Can a down year in the Pac-12 open the door for Stanford?

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NEW YORK – It’s now well into Feast Week, which means we are officially in the midst of the college hoops season. And while it’s still early, it’s not too early to begin making judgements on the outcome of the handful of games that have been played.

A consensus opinion is a rarity in March, so you can imagine how difficult it is, in the age of social media and message board journalism, to get everyone on the same page as early as Thanksgiving. But if there is a consensus opinion to be had about this young season, it’s that the Pac-12 stinks. That’s not to say that by March the league is still going to stink, because there is some talent among their ranks. But as of today — November 24th — the Pac-12 stinks.

I’m sorry.

Believe me, it’s not personal.

But the Pac-12 stinks.

Let me sit back and count the ways:

– Arizona was the league’s highest ranked team coming into the season, finding its way into the top 20. But already, the Wildcats have had two players — including star freshman point guard Josiah Turner — suspended and struggle through the early part of their schedule, posting unimpressive wins over mid-major teams and losing to both Mississippi State and San Diego State.

– Cal, one of the league favorites coming into the season, got drubbed by 39 points against Missouri.

– Washington, another one of the league favorites, was handed a 13-point loss by St. Louis in a game it trailed by as much as 30 during the second half.

– Where do we start with UCLA? Josh Smith is too fat, Reeves Nelson doesn’t care, its guards aren’t good enough. Worst of all, its losses to Michigan and Kansas in the Maui Invitational were being called moral victories. It makes sense, I guess, because the Bruins have yet to earn a win this year against a Division I team.

– And then there are the personnel issues. Oregon just had Jabari Brown, its best freshman and probably its most-talented player, leave the team. Arizona State is playing without Jahii Carson, who may never end up getting cleared, and lost to Pepperdine at home. USC has too many injuries to count, which is probably why it’s able to give up 42 points to Cal Poly and lose.

Oregon State has been the league’s one bright spot this season. Jared Cunningham is playing like a superstar and a first-round draft pick while Craig Robinson has a couple of young big guys with very bright futures. But the Beavers aren’t exactly a top 25 team right now. One of their four wins came against a Div. II program, and their banner victory is against a Texas team in a down year that blew an 18-point lead against North Carolina State.

So when we say that Oregon State is a surprising team, it means that it has a shot of making the NCAA tournament, not that it is a lock for the Sweet 16.

In fact, as of Thanksgiving, the Pac-12 has just one undefeated team left: the Stanford Cardinal.

And you know what else?

This Cardinal team has a shot to be pretty good.

Stanford came into tonight’s Preseason NIT semifinal against Oklahoma State with the standard, mediocre schedule that you see out of high-major schools that are trying to rebuild. The Pokes aren’t exactly a powerhouse, but they aren’t exactly a bottom-feeder in the Big 12, either, which is why Stanford’s 82-67 win over the Cowboys raised a few eyebrows.

“I think we’re scoring the ball better than I thought we would early on,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said after the game. “We lost our leading scorer last season. He averaged 17 ppg, a first team all Pac-12 player. Where are our points going to come from?”

Senior forward Josh Brown led the way for the Cardinal with 21 points, scoring 13 of their first 15 and knocking down his first nine shots. He scored in the paint, he finished dump-offs and, on back-to-back possessions in the first half, he jumped a passing lane and went in for a dunk. This performance was all-the-more special for Owens. He missed the entire 2009-2010 season with an undisclosed medical issue.

“I’ve never played here before,” Owens said. “Usually when I come to 34th and 7th, it’s to get to Penn Station to catch the train to New Jersey. It was a great experience.”

While Owens was providing a punch in the paint, Stanford’s backcourt was lighting it up on the perimeter. Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright combined for 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 6-of-11 from beyond the arc, and five assists. Bright did the majority of his damage in the first half while Randle caught fire as Stanford pushed its 11-point halftime lead up into the mid-20s.

As a duo, Bright and Randle provide an intriguing back court. Neither is really a true point guard, but both are capable of scoring the ball and running the point. Bright, a sophomore, has really come on this season. He’s leading the team in scoring and hitting 51.9 percent of his threes. While Randle is a bit bigger than Bright, he’s more of a playmaker. But Randle is still a freshman and is still plagued by freshman mistakes. He’ll only get better as he cuts down his turnovers and improves his shot selection. Wednesday may have been the start; he was 5-of-9 from the floor and only turned over the ball twice.

“We tell out guys to always stay in character,” Dawkins said. “You know the shots you’re capable of making. Be ready for those shots when they present themselves. That’s all we ask our guys to do.”

Andrew Zimmermann and Josh Huestis have played well alongside Owens in the front court for the early part of the season, but the X-factor this season is going to be Dwight Powell. Powell, who was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, has gotten off to a slow start in his sophomore year thanks to an ankle injury he suffered earlier this month.

If he can become the shot-blocker and interior presence that he was expected to be coming out of high school, Stanford may be able to play its way into the NCAA tournament.

Who knows, maybe a down year for the conference could end up providing an avenue for a banner year in Palo Alto.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.