Wait, excuse my disorientation, but just how is it that we got here?
In a year that has seen more than its fair share of peaks and
valleys, in a season that has readied us for the unexpected by
feeding us a steady diet of
this-is-what-it-feels-like-to-have-arrived type wins washed down
with big gulps of deflating
back-to-start-do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-200-dollars type losses,
even this seemed improbable as little as a week ago.
is in the Sweet 16.
And more than that, with a matchup against fellow upset-happy and
double-digit seed brethren Dayton
looming, the Cardinal are in a
very real position to make some more noise before this maddening
month comes to a close.
A team that not too long ago was trending in the wrong direction on
its way to a 10 seed is now two games from the Final Four.
Now quick, someone, what's the time on that zero-to-sixty?
For those of you that haven't been around these parts much lately,
and I'm going to guess there are a few, let's catch you up to speed.
The Cardinal raced into March and into an admittedly difficult
road-trip in the desert fresh off a convincing 83-74 home victory
over then #23 UCLA
, a win that capped off a 6-2 stretch (one of
those losses coming by three points to then #1 Arizona
) and that had
some in these parts claiming that the Stanford program had finally
turned the corner.
When coupled with impressive early-season road victories at UConn
and at Oregon
, the UCLA win did wonders in building the Cardinal's
tournament resume, in the process positioning a Stanford team
playing its very best basketball of the entire year for what looked
to be a chance to significantly climb up the seed line in the final
stretch of the regular season.
On cue, Stanford dropped both games against the Arizona schools in
largely noncompetitive fashion, never inching closer than nine in
the second half against the Sun Devils and getting down by as many
25 in the final 20 minutes against the Wildcats en route to a pair
of double-digit losses. Returning to the Bay Area for the final-home
stand of the season, with the NCAA Tournament bubble urgency meter
beginning to rev up again, Stanford did just what it had to in
splitting its two games against fellow tournament hopefuls Colorado
, yet did little to inspire much in the way of, I don't
know, being able to make a deep run late into March.
This very inconsistency carried over into the Cardinal's initial
foray into 2014 postseason play. At the Pac-12 Tournament, a
Stanford team still not-so-secretly playing for its NCAA Tournament
life survived an absolute must-win game against lowly Washington State
, flashed its final streak of brilliance and perhaps its final
wink to those "in the know" in beating down fellow soon-to-be 10
seed Arizona State
, and then hit the snooze button on the alarm
clock just 48 hours before Selection Sunday in an 84-59 trouncing at
the hands of those same Bruins.
That's three weeks, three blowout losses, two hold-your-breath wins
against non-Tournament teams, one masterful dismantling of a
Tournament opponent, and one entirely confused fan base heading into
last Thursday's tilt with New Mexico
The surprise, then, that comes with Stanford's run to the Sweet 16
is not necessarily that which typically engulfs Cinderella's late
That is to say, that as David Lombardi
astutely pointed out
in his earlier review of Stanford's
opening weekend, the Cardinal are far from an overmatched mid-major
sticking it to the big guys. The Cardinal are themselves, quite
literally in a sense, the big guys. This is a team with top-flight
talent, a team with a starting five as good as any in a Pac-12
conference that still has two other teams left dancing, and one with
a distinct size and length advantage over just about every other
squad in the country.
Indeed, Stanford did not best its two tournament opponents thus far
on the back of a single hero-ball all-star (no shot at Chasson Randle
, who has been superb) or a torrid team-wide shooting stretch,
nor has it caught teams off guard with a quirky scheme, all tried
and true underdog upset formulas. Rather, Stanford succeeded in
pounding the Lobos and Jayhawks into submission. Stanford has won
with its long athletes; with tough rebounds in traffic; with a
suffocating zone defense; with some of the best rim protection you
will see over the span of two games (it has been Arizona-esque, and
there is not much higher defensive praise to bestow on a team this
season); and with timely rip-your-heart-out, run-stopping offense.
