It’s hard to gaze over it. People may not even understand it. The Stanford Cardinal (10-8, 4-1 Pac-12) have lost nearly three times as much as No. 16 Arizona State (14-3, 2-3).
But when the two matchup in Maples Pavilion on Wednesday at 9 p.m., the Sun Devils are just four-point favorites.
“They’re not the team they were in non-conference,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said.
ASU’s 12-0 non-conference start was a national statement. Stanford’s 6-7 slate was one to forget, one that could be split into three categories.
If there’s such a thing, the “good losses”: No. 10 Kansas, No. 15 North Carolina, No. 22 Ohio State, Florida. The bad: Portland State, Long Beach State. The ugly: Eastern Washington.
Then, Pac-12 play came along. Since a loss to California, the Cardinal have won four straight Pac-12 games — their longest conference streak since 2008 — sweeping the LA schools at home and beating both teams in Washington.
The reason? Reinforcements. Twelve games in, former four-star recruit in freshman Kezie Okpala (academically ineligible) made his debut. Ten games in, senior Dorian Pickens (foot injury) came back.
The two are average roughly 12 points per game, good for top-3 on the Cardinal. Pickens poured a career-high 28 points onto Washington State and dropped 26 on UCLA.
“They’re a balanced team. They’re not just one-dimensional,” Hurley said. “Getting Pickens back is a game-changer... Okpala is another freshman who’s got a nice game and has got size and moves great out there.”
But that’s not where it ends.
Freshman Daejon Davis, who Hurley said “has changed their dynamics” at point guard, is coming off two 15-point or better performances, including a double-double, that won him Pac-12 player of the week.
Reid Travis, a preseason ESPN All-American, has been steady all season. Nobody in the Pac-12 other than Deandre Ayton averages more points (20.1) per game than him.
Speaking of big men, the Cardinal are loaded. With bigs of 6-8 Reid and Okpala and 6-9 Michael Humphrey and Oscar Da Silva, Stanford punished Washington, winning the rebound margin, 48-28.
Going up against opponents stacked with height is no easy task for Arizona State. The Sun Devils haven’t outrebounded a team since the Rocky Mountain trip.
It’s up to “Guard U” to make that change.
“We’re trying to get our guards to go in there and rebound. Me in particular.” Shannon Evans said. “I need to go grab like 5 or 6 a game — Tra (Holder) and Kodi (Justice) as well. It’s not only on Romello (White), D-Lake and Vitaliy (Shibel), it’s on all of us.”
All five of ASU’s big men, or players 6-7 and above, are in their first Pac-12 season. Teams try to slow it down, and combat the Sun Devils down low. Here’s Hurley’s plan to erase that.
“We have to keep pressuring the ball. We’ve got to get stops. If teams are going deep in the clock, then we’ve got to shut them out and then we’ve got to rebound,” Hurley said. “If we get the stops, then we can get out in the open court and make plays early before we have to go against a set defense.”
Three of those five big men come off the bench. Two of them, Mickey Mitchell (transfer) and Kimani Lawrence (injury) were added to the team late this season.
The nine-player rotation makes room for competition. ASU’s bench outscored Oregon State’s, 27-7. De’Quon Lake had 11 of those points.
“There’s other guys you can go to if players aren’t giving their best best effort or playing at their best level,” Hurley said. “That’s the one positive when you have a bench and have depth and we have it. There’s also foul trouble. If those things would take place. There’s a trade off between the positive and negatives.”
Arizona State hasn’t lost to Stanford in its last four meetings. With that said, the Cardinal are 9-2 against the Sun Devils at home since 2006.
Follow Josiah Destin on Twitter @jdestinsports