PALO ALTO, Calif. — As Stanford reeled off win after win the past six weeks, the primary question facing the Cardinal was obvious: Was their torrid start the product of a modest schedule, or were they legitimate Pac-12 title contenders?
A 71-66 home loss to Butler doesn't definitively answer that question, but there certainly were some sobering signs that emerged.
Stanford's offense once again became far too turnover-prone when pitted against an active defensive team. Its erratic free throw shooting continues to be costly in close games. And most surprisingly, its previously formidable defense surrendered too many open shots and too many offensive rebounds to a Butler squad that struggled to score consistently for most of this season.
"I thought they did a good job executing what they wanted offensively, and I thought we could have been better," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "Some of our breakdowns were due to a lack of communication, something we really emphasize. We didn't have it as well as we would like tonight."
The mere fact that a five-point loss to Butler can be viewed as a clear disappointment for Stanford is a testament to the progress the program has made this season. The Cardinal endured losing seasons the past two years and were projected to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, but they've ratcheted up expectations with a narrow loss to top-ranked Syracuse and solid victories over Oklahoma State and NC State.
What has sparked Stanford's improvement has been a defense that had allowed opposing teams to shoot just 39.3 percent from the field. The Cardinal has backed that up with an offense highlighted by the low-post play of senior forward Josh Owens, the dribble penetration of talented freshman point guard Chasson Randle and the timely shooting of Aaron Bright, Anthony Brown and others.
It's Owens and Randle who stood out most to Butler coach Brad Stevens on film.
"Owens is very physical, hard to keep off the block and he initiates a lot of contact," Stevens said. "You can only take so many charges, and he's going to get to where he wants to go.
"And then I think the guards are really good. I told our staff I think the Randle kid is a great, great freshman. If there are better freshman guards on the West Coast than [Gonzaga's Kevin] Pangos that we played the other day and Randle, then there are some good guards out here."
What will determine whether Stanford can contend with the likes of Cal, Arizona and perhaps even Oregon State is whether some aspects of the Butler loss are an aberration or not. The Cardinal do not score easily enough to turn the ball over eight times in the first 10 minutes of the second half or to allow an opponent to shoot 46.5 percent from the field and get 11 offensive rebounds.
It would also help Stanford if it could get more consistent production from sophomore Dwight Powell, the centerpiece of a highly regarded 2010 recruiting class. Powell has not found a rhythm since returning from an early season ankle injury, averaging 4.6 points per game and scoring in double figures just once.
Stanford would certainly have preferred to enter the start of Pac-12 play next week on an emotional high, but the Cardinal hope they can learn from the mistakes they made against Butler.
"You always like to win, so of course we're disappointed, but you learn a lot from losses though," Dawkins said. "I think we'll learn a lot from this game. Going into conference play and having to learn this, it may not be the worst thing in the world. It's how we handle the situation."