's recent struggles (to the extent than getting swept on a tough road trip can be considered 'struggles), and we have the larger aims of this season. To the extent that a mid-January game can be a must-win, this game is it.

Win and everything will be smiles and sunshine. Cal would be 3-2, and one of just a small handful of Pac-12 teams with more road wins than home losses. And that's ignoring the nice emotional boost of a rivalry win.

Lose and there will be fire and brimstone.


Stanford's non-conference resume is decidedly unimpressive. They scheduled a very tough schedule, and suffered comprehensive defeats to three top 25 level teams to go along with a couple of mediocre performances against average mid-majors. They did sneak in a solid win over an OKish Arkansas team and nearly upset a fading Texas at home, but it was largely meh.

In conference play, Stanford has been a bit more of a wild card. They beat Utah when the Utes mysteriously forgot how to shoot free throws (11-24?!?) then lost to Colorado thanks to a hideous night of shooting. They followed that up with a surprising upset of Oregon State due to a stunning 20 offensive rebounds, then capitulated to Oregon by giving up 15 offensive rebounds of their own.

So this is something of a tough team to figure out.



PG Christian Sanders, 6'4'' Senior - Struggling point guard - shooting poorly and has higher turnover rate than assist rate. Draws fouls.
G Marcus Allen, 6'3'' Junior - Probably Stanford's best on-ball defender, draws fouls.
G Dorian Pickens, 6'5'' Sophomore - Solid all-around threat, draws fouls
F Rosco Allen, 6'9'' Senior - Best offensive option, a stretch 4 who hits threes and draws fouls. Usage rate down, probably because teams have figured out he's their best option.
F Michael Humphrey, 6'9'' Sophomore - Strong rebounder and shot blocker is most common offensive option. Draws fouls.


G Marcus Sheffield, 6'3'' Junior - Top bench option, more driver than shooter. Draws fouls.
G Malcolm Allen, 6'1'' Junior - Low usage back-up point with a turnover problem
F Grant Verhoeven, 6'9'' Senior - Takes less than one shot/game
F Cameron Walker, 6'7'' Freshman - Takes slightly more than one shot/game

You will notice a theme here: Stanford's offense is pretty bad except for one obvious attribute: they draw a ton of fouls. More on that later.

Beyond that, the name of the game is balance. Stanford's four non-point-guard starters all use a similar number of possessions and have a relatively similar level of efficiency. They're all solid players that don't do anything spectacularly well. Stanford's real weakness? A bench that has produced very little positive value. Marcus Sheffield is a solid sixth man, but after that it's a bunch of guys who eat minutes without doing much else.

Statistical Preview

When Cal has the ball

Category California
D-I Avg
Adj. Efficiency 109.2 55 96.6 53 102.8
Avg. Poss Length 17.0 152 17.7 270 17.1
Four Factors
Effective FG%: 53.2 55 49.5 170 49.6
Turnover %: 18.3 160 20.5 65 18.6
Off. Reb. %: 34.2 57 32.9 279 30.2
FTA/FGA: 40.8 94 30.5 60 36.6
Miscellaneous Components
3P%: 34.6 155 33.0 116 34.4
2P%: 53.9 41 49.5 207 48.4
FT%: 66.7 256 63.5 12 69.3
Block%: 7.0 37 9.6 148 9.2
Steal%: 8.2 122 9.7 101 8.8
Style Components
3PA/FGA: 33.0 229 36.0 208 35.1
A/FGM: 47.8 271 54.2 215 52.9

It might be another ugly game for Cal, because offense is Cal's (relative) weakness and defense is Stanford's (relative) strength. Turnovers is almost certainly the category to watch - it's been the biggest stumbling block for the Bears in Pac-12 play, and it's a strength of the Stanford defense.

When Stanford has the ball

Category Stanford
D-I Avg
Adj. Efficiency 104.7 140 94.3 25 102.8
Avg. Poss Length 18.3 287 18.4 331 17.1
Four Factors
Effective FG%: 47.5 251 42.4 8 49.6
Turnover %: 17.7 118 13.7 350 18.6
Off. Reb. %: 35.1 44 26.1 42 30.2
FTA/FGA: 48.9 7 33.7 111 36.6
Miscellaneous Components
3P%: 33.8 191 36.0 252 34.4
2P%: 46.1 252 38.1 1 48.4
FT%: 66.7 256 71.7 274 69.3
Block%: 8.3 128 12.7 50 9.2
Steal%: 8.4 135 5.3 348 8.8
Style Components
3PA/FGA: 29.3 294 27.3 7 35.1
A/FGM: 51.2 208 50.8 125 52.9

Stanford is a bad 2 point shooting team that likes to take 2 point shots. Cal's defense should only exacerbate those issues. I want to watch 40 minutes of Stanford shooting 32% from the field, please.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom: Cal 65, Stanford 64, 53% chance of a Cal win

Sagarin Predictor: Cal by 1.2 points

Nothing like a coin flip game against a rival coming off a two game losing streak to bring on the heart palpitations.

Keys to the Game

1) Protect the ball

Here's a quick summary of Cal's game-by-game turnover percentage in conference play:

vs. Colorado: 20%
vs. Utah: 11%
vs. Oregon: 25%
vs. Oregon State: 24%

It's simplistic to suggest that the singular difference between winning and losing is how much Cal turns the ball over. But 3 or 4 extra possessions that end in a shot attempt against either Oregon or Oregon State, and the Bears are quite possibly coming back home with a split instead of two losses.

Stanford's defense forces turnovers on 20% of possessions. If Cal can equal or better that mark, I like their chances of winning this game.

2) Keep Stanford off of the offensive glass

Stanford's two wins have been in large part due to traction on the offensive glass. It's true, the Cardinal aren't as strong on the boards with Reid Travis out indefinitely, but Humphrey, Allen, and Verhoeven can all do some damage on the glass. When Cal is focused and engaged (and Ivan Rabb is on the court)  they usually shut down the offensive glass, but it's no guarantee.

3) Avoid a free throw parade

Through four Pac-12 games, Stanford is averaging 24 free throw shots per game. Even worse - only one of those four games featured end-of-game fouling that gave Stanford a few extra free throw attempts. No, Stanford's offense just seems to draw a ton of fouls. There's no single player (a la Chasson and Nastic last year) who draw the bulk of the contact; it's pretty much a team wide phenomenon.

The good news is that Stanford is exactly as good (mediocre?) from the line as Cal. But Stanford relies upon foul shots as a way to generate offense. If Cal can limit their fouls (say, 15 attempts rather than 25), they deny an obvious way for Stanford to stay in the game.

4) Smother their shooting

Stanford is a bad shooting team from everywhere on the floor. Cal has a defense that denies good looks and contests shots well. For the love of God, let this be a game where Stanford chucks up endless crummy 15 foot jumpers that clank off the rim before quickly fall into Ivan's hands.

5) Play like it's a critical rivalry game

Make plays. Maybe it's hitting a 3 with a dude's hand in your face. Maybe it's getting on the floor for a ball, or fighting through a great screen, or not letting that goofy guy get a rebound that's yours.

Crush Stanford.