Team preview: Stanford

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

The last two seasons, Stanford has gathered for the season's first practice amid lofty preseason expectations. And in each case, from that point forward, the Cardinal's luck went sour. It's actually quite remarkable, considering the circumstances, that coach Trent Johnson was able to muster a pair of postseason invitations.

In Johnson's first season, in 2004-05, the Cardinal was forced to suit up not one but two assistant coaches just so the team could practice five-on-five. And that wasn't an isolated incident, it more or less went on the entire second half of the year. Academic woes took out one player while leading scorer Dan Grunfeld suffered a season-ending knee injury in early February.

No matter, though, Stanford bounced back from an 0-3 start in the Pac-10 to place third and with 18 wins, earned an NCAA Tournament invitation.

Then came last year, when just about every preseason publication on the market had Stanford in the Top 25, including Blue Ribbon. The preseason Pac-10 coaches and media polls rated the Cardinal second in the conference behind only Arizona.

"Not that I really pay any attention to preseason predictions, but I was surprised at the expectations for us last season," Johnson said. "These days, with college basketball having so much parity, I mean how many people predicted Florida to win the national title last summer? I don't think anyone did."

On paper, if healthy, Stanford appeared ready for any and all challenges in the Pac-10 and beyond, but injuries again helped derail those lofty preseason expectations. And despite gutting it out for all 30 games, Grunfeld wasn't anywhere near the player he was before the knee injury, shooting .394 from the field (and .256 from three-point range) and averaging just 12 points. As a junior, his numbers included 17.9 points (.500 FG, .431 3PT).

"The last two seasons, the amount of games lost to injury is just staggering," Johnson said. "Someone told me the number recently, I forget what it was, but even I was surprised."

At one point, however, the Cardinal won 8-of-9 Pac-10 games and as of Feb. 8, were 8-3 in conference play. That success was short-lived, though, as lack of depth became an issue. In the end, Stanford finished 11-7 in the Pac-10 and including a split of two NIT games, 16-14 overall. Not bad considering it lost to UC Davis, 64-58, on Dec. 4. UC Davis wasn't even recognized as a Division I program last season, as it was in the final year of a transition from Division II to the Big West Conference.

Fast forward to this season, and the outlook has changed considerably, with the Cardinal receiving zero preseason hype as a Top 25 team. While the Pac-10 coaches and media polls aren't released until early November, it's a safe assumption Stanford will fall somewhere in the middle of the pack, likely between sixth and the eighth. The graduation of a team's four leading scorers tends to have that affect.

"We're relatively young and inexperienced -- this is the first year in a long time that we won't have a player or two among the preseason all-conference teams," Johnson said. "It'll be fun and exciting from a teaching standpoint, but as coaches, I believe we're always teaching, no matter the experience of your team.

"This will be a work in progress. We should be a better team at the end of the year than the start. We're talented, to a degree, and if we stay together, especially early on, we should be competitive. Again, though, it's hard to gauge these things during the summer. I'll know a lot more come mid-November."