Wednesday December 24th, 2014

It was with a keen sense of disquiet Texas coach Rick Barnes mused at halftime -- his team then locked up at 31 with a pesky Stanford squad -- that his Longhorns couldn’t get out and run as they like to do if they didn’t rebound the ball. Texas’ formidable frontcourt averaged a +15.5 rebounding margin on the season, the best mark in the country. But at the end of the first half Friday it was being out-rebounded by two. 

Texas ended up winning the battle of the boards, as well as the battles for shooting percentage, blocks and fouls. It didn’t matter. Stanford used its height, namely in the form of 14 rebounds from freshman Reid Travis, and clutch shooting from senior guards Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle, to beat the Longhorns in overtime 74-71. 

The win is easily Stanford’s signature victory of the season. Its next-highest-rated victory came against Wofford back in November. While the loss for Texas is not one the team will cringe at on Selection Sunday, it does foretell the nature of its potential vulnerability. 

With Texas’ lone previous loss coming at the hands of Kentucky, and nine of its 10 wins coming by double-digits, we now know something about Texas that we didn’t know before: Rick Barnes’ team is susceptible to 1) experienced guard play and great shooting in Isaiah Taylor’s continued absence, and 2) a frontcourt that is tall and unafraid. Texas, anchored up front by 6’8”-plus Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and freshman Myles Turner, has no reason to lose to Stanford. If those four guys play aggressively and finish at the rim, very few frontcourts in the country should be able to stop them. 

In fact, when the Longhorns beat California to win the 2K Sports Classic in November, Bears forward David Kravish told of the Texas front court: "It’s like a five- or six-headed monster that they got down there … You cut off one head and they bring three more after you. But, you know, it’s just … They’re a big team and I don’t know if there’s any other frontline in college that could match that frontline."

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On Tuesday, Cal’s arch-rival Stanford, a team with an Effective Height of 3.4 inches above the national average (22nd best in the country) indeed matched Texas every step of the way. Rosco Allen, Stefan Nastic and Travis might’ve left the bulk of the scoring to their guards, but most of the time Texas charged the lane or went strong to the basket, a body from Stanford was there. 

And so Tuesday, one night after pundits pontificated whether the Big 12’s next-in-line was finally ready to wrestle the conference title from a Kansas team that bizarrely lost by 25 to Temple the night before, Texas lost at the Frank Erwin Center to an unranked non-conference opponent for the first time in 10 seasons. (Texas has lost to only five non-conference home opponents total during that span, and it’s a heady list for Stanford to join: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Connecticut and Tennessee). 

Kansas and Texas could have both obliterated Temple and Stanford respectively, and there’s still no telling whether they or someone else would win the Big 12. Outside of them, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor are all in the Top 25. As of now, everyone’s "a favorite" to win the Big 12 as well as be an "NCAA tournament team."

Just be sure to duck and cover when the murderer’s row of conference play starts. (It’s an especially unfortunate year to be the Texas Tech basketball program).   

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Stanford, on the other hand, could be turning a corner. It has lost three games this season. One of them (Duke) is inarguably a strong loss, if such a thing can exist. Another (BYU) is already a Top-50 loss, and could potentially be a Top-30 loss by the time the Cougars are done rolling through the non-Gonzaga WCC slate. The third defeat is the only truly regrettable affair: when the Cardinal visited AllState Arena, in what is essentially the O’Hare Airport parking lot. on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and lost by 17 to a KenPom-rated 205th best DePaul team. 

Stanford can’t afford more losses like those, but with mostly conference games remaining on the schedule, it can afford to lose close contests to the Pac-12’s best teams and still sit lurking dangerously come NCAA tournament time. Beyond the top three of Arizona, Utah and Washington, the Pac-12 is wide open, and even those teams are vulnerable. If Stanford plays like it did Tuesday night, the Cardinal have a strong shot at a top-three finish in-conference. Texas’ matchup zone holds opponents to an insane 31 percent shooting, the core component of the nation’s fifth most efficient defense. Stanford shot 43 percent Tuesday and hit enough counterpunch shots to contribute to the game’s 19 lead-changes. 

An intriguing date in January for the Cardinal that’s sandwiched between games against California and Arizona is a home non-conference matchup against Connecticut. Texas knocked off Connecticut in Storrs earlier this season on a buzzer-beater. A win over the defending national champion would buff up Stanford’s resume to the point that it would take calamitous in-conference play to knock them out of the NCAA tournament; last year the Cardinal  lost eight conference games and still made the tournament as a 10 seed, eventually upending Kansas in the round of 32. 

We know Randle can hit big shots when the moment counts. The more worthwhile question is if Stanford can sustainably repeat career nights from Brown and an imposing effort from its front court triptych to establish the strongest foothold it’s had in the Pac-12 in several seasons. 

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