Stanford’s surprising mid-season turnaround continues with upset of No. 16 Arizona State

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Stanford earned a huge home win over No. 16 Arizona State on Wednesday night, taking down the Sun Devils for an 86-77 Pac-12 win.

The win for the Cardinal continues one of the best (and most surprising) turnarounds in the nation as Stanford is keeping pace with Arizona atop the Pac-12 standings. Now sitting at 5-1 in the conference, the Cardinal have won five consecutive games after sitting at 6-8 for the season following a loss to Cal. Stanford has picked off UCLA, USC and Arizona State since the start of 2018 while also sweeping the Washington schools on the road last week. Now Stanford is 11-8 overall while looking like one of the more dangerous teams in the Pac-12.

So how did this turnaround exactly happen?

Stanford figured things out with the mid-season addition of touted freshman forward Kezie Okpala. A bit of a late-blooming prospect coming out of high school, the 6-foot-8 Okpala was a high-end four-star recruit who had to sit out Stanford’s first 12 games this season due to academic complications.

During his final semester of high school, Okpala dropped below the threshold of what Stanford required in an AP calculus course while he tried to juggle the academic rigors of three AP classes. Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions notified Okpala of this and said they’d honor the original decision to admit him if he agreed to sit out of competition.

It was initially unclear if Okpala would play this season, but he’s figured out the academic side of things, and Stanford is very happy that he’s with them on the court. Since Okpala’s debut, the team has gone 5-2 with the freshman playing extended minutes in all seven contests. Okpala has even scored in double-figures in five of seven games he’s played in so far this season.

While Okpala actually had his worst shooting performance of the season on Wednesday in the win over Arizona State — finishing with four points on 1-for-8 shooting — his size and skill level on the wing (five assists) helped the Cardinal in other facets of the game. Outrebounding the Sun Devils, 44-30, while adding 13 offensive rebounds, Stanford has a long and athletic main lineup with Okpala in the mix.

Forward Reid Travis (18 points, 10 rebounds) remains one of the Pac-12’s most productive players after helping dismantle the Sun Devils with another double-double. Seniors like guard Dorian Pickens (19 points) and center Michael Humphrey (four points, five rebounds) are solid contributors. Freshman guard Daejon Davis (13 points, eight assists) is also seeing his play improve over time as he’s been picking things up lately as conference play gets going.

It might be too-little, too-late when it comes to Stanford’s NCAA tournament hopes after such a rough start. At least the Cardinal are showing plenty of fight now that they have their prized recruit in the lineup. Okpala’s return has given Stanford a major boost as the Cardinal look like a real threat with its rotation in place.

There’s still a long way to go before the Pac-12 conference race is decided. Stanford still has to prove this five-game winning streak isn’t merely a fluke like the half-court buzzer-beater that lifted them past USC. But the Cardinal has at least put themselves in the conversation among the league’s better teams. Nobody saw that coming a few weeks ago.