Stanford has won the way bullies win; the Cardinal have played the
role of a tenth seeded Goliath. (Editor's Note: Hmmmmm... sounds as
if Andrew could be describing Stanford football)
No, the surprise from Stanford's opening weekend is not that it is a
team starving for talent that has caught lightning in a bottle but
rather that it is working to upend one of the only things we
consider to be reliable when it comes to March: that the teams
playing best coming into the tournament are those best poised to
play deep into the month. The pleasant surprise, then, of the
opening weekend is that a team that repeatedly suffered from a
severe lack of intensity, one that routinely endured extended
stretches playing with an alarming lack of urgency in important
games as recently as two weeks ago (or in other words, three games
ago), and one that built a penchant for disappearing when the light
shone on them brightest, reeled off a pair of victories on the
sport's biggest stage that could only be described as gutsy.
Stanford has been a lot of things this season. It has been atrocious
defensively (see the entire first half of the season, namely vs. BYU
), and devastating offensively (see at Cal, vs. UCLA).
And vice versa (see vs. Arizona for the initial foreshadowing of
this as-of-late lockdown defense; and see vs. Colorado for more of
the frustrating offensive struggles). Stanford has been lucky at the
end of the games (see Dominic Artis
' missed layup @Oregon), and
Stanford has wilted under the late game pressure (see vs. Arizona).
But at every step of the way, during every win against a UConn and
every loss against an Oregon State
, Stanford has been talented.
But not until this past weekend have the Cardinal truly been big
time opponent, big-time stage, calm-Robbie-Lemons-made-free-throws,
And that's surprising.
If there's one thing I've learned covering this team this year, it's
that I should probably hesitate to use words like "transform." I'm
not sure Stanford "transformed" into anything this past weekend. But
what I do know is that they put forth their two most admirable and
impressive performances in the season's most crucial stretch. What I
do know is that in each game's deciding moments, the Cardinal -- in
the form of Chasson Randle knifing through the New Mexico defense,
blowing past a Kansas
defender to earn a trip to the
foul line, and Stefan Nastic
wrestling the ball from Tarik Black
force a jump ball -- rose to the occasion and made winning plays.
Stanford played two consecutive big games like it expected to win
both. And that was something new.
Most of all, the two wins over the weekend have created a palpable
buzz around the program for the first time in Johnny Dawkins
tenure. A spot at college basketball's elite table—and not to
mention an extra three days of media coverage—have, if only for the
moment, re-energized and awoken a largely dormant fan base. With
that in mind, there is no diminishing the opportunity Stanford has
in front of it Thursday night. For if the Tournament gods dealt the
Card a bit of a tough hand the opening weekend, they have given a
little back with the impending match-up against the Flyers. Mind
you, there are no gimmes this late in the season, and there's more
than good reason to believe that Dayton probably feels similarly
about facing the Cardinal as opposed to an on-the-lookout, fully
loaded (i.e. with Embiid) Kansas team.
Yet nonetheless, the stage is set for the Stanford program to take a
big—and as of not too long ago, largely unforeseen—step forward. The
Cardinal will indeed be the favorite against the Flyers, and as such
a chance to build the type of program momentum not seen in Palo Alto
in almost a decade is within reach. Coincidentally, such momentum
would come in advance of what would be one of the single most
important games in program history, a showdown against the
Florida-UCLA winner with the Final Four on the line.
So yes, it is indeed surprising to think of where we've ended up.
Now just imagine where we might go.
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When Stanford squares off against Dayton at 4:15 PT on Thursday, the Cardinal will have a chance to build the kind of program momentum that hasn't been felt in Palo Alto for an extremely long time. Andrew Santana has documented the ebb and flow of Stanford's roller coaster season. Now, he provides his Sweet 16 perspective.
Stanford has taken a tumultuous path to this spot. They're now on the precipice of something hug