The best part of Stanford’s 74-64 NIT semifinal win
over UMass Tuesday was the Cardinal’s re-emergence as the bully. Johnny Dawkins’
squad had been building toward this for quite some time - all the way from their
surprising preseason start, through their midseason growing pains, to their
recent tear through the first three rounds of the postseason.
team that controls games is easy to identify. It’s steady. It controls pace.
It’s always physically in command, regardless of factors that it has difficulty
controlling. It’s the squad that can grind out a comfortable win against a good
team, even when it shoots only 36 percent from the floor.
punched its ticket into that tough guys club.
Tuesday’s contest meant the
world for UMass and its large contingent of fans at Madison Square Garden. The
Minutemen were getting riled up after every one of their dunks, unleashing the
kind of emotion reserved for the end of the game at the second media
Stanford, on the other hand, simply remained collected and
steady, responding to each flamboyant dunk with technical soundness and a
workmanlike demeanor on the other end of the floor.
For the first time,
the Cardinal overcame their own offensive sloppiness to deliver a dominant
physical performance against a quality foe, and that’s a major milestone in the
progression of this team. Remember, there was a large portion of this season
during which Stanford was an irresolute basketball team. The Cardinal’s
performance would fluctuate rampantly, and it seemed to be rely on their field
If the shots were falling for Stanford, their focus and
grit would follow. See the dismantling of Colorado: 54 percent from the field in
the first half went along with a bruising 50-26 game rebounding
But, if looks were clanging off the iron, this team couldn’t do
anything right. See the demoralizing loss to Washington: 36 percent from the
field and mincemeat on the boards, and a 57-42 rebounding advantage went to the
Simply put, Stanford was soft. A bad shooting performance would
negatively affect the team’s physicality. Like a lizard or any other
cold-blooded reptile, the Cardinal’s inner toughness would only heat up when
outside factors also saw some warmth. ‘Spineless’ was a good
Until Tuesday night in New York City.
This time, the
going was ugly, but Stanford didn’t care. The Cardinal made only 36 percent of
their shots, but they were finally unfazed against a good team on the boards.
They dominated UMass 45-35 on the glass. They bruised the Minutemen in the paint
and on the perimeter, limiting a hot-shooting team to a 5 for 22 three-point
performance. Johnny’s boys willed themselves to a convincing
Even mediocre teams will pull upsets because of fluky good
shooting performances. A major mark of a truly good basketball team, though, is
one that stays in physical control even if there’s a lid on its basket. And
finally, the Cardinal did something last been seen by NCAA Tournament-caliber
squads on the Farm: they won ugly in a big-time spot.
Dirty work on the
glass by Josh Owens (12 rebounds) and the Dwight Powell (nine boards) gave just
enough breathing room for Anthony Brown to seal the game.
By the way,
don’t tell Brown that the NIT is second-rate. For him, it’s becoming a possible
springboard into the stardom at Stanford.
Brown’s 18 points on 7-12
shooting with three cold-blooded bombs from downtown marked an emergence for a
player whose body frame alone screams ‘potential.’ The six-foot-six sophomore
had been part of that inconsistent mush in the middle during the iffy portion of
Stanford’s 2011-2012 campaign. Now he’s finally making the most of his
six-foot-six build, using his length and athleticism to separate and knock down
dagger jumpers on the perimeter.
As a whole for the Cardinal, that mush
in the middle is gone. Inconsistency has been erased by a physical hunger that
can overcome even sloppy offensive outings. Consider that this team’s biggest
leap forward heading into next season.
And, of course, Thursday’s
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