Stanford basketball exhilarated much of its dormant fan base with spectacular defense during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Every tenacious rebound, every monstrous block, and every gritty battle for a loose ball built a new sense of belief heading to Memphis for the Sweet 16. The Cardinal, so fickle for so long, had taken a page out of football's rugged playbook to send both New Mexico and Kansas packing.
Those were two good opponents and two excellent wins. It seemed as if there could be some stability settling into a program that had developed such an infamously mercurial reputation.
And then Dayton arrived to spoil the party. And Dayton tore through Stanford like a buzzsaw.
The final score read 82-72, but the flow of the game told an even more frustrating story. The good ol' (two) days of swarming defense, tough rebounding, and bar fight style basketball were gone in the blink of an eye -- almost as quickly as Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell crippled the spine of the Cardinal's game by falling into foul trouble.
One could argue that the Flyers' front line was less talented than Stanford's. It was certainly smaller than the Cardinal's. But Dayton owned depth that the California kids could not match and an offense whose precision and efficiency made the Farm Boys pale in comparison.
Stanford had not given up more than 57 points throughout its first weekend of play in the Big Dance. On Thursday, Dayton had surpassed 60 with over 10 minutes still remaining on the clock. They almost doubled the Cardinal's assist total. Their bench ran circles around Stanford's on its way to outscoring the Farm Boys 34-2.
Meanwhile, Johnny Dawkins' squad spent most of the evening flummoxed on the offensive end. The Cardinal's size advantage made for plenty of ripe scoring opportunities on the low block, but they settled for 21 three pointers anyway -- and only made five of them. (Remember that Stanford had wisely abandoned the three point shooting strategy a game earlier against Kansas after only attempting nine from beyond the arc.)
This was a game in which Dayton, the technically smaller team, played decidedly bigger than Stanford. And that meant the Cardinal would have to mail in their eye-opening run at the FedEx Forum. The curtain closed on this rousing two-game tear, and only a whimper was heard behind it. A topsy-turvy season said goodbye on an unsatisfying note.
It left behind a bevy of realizations and emotions, many of them conflicting in nature.
There was the realization that Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell, and John Gage had played their final career game in a Stanford uniform. There was the fashion in which the Cardinal had lost to eleventh-seeded Dayton: spanked in virtually every phase of the game. But there were also great memories of gritty wins against New Mexico and Kansas, of crunch time success on college basketball's biggest stage. It all added up to a proud overall sense of March accomplishment, albeit one still inevitably entangled with the scepter of inconsistency that has long frustrated this program.
In short, there was confusion, the kind that suggests Stanford basketball remains in a state of limbo entering the offseason.
Moving forward, the bid to re-energize Maples Pavilion will demand much more consistent success. Given the prior trend, it's tough to determine whether or not that's a realistic expectation. Dawkins does have a strong recruiting class coming in, and a core of Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Nastic will remain intact next season to spearhead the push for more improvement. The players and the staff both provided many positives to enjoy during this late season run to the Sweet 16, but the disappointing way in which it ended is a reminder that there are still daunting hurdles left to clear. Dawkins' next season may well be the defining one.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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