Three years ago, a young Stanford basketball team rolled into New York’s Madison Square Garden, determined to capture the National Invitational Tournament title. The team had just gone through an up-and-down season and was hoping to prove it had what it took to compete on a national level. It coasted through its remaining games, ushering in what many hoped would be a new era of Stanford basketball success.
Three seasons later, Stanford returns to Madison Square Garden with many of the careers that were just beginning in the team’s last visit now about to come to a close.
Some players, like senior Chasson Randle, have gone on to reach historic highs for the Cardinal, with Randle in particular almost certain to break the school’s all-time scoring record over the course of the next few days.
Others have fared less well. Then-sophomore Aaron Bright, winner of the 2012 tournament’s MVP award, would