The tough 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.
Stanford has 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 timeout.
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 goal percentage.
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 edge.
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 Huskies.
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 adjective.
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 victory.
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 championship game.
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