By Sam McPherson

The question is getting asked a lot by college basketball experts: What happened to the Stanford men’s team in the last six weeks? The once-strong Cardinal have lost seven of their last 10 games, and they now sit on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament.

After defeating the Washington Huskies on the road back in late January, the Stanford record stood at an impressive 15-5, and the future looked bright. Now, on the eve of the Pac-12 Tournament, the Cardinal are just 18-12—and currently sixth in the line trying to get into March Madness, according to Bracket Matrix.

It really doesn’t matter now, in terms of what happened to Stanford. What the team must focus on now is the task in front of it: Winning two games in the Pac-12 tourney and hoping some of the teams ahead of the Cardinal fail to win in their respective conference tournaments.

First, what the Stanford men can control: Wednesday night in Las Vegas, the Cardinal must beat the Huskies in the opening round of the conference tourney. Washington began the season 12-0, but after dismissing one of its best players from the team in January, the Huskies have faded very badly. The Cardinal have to win, period.

“We are going to keep fighting,” said Head Coach Johnny Dawkins after the team’s loss to the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday in Tucson. “We have to find ways to get ourselves out of the situations we’re in. Now we are only guaranteed one more game. We have to make sure we focus and prepare properly to give ourselves a chance to keep playing.”

Washington is coming off a stunning upset of then-No. 13 Utah, however, so Stanford cannot take this matchup lightly—despite the Huskies’ 4-14 record since their hot start to the season. The Cardinal must be focused for 40 minutes in order to salvage their season; otherwise, they will go home and ponder the error of their ways for a very long offseason.

If Stanford can win on Wednesday night, it will face those same Utes—now ranked 17th in both polls—in a quarterfinal game on Thursday night, televised by ESPN. It would be a big showcase for the Cardinal to definitively state that they belong in the NCAAs. Stanford lost its only matchup against Utah this season, by 16 points on the road in Salt Lake City. 

The Cardinal would need to play its best game of the year to beat the Utes in front of a friendly crowd in Sin City, but it could be enough to get them to the Big Dance. It would give Stanford 20 wins on the year and a nice signature win to show the team has righted the ship.

However, the Cardinal may need some help as well from the opponents of the following teams: Old Dominion, Texas A&M, UCLA, Miami (FL) and Tulsa. Each of those teams is in line ahead of Stanford right now. One of the big roadblocks is the Bruins, who swept the Cardinal this season. The only way Stanford can alleviate that negative somewhat is to get to the Pac-12 Tournament final and hope that UCLA gets there, too, by beating Arizona.

Otherwise, the Cardinal will not be leapfrogging UCLA. Stanford’s RPI sits at 58 right now, while Old Dominion is at 37, TAMU is at 55, Miami is at 60, and Tulsa is at 47. If the Cardinal can boost its own RPI with a big win over Utah while those other teams fall to lower-rated teams early in their own conference tournaments, there might be hope for Stanford. 

The Monarchs won nine of its last 11, however. The Aggies have lost three of their last four; Miami has split its last 12. Tulsa has lost two straight, so the Golden Hurricanes could be reeling. In addition, teams like Indiana and Purdue that are currently projected to be in the NCAAs (barely) could fall early in their tournaments as well. There are possibilities here. 

It starts with the Cardinal winning twice in Vegas, however. Nothing else matters unless Stanford beats Washington and Utah the next two days. At that point, we will know a lot more about the Cardinal’s opportunities.

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