Believe it or not, Stanford, which finished a lowly seventh in the much-maligned Pac-12 conference, is one of only eight college basketball teams still standing in the NIT. The 24-11 Cardinal take on UMass at MSG on Tuesday in the NIT semifinals.
How on earth has coach Johnny Dawkins’ team, which won just one game between mid-January and mid-February, managed to find its way to the Big Apple?
1. Looks deceive
Stanford earned its invite to the NIT. While the Cardinal played only .500 ball in January and February conference play, they had a decent enough 20-10 regular-season record.
Stanford turned heads last November with an impressive showing in the preseason NIT, where it led Syracuse in the second half of the title game before bowing to the Orange by 69-63.
Stanford also had some of the best regular-season wins in the Pac-12, twice blowing out conference champ Colorado (84-64, 74-50) and defeating the league’s other March Madness representative, Cal, by 75-70 in the regular-season finale.
2. Late-season hot streak
The Cardinal finished strong, winning five of their last eight regular-season and conference tournament games, with the three losses by a total of 13 points.
With some exceptions, Stanford played well enough on defense all season (65.7 points per game allowed), no surprise given the team’s athleticism and Coach Dawkins’ 11-man rotation.
The offense, however, sputtered at times. However, in recent weeks it has exploded, scoring more than 75 points in the team’s last six games, highlighted by NIT wins by 76-65 over Cleveland State, 92-88 in OT over Illinois State and 84-56 over Nevada in the quarterfinals.
Twelve players have scored in double figures this season, and four have season-high games of more than 20 points, a reflection of the scoring talent assembled by Coach Dawkins.
Stanford has an athletic and dynamic frontcourt that has jelled in March after being maddeningly inconsistent for part of the season.
Two of Stanford’s big men, senior forward Andrew Zimmerman and sophomore forward Dwight Powell—who had played inconsistently—have come to life of late.
Zimmerman, he of the memorable facial hair, scored a career-high 22 points against Cal in the Pac-12 tourney and has continued to contribute points, rebounds and defense in the NIT. He’s playing the best ball of his college career.
Powell has length and hops, ala former Cardinal stars Landry Fields and Josh Childress, with double-double skills.
Zimm and Powell are joined by the team’s leading rebounder, powerful 6’8” senior power forward Josh Owens (honorable mention All-Pac-12, 12 PPG, 6.0 RPG), and the kinetic 6’7” sophomore Josh Huestis, who can score, rebound and defend.
Dawkins gives major minutes as well to 6’9” senior Jack Trotter, 6’9” sophomore sharpshooter John Gage (six games in double figures off the bench) and 6’11” Stefan Nastic, giving the Cardinal as deep and imposing a front line as any of the remaining NIT teams.
Chasson Randle is the best freshman guard that no one east of the Pacific Time Zone has heard of. Named to the All-Pac-12 freshman team, he’s averaged nearly 14 points per game and played both PG and SG. Randle has scored in double figures 25 times this season and displayed the ability to be Stanford’s best guard since Brevin Knight.
Randle is complemented by sophomore Aaron Bright, who torched Illinois State for 29 points in the second-round NIT victory. Bright leads the team with 127 assists. Both Randle and Bright have shot over 43 percent from beyond the arc.
The 6'6" sophomore Anthony Brown is another player who has emerged in March, with a 15-12 double-double in the NIT opener against Cleveland State. Long-armed 6’4” senior Jarrett Mann can defend, and penetrate.
5. Coach Dawkins
Coach Dawkins has shown quite a bit of patience with his players, and it has paid off with the team’s collective momentum. He’s used 15 different starting lineups in an effort to maximize the production from his 11-man rotation.
The Cardinal’s late-season surge gave Dawkins his first winning conference record in his four years on The Farm and will lead to Stanford’s first postseason championship since it won the NIT back in 1991.