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.
Stanford 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 and Utah, 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 night march.
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 Pittsburgh), 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, cold-Grant-Verhoeven-17-foot-jumper, tear-inducing-crowd-shushing-Anthony-Brown-and-1 gutsy.
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, Dwight Powell blowing past a Kansas defender to earn a trip to the foul line, and Stefan Nastic wrestling the ball from Tarik Black to 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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