NIT Championship harkens back to 1991 crown

A berth in the NIT is like a visit to the doctor's office. You want it to lead to healthier habits. The longer you go between visits, the better. Stanford certainly hopes its latest championship run through Madison Square Garden leads to the sort of accomplishments that begat the last one.

The Cardinal entered the 1991 NIT with only two all-time NCAA tournament appearances and then celebrated their championship accordingly. They gleefully cut down the nets after vanquishing Oklahoma, who had played in the national title game just three years earlier. The Cardinal hoisted the oversized trophy with pride, bringing it back to campus to nearly 500 well-wishers who provided a heroes' welcome. It's as if everyone saw the bright future that lay ahead.

Less than a decade later, Stanford was entrenched among college basketball's elite. Among 14 NCAA tournament appearances in the ensuing 17 seasons occurred the holy and unlikely trinity: A Final Four, an outright Pac-10 championship and a No. 1 national ranking.

The Cardinal counted itself among basketball's New Money, those like Gonzaga, Florida and the Missouri Valley Conference upstarts, who all emerged in the years between the three-point shot's advent and the trend of high school starts graduating to the NBA. Stanford uncovered a pair of truths along the way to the top.

(A) Losing in the NCAA tournament's first weekend isn't so bad, unless you're wearing your home whites; (B) Winning in the Preseason NIT is actually a much bigger than the postseason version.

Which brings us to Thursday at The Garden. Twenty-one years removed from their last NIT title game, Stanford's appearance became a reason to express a sense of relief, just not unabashed joy.

Cardinal basketball has a pulse. Each of the last two seasons has seen Stanford improve its victory totals, a first since the Lopez Twins departed. Chasson Randle just might be a star in the making. Maybe Johnny Dawkins can use this experience to polish his coaching skills for the coming years.

Stanford may have all that going for it. One obstacle it does not face is a tough conference. Once a bastion of Hall of Fame coaches and finishing school for NBA-ready point guards, the Pac-12 stock sits at an all-time low. Hope exists for the future, however, so it just may be 1991 all over again.

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