No, Stanford basketball's NIT title, courtesy of a 75-51 drubbing over Minnesota, didn't bring that exhilarating championship buzz with it. It didn't bring the sense of closure expected from winning a season-ending tournament, either.
It did, however, infuse happiness and optimism into Maples Pavilion moving forward. That's what happens when a team kicks open a door to a Bright future (pun intended). For a program mired in mediocrity for a handful of seasons, that much alone means the world. The Cardinal handled the NIT with class, and they were rewarded for their diligence.
Entering the postseason, the program had seen rosier times, but Johnny Dawkins' squad didn't big-time the tournament. Quite frankly, they had no right to do so given recent struggles. But, they could have followed the poor example Arizona set: the Wildcats lost to Bucknell by double digits in the first round.
The Cardinal could have taken that bitter path through a bracket known for consolation prizes and half-empty arenas. Instead, they earned a program-defining springboard into next season. They solved the softness and inconsistency issues that had dogged them throughout the conference schedule. They finally developed an identity - it turns Ray Lewis' killer instinct does rub off on others. They fortified their freshman and sophomore core for the arrivals of prized recruits Grant Verhoeven and Roscoe Allen.
Stanford outworked Cleveland State, outlasted high-octane Illinois State, thrashed Nevada, clenched their teeth by UMass, and took a bow after absolutely pulverizing Minnesota.
As a result, there's a lingering thirst for more. Right away.
Alas, Stanford basketball will have to wait until Fall to play an actual game again, but at least that will give the roster time to make the next quantum leap forward. That involves adding muscle to the still skeletal frames of Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown. Given how well those two swing players performed in the NIT, imagine how dominant they will be with at least 15 more pounds of beef entering next season.
Increased physical strength across the lineup should be Stanford's primary focus over the offseason, and it's expected that much of that growth should happen naturally with the core of the lineup transitioning into its upperclassmen years.
The other foundations, though, are now strong. Dawkins' defense suffocated the Golden Gophers Thursday night and created 22 turnovers (12 off steals). The Cardinal blistered Minnesota in its crisp transition game. Their half-court inside-out attack was precise and balanced, as Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle, and Brown plowed ahead with double digits. Again, Stanford battered its opposition on the boards, this time to a 36-29 advantage. Oh, and they shot free throws at a 73 percent clip, too.
It was an impressive win at Madison Square Garden, but it was not the end. Sure, it's good that the Cardinal gave their seniors (particularly Josh Owens) a grand exit, but for all intents and purposes, the maturation on full display in New York City was only the beginning of a fun ride for Stanford basketball.
With the NIT out of the way, the only acceptable goal for the 2012-2013 squad will be comfortable entry into the NCAA Tournament. And if that happens, all of the Cardinal's major revenue sports will be playing at an elite level. Between both men's and women's basketball, football, and baseball, a heyday in Stanford sports may be on the horizon. Stay tuned.
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