University of San Francisco forward Matt McCarthy goes up for a lay-up against Northern Arizona in a game on Dec. 19, 2018, at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center in San Francisco. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

USF Dons welcome Stanford for key showdown

Between a struggling Pac-12 and a surging West Coast Conference, the West Coast basketball landscape is changing. On Saturday, the University of San Francisco, off to an 11-1 start, has an opportunity to send some major shockwaves around that landscape and erase the memories of one of last year’s ugliest performances in the process.

On Dec. 17, 2017, Stanford beat the San Francisco 71-59 at Maples Pavilion. It was one of the ugliest losses of the year for the Dons, who shot just 27.1 percent for the game and trailed by as much as 25.

This Saturday, in what’s expected to be a sold-out Sobrato Center, San Francisco will host the Cardinal in a 2 p.m. match-up on the Pac-12 Networks. Not only is it one of the most anticipated non-conference games on the Hilltop in years, but it’s a game with both local intrigue and major postseason implications.

At No. 23 in the current NET rankings — the system that replaced RPI this year — San Francisco (11-1) is starting to get serious consideration as an NCAA Tournament team. With wins over Harvard and Cal, and their lone loss coming against a still-unbeaten Buffalo team, the Dons have backed up their best start since 1999 with wins over both strong competition and teams from major conferences.

With how strong Gonzaga is, that’s the sort of resumé needed to snag an at-large bid, something for which the WCC should be in line, as it’s shown through strong wins by San Diego over Colorado, and BYU over rival Utah two weeks ago.

While this year, San Francisco won’t have to deal with Stanford’s Reid Travis — who scored a game-high 29 points in the teams’ last meeting, but is now at Kentucky as a graduate transfer — they will have to contend with is seven-footer Josh Sharma. Last season against San Francisco, Sharma scored 13 off the bench, and has since moved into a starting role.

“It’s not his physicality, but his length,” said Dons head coach Kyle Smith. “They’re built like a volleyball team. You can’t float the ball across their zone.”

Lead scorer KZ Okpala (16.8 ppg) is practically a dictionary definition of length, with his 7-foot-2 wingspan. The Orange County native has combined with freshman Cormac Ryan (11 ppg) to help soften the blow of the departures of Travis, Michael Humphrey and Dorian Pickens, three of last year’s top five scorers. Travis and Humphrey were also the Cardinal’s top two rebounders.

The Dons can counter inside with seven-footer Jimbo Lull (8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) and Australian import Matt McCarthy (10.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg), and have one of the best distributors in the nation leading the charge in Frankie Ferrari. The Burlingame product is 22nd in the NCAA with 6.3 assists per game, and third in assists-to-turnover ratio (5.3). He’s also quietly averaged 12.9 points per game while shooting 34.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, and 42.7 percent from the field, adding 2.7 rebounds per game and 1.9 steals.

Both teams are coming off lackluster performances, with Stanford (6-4) surviving San Jose State 78-73 and San Francisco winning Wednesday over a two-win Northern Arizona team, 76-60, in which Ferrari had five steals.

The lone comment opponent the two sides have so far is Eastern Washington. Stanford beat the Eagles 78-62, and the Dons posted an 85-63 win over EWU last Thursday.

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