Jaffe: Cardinal men looking trendy on the hardwood

April 2, 2012, 1:45 a.m.

For several years, there has really been no comparison between Stanford men’s basketball and women’s basketball. While the men have struggled to get over .500, the women have been blowing out their opposition left and right. The men haven’t been able to sniff NCAA tournament contention, whereas the women are locks to be national title contenders year after year.

This year, that reality has not changed one bit. In a weak Pac-12, the Stanford men still managed to finish in the bottom half of the conference, and the team has been on such a downward trend that an NIT berth was seen as quite an achievement. On the other hand, the women continued their destruction of the Pac-12 by running their winning streak over conference foes to 78 games and had an overall winning streak of 32 games this year.

However, sometimes perception plays an even bigger role than reality, and for the first time in recent memory, the perception is much more favorable to the Stanford men than the women.

Stanford women’s basketball has gone to the Final Four each of the last five years, which is one of the most impressive streaks in the sport’s history. But after falling to No. 1 Baylor last night, the Cardinal has yet again failed to secure the elusive national title. For the seniors, particularly All-American Nnemkadi Ogwumike, last night marks the end of four unsatisfying trips to the Final Four. At some point, the national view of Stanford women’s basketball has become similar to that of Andy Murray in men’s tennis — an immaculate record and total domination of lesser foes, but just not enough against the top-quality competition to win the big one.

For a team with such an impressive resume and the amount of talent that Stanford has, almost no one in the media gave Stanford a shot to win the national championship, which says something about the effect of all these Final Four defeats. I’m not suggesting that the team has stopped believing it can win, but you have to wonder if doubts start creeping in when Stanford falls behind by eight or 10 points deep in the postseason.

Doubts about whether the team can indeed close the deal can also be detrimental to recruiting. Stanford will invariably have one of the top recruiting classes in the country thanks to its success under Tara VanDerveer and the allure of what the Farm has to offer. The only question is if that one extra top recruit will pick a place like Connecticut instead of Stanford. And if you’ve watched any amount of women’s basketball, you know what kind of impact one player can have (see: Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, etc.).

Meanwhile, the Stanford men’s basketball team has faced none of the expectations and pressure that have followed the women for years. The Stanford men quietly extended their season with an NIT berth, and despite less-than-stellar attendance at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal advanced past Cleveland State before the rest of the bracket disintegrated in Stanford’s favor.

As a three-seed, Stanford faced two five-seeds, two six-seeds and a seven-seed while playing three home games and two neutral-site games en route to an NIT title. Although no win in particular was truly notable (Stanford was favored in all five), stringing together five straight wins in any postseason tournament is impressive. Winning games you should win is an important part of sports — just ask Missouri and Duke — and it’s an area where Stanford has struggled (see: losses to Butler and Utah).

In the past few weeks, though, the Stanford men did anything but struggle. The Cardinal played inspired basketball, getting impressive contributions from a variety of players while gaining momentum with each game. The way Stanford played on both ends of the floor by the end of the tournament brought back memories of the “good old days” of Mike Montgomery and yearly trips to the Big Dance. It was easily the best Stanford has looked in Johnny Dawkins’ four-year tenure, and it brought back something that has been missing for all four of those years: hope. For once, Stanford men’s basketball is trending upward, and with a strong crop of recruits ready to join the Cardinal’s solid core of underclassmen, the future looks bright.

Of course, if you’re placing early bets on the 2012-13 season, you’d still be smart to predict the Stanford women to advance deep into the NCAAs, and you’d be foolish to expect the men to do the same.

But for the first time in a long time, the buzz surrounding the men’s team has at least equaled that of the women’s team. And considering that women’s team just made the national semifinals for the fifth straight year, I’d call that a pretty positive sign.

Jacob Jaffe is planning to take on Brittney Griner one-on-one to revive Stanford’s basketball pride. Suggest an appropriate venue at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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