Sports

Stanford's Verhoeven is finally getting his chance to shine

 

Grant Verhoeven knows tractors. Stanford's 6-foot-9 senior center was raised on a 40-acre farm in Hanford, on the same place his father, former NBA player Pete Verhoeven, also was raised.

Driving tractors may not be the same as driving the lane, though Verhoeven is comfortable doing both.

He's getting a chance to play more often now that he's healthy. After playing 14 minutes in the Cardinal's 96-74 loss at Utah last Saturday, Verhoeven officially set a career high for minutes played in a season.

Those averages of 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game may not seem like a lot, but for Verhoeven it represents a successful return from an injury-riddled college career.

In 17 games, Verhoeven has 39 points, 45 percent of his career 86, and 41 rebounds. It took 32 games as a sophomore to reach 21 points and 34 rebounds. He also shot, and made, his first career 3-pointer at a crucial juncture of Stanford's win over Arizona State.

He'll get his chance to continue his best season Saturday, when Stanford travels to California for a 1 p.m. tip-off, to be aired on ESPN2.

The Cardinal (11-9, 4-5 Pac-12) and California (14-8, 4-5) are in a three-way tie, with UCLA, for seventh place in the conference, three games back of Pac-12 leader Oregon and two games behind co-second-place Colorado, USC, Utah and Washington.

If Stanford wants to make noise in the conference race, this weekend's game would be a good place to start, even though the Golden Bears are one of three conference teams who have yet to lose at home.

"The NIT would be a disappointment but we'll take what we get," Verhoeven said Wednesday. "Right now we're shooting for the NCAAs."

That's not as far-flung as it seems on paper. The Pac-12 has 11 teams, all with winning overall records, ranked among the top 75 in the NCAA RPI ratings. Most bracketology services have the conference earning up to eight bids into the NCAA tournament.

Stanford could help itself with a victory over the Golden Bears, though after giving up 96 points to Utah and 91 in a loss at Colorado two days earlier, it might be a difficult task.

"You're not going to beat any team like that," Verhoeven said. "We have to lock in defensively. We have to stop them in transition and not let them get anything easy. We've given up a lot of open 3's because our rotations haven't been good."

It's been a point of focus in practice.

"Our defense has to be able to travel," Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins said. "We allowed a 71 percent shooting percentage in the first half against Utah. That's not us. We have to do a better job forcing missed shots."

Stanford junior guard Marcus Allen said there's some pent-up anger ready to be turned loose Saturday.

"It's tough to lose twice on the road," he said. "We're all upset. There's a big emphasis on defense this week. We have to improve our defensive numbers."

Stanford currently ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with its 69.4 scoring defense but 10th in field goal percentage defense (.436). On the other hand, the Cardinal ranks last in scoring (70.9) and next-to-last in field goal percentage (.420).

California leads the conference in both scoring defense (67.0) and field goal percentage defense (.388). Those numbers do not bode well for Stanford.

"We've only played one side of the league," Dawkins said. "There are a lot of unknowns still left in regards to competition with this league. With nine games remaining, it's so close, it's not out of the realm of possibilities of winning the conference."

Of the nine remaining games, Stanford will play six games against teams either tied or ahead of them in the conference standings. The Cardinal travels to Cal, Washington and Arizona and will host Oregon, USC and UCLA.

In terms of the conference tournament, the Cardinal can still gain a tie-breaker against UCLA, Washington and USC. Stanford split with Utah and can earn splits with Oregon and Arizona.

Winning the regular-season title is the best-case scenario and finishing among the top four would be ideal. With nine teams separated by three games, nothing is out of play yet.

"We have to go in together and come out together," Allen said. "We have to be tougher, smarter and play harder. We're looking to get after it defensively."

Verhoeven, meanwhile, hasn't strayed too far from his roots. He's majoring in sustainable earth systems. The family farm grows corn, alfalfa and, recently, walnut trees.

The last time he and his father played a game of basketball, in his sophomore year of high school at Central Valley Christian, the game had to be suspended because it was getting a little rough.

"I say I won the game but he says he won the game," Verhoeven said.

Talk about competitiveness.

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