Stanford's opportunity in this year's tournament is a promising one. The Cardinal may have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout 2012, but there is too much raw perimeter talent coming back next year to write off the possibility of a Maples Pavilion return to glory.
Not with super-freshman Chasson Randle just getting started. And definitely not with touted recruit Grant Verhoeven bringing full-fledged NBA pedigree to the Palo Alto paint in just a few months.
With that in mind, look at the 2012 NIT as the first phase of Stanford basketball's 2013 season. Take the Cardinal's 76-65 first-round win over Cleveland State as a promising first step in that journey.
"Our team is excited to be in [the NIT]," Anthony Brown said after the game.
As well they should be. It's an opportunity for players like Brown in particular to begin what will be a critical offseason for the program.
Will the Cardinal finally grow into their potential and make 2013 the Farm's return to national prominence? Or will Johnny Dawkins' operation remain stuck on its treadmill next year?
The answers to those questions hinge on the offseason improvement of Stanford's swing players. Guys like Anthony Brown, Dwight Powell, John Gage, and Josh Huestis, all potential inside-out matchup nightmares, will have to pack on muscle to establish a hungry court presence that will make the difference. Hot shooting comes and goes with any team; toughness always stays with the great ones.
The Cardinal's young guards, especially Randle, almost certainly will be up to par. Verhoeven will fortify the interior with his tremendous size and motor. But its the grit of those aforementioned guys in the middle that will determine whether or not the 2013 installment of Stanford basketball gets over its inconsistency hump.
To that end, Tuesday's win was a good start. Anthony Brown wasn't afraid to score. He flashed a lot of the six-foot-six perimeter athleticism that Stanford has been craving in his 15-point performance. The Cardinal maintained its composure against Cleveland State's furious pressure, turning the ball over only 12 times in 40 minutes.
Still, there was much left to be desired. Stanford was doubled up on the boards, 26-13, in the first half by a much smaller Vikings team. Although the Cardinal did ultimately prevail, the team's softness did occasionally rear its head.
"In the first half, we just weren't closing out possessions, we didn't get to loose balls," Dawkins said. "We held them to a low shooting percentage, but we just couldn't finish them off."
Finishing off - that's where the Stanford problem has been in all of the team's setbacks this season. Tuesday, the Cardinal eventually pounded Cleveland State into submission. But it'll take an offseason of bulking up to consistently eliminate the problem.
The NIT is an excellent improvement ground; an opportunity for this team to start improving for 2013 now in true postseason game speed conditions.
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