A Streak to Keep Alive

Stanford has something few elite programs in college basketball can claim, with a 10-year active streak of NCAA Tournament berths. This difficult year has threatened that mark, and it took a momentous upset last Saturday to give the Cardinal hope for an 11th selection. More than a statistic, the streak is a badge of honor for Stanford Basketball, and it would be a triumph to keep it alive in 2005.

Stanford has some pretty special history riding on the line this week, the likes of which you don't want to start over.  The Cardinal have made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last 10 years, and along the way they have carried a decade-long streak of 20-win seasons and second round advancements in the Big Dance.  This year's edition of Stanford Basketball currently sits at 17-11, and the latter two streaks are in some jeopardy.  Finding three more wins to reach the 20 plateau will likely require at least one major upset by the Cardinal - either this week in the Pac-10 Tournament or next weekend in the NCAAs.  The stretch of first-round wins that have put Stanford consistently into the Round of 32 is admirable, and it is a mark that a rare handful of programs in college basketball can match, but that record has a Hyde to its Jekyll.  Any mention of that second-round streak inevitably brings to the surface the gruesome ceiling that second round games have given Stanford.

But to the average fan, the simple streak of 10 straight NCAA Tournament berths is the gold standard.  Stanford can say they have not missed the Big Dance since the 1995 tourney, but the same cannot be said of Duke (nine straight), North Carolina (one), Connecticut (three) or Michigan State (seven).  The rarified air of 10 straight NCAAs and counting is occupied by only an elite few, with the Cardinal joined by Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky.

Everybody remembers the year when a program hit the biggest of hiccups in missing the NCAA Tournament.  Such a sin is etched into the college basketball conscience for seasons to come, signaling a school's moment of mediocrity.  Their dip into mortality.

That is the true mark of a "down year" in the history books.  Nobody really remembers the bubble weeks that Stanford endured during the 2001-02 season, where they secured their spot in the Big Dance only with a final-week sweep of Arizona and Arizona State in the Desert.  The fact that the Cardinal earned a mere #8 seed that March, in sharp contrast to their 2.0 average seed in the other six of the last seven years, is buried in the streak.  Stanford was humiliated by Kansas in 2002 in a fashion we had not seen since the UMass Mauling of '95, but they kept their noses clean by getting into the elite bracket of post-season college basketball.

To be clear, the goal of merely making the NCAAs is not a worthy one by itself.  65 teams do that every year, filled by the top third-plus of schools in major conferences.  But in this year of so much transition and pain for Stanford Basketball, it would mean a lot to keep the streak alive.  Those who have followed the travails of the program in the last 12 months would give a quick head-nod of understanding, should the Cardinal miss the Big Cut for the Big Dance.  Stanford came into the year with its lowest scholarship body count in decades, minus the only head coach who has given the program any semblance of respectability in modern history.  They lost the highest ever NBA Draft selection to come out of The Farm, and lost him a year early.  Rebounding and scoring leaders were stripped away without ample replacements.  Transition to new head coach Trent Johnson had its struggles in the early going, mounting toward a losing overall record and 0-3 conference start in early January.

But a funny thing has happened as the season moved onward.  The Cardinal have become curiously stronger as they have been dealt new blows.  Redshirt freshman Tim Morris was a unique athletic talent on this impotent roster who could create and drive against defenders like no other Stanford player this year, and he was elevated to a starting spot for the game at Washington on January 2.  The next day, he was declared academically ineligible and lost for the winter.  The Card were struggling mightily, and his was a blow they could not fathom stomaching.  Already 6-6 on the year, fans asked the morose question of how much further their favorite hoopsters could fall.  Stanford took a beating the following Thursday against Arizona State, when Chris Hernandez had to sit out with back spasms.  The downward spiral was on.

Without Morris, Stanford has gone on to a surprising 11-5 (0.688) record.

The next uppercut the Cardinal took to the chin came when Dan Grunfeld tore his ACL and ended his season.  The junior wing was miles ahead of the rest of his Stanford teammates as a scorer and playmaker, his loss took away perimeter potency and a mid-range game that could not be replaced.  Grunfeld went down just after halftime against California a month ago, but Stanford has again shocked with their surge after his loss.  Before the Cal game, Stanford was 12-9 (0.571).  Without Grunfeld, the Card have manufactured an improbable 4-2 (0.667) record.

It cannot be explained, but each time this undermanned Stanford squad has been battered and bloodied, they have rebounded from ruin and remade themselves stronger.  For that reason, the 2004-05 Cardinal team has a chance to not just continue the famed NCAA Tournament streak, but do so in heroic fashion.  The streak has a chance on Sunday to reach 11, but something bigger would be hailed.  Stanford has gone through their lowest lows this year, the likes of which tested our faith in the resiliency and future of Cardinal Basketball.  But if Trent Johnson and his troops can weather this storm, then how marvelous a future must lie ahead.  A berth in the Big Dance would not just continue "the streak," but it would also signal an end to the transition that this program had to inevitably endure when the irreplaceable Mike Montgomery gave way to his replacement.  There will be clear shortcomings on next year's roster as well, as Stanford will be undermanned and undersized, but the reshaping and reloading under Trent Johnson are underway.

For the pride of the program, for the bravado of the fans, and for the perception held by recruits, this year is when we most want to keep the streak alive.  The Card can reinforce their case to the Selection Committee tonight if they can pull off a win against the Washington State team that has stymied them twice already this year.  But regardless of what happens these next few days in Los Angeles, there will be a giant collective lump in our throat on Sunday as the brackets are unveiled.  An NCAA berth in this most trying of years would be a bellwether and testament to the strength of Stanford Basketball and its staying power.  It would be a crowning achievement for the program to keep the Tournament streak alive when the program has hit its bottom.  And it will lift our heads upward to toward the shining future ahead.


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