By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Sports Online
Josh Huestis and his Stanford men's basketball teammates are a far, far different team now than the one that went to USC to open Pac-12 Conference play and flopped in the waning moments.
The team that hosts the Trojans at 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPNU) is better defined by its starring cast and role players. The Cardinal (6-5 in the Pac-12, 15-9 overall) recovered from its 2-4 conference start by winning four of its past five, including two on the road.
"As the season progressed, we've been in a lot of close games," Huestis said. "The ones we don't win we can learn from. Like losing to Arizona, we learned from that and came back to beat Arizona State. When things were not going well we maintained our poise and stayed cool."
Stanford's average margin of defeat in its nine losses is 7.9 points, and that includes the 21-point blowout at Colorado. Close games are part of the Cardinal DNA this season.
The 71-69 loss to the Trojans on Jan. 3 was the hardest one to take. The Cardinal had ample opportunities to win that contest and just could not finish.
"It's nice we have another chance here," Huestis said. "The last time we weren't shooting the ball nearly as well as we would have liked and we depended too much on the perimeter game."
Sophomore guard Chasson Randle suffered the indignity of going scoreless in Stanford's last encounter with the Trojans. Since then he's reached double figures in 10 straight games. He may be limited though, as he hurt his right ankle against the Sun Devils.
The Cardinal and USC currently share fifth place with Colorado and California entering the weekend. UCLA, which visits Saturday for a 1 p.m. game (ESPN2), is in a three-way tie for first place with Oregon and Arizona, and a mere two games separates the top eight teams.
No one needs to tell Huestis this could be a make-or-break week.
"As long as we take care of business on the court we can control our own destiny," he said. "We know it's a big deal. It's only human nature to think where we could be on Sunday. But we still have to focus on Thursday to make sure Saturday means something."
Huestis has been flirting with averaging a double-double for the season, with a 9.8 scoring average and 9.4 rebounding average. Curtis Borchardt was the last to do it for a full season, in 2000-01.
Yet that's still not as impressive as his ability to block shots, which he has done 51 times so far. He's also made players alter their shots when he makes an appearance in the paint.
"I've always been able to block shots," he said. "My senior year I averaged about five a game and it's translated closely to college."
Huestis insists he has no idea what his secret is in blocking shots. He acknowledges that timing is everything but has never been instructed.
The biggest thing he's learned is how to swat the ball away and still keep it in play, giving Stanford a chance to gain possession.
"In high school I would swat it a lot harder but it would go flying out of bounds," he said. "I try not to bring my arm down and use my wrist mostly."
A little while later, he unintentionally revealed at least part of the reason for his success. His block against Oregon State's Devon Collier on Feb. 3 was textbook, coming as the game's final seconds were ticking away.
"That play I had to read," Huestis said. "I knew Collier would take the shot. He was able to get the ball where he wanted it. I just waited, and went up and got it."
So, yeah, timing is important, and so is anticipation. The real lesson was knowing his opponent's tendency. Knowledge can be a useful resource for a shot blocker.