By Sam McPherson

The Stanford Cardinal men’s basketball team faced a must-win situation last night in Tempe, AZ, and they came up short against the Arizona State Sun Devils. With the 67-62 loss, the Cardinal dropped to 18-11 on the season overall — and may have dropped off the NCAA Tournament bubble entirely.

The Cardinal fell behind 37-23 at halftime, and despite a valiant second-half comeback, Stanford was never able to take the lead despite tying the game up midway through the half. The Cardinal received 16 points apiece from Stefan Nastic and Chasson Randle, while Reid Travis led the team with eight rebounds.

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But the Sun Devils used eight steals and three blocked shots to stymie Stanford’s offense and earn their 16th win of the season. Arizona State is now 8-9 in Pac-12 conference play, while the Cardinal dropped to 9-8 in league games.

Stanford entered the evening firmly on the brink of an NCAA at-large bid, but now, the team will have to pull off a major upset on Saturday when the Cardinal takes on No. 5 Arizona in Tucson. If Stanford is unable to pull off that miracle, it’s very unlikely the Cardinal will be playing in the Big Dance.

Just fifth place in the Pac-12 now, Stanford is hurt by the conference’s overall relative weakness nationally, and if the Cardinal can’t even finish above .500 in a league perceived as lacking this season, there’s only going to be one way into March Madness for Stanford: winning the conference tournament.

And the Cardinal just doesn’t seem to have enough in the tank to do that this season, in truth. Stanford is 0-5 against the top four teams in the Pac-12 this year (Arizona, Utah, Oregon and UCLA).  That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in terms of making a run to the conference tournament title.

That’s why this loss to Arizona State hurt so much: the Cardinal beat the Sun Devils, 89-70, previously this season, and losing to teams lower in the league standings is never a good thing — even on the road. Admittedly, Stanford lost starting forward Michael Humphrey to an injury just four minutes into the game on Thursday night, but injuries happen.

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The Cardinal just didn’t have enough mentally or physically to recover.

We’ve grown accustomed to him impacting the game on both ends of the court for us with his shot blocking, as well as his ability to score,” Stanford Head Coach Johnny Dawkins said after the game. “It’s a tough blow, and it came at an inopportune time for us.”

There may never been an opportune time for much more this season, as far as the Cardinal are concerned. That makes the game against the Wildcats on Saturday even more special: It’s a huge chance for Stanford to make its mark on the national scene.

“Arizona is a good team, but all of the Pac-12 is,” Dawkins noted. “There are terrific teams all across this entire conference, and we’re going to face another good one on Saturday.”

If the Cardinal can’t pull off the upset, it’s going to be a long offseason wondering what went wrong so often this year. With eight losses by seven points or less this season, Stanford was very close to having a great season.

None of that will matter if the team is playing in the National Invitation Tournament instead of the NCAA Tournament in two week.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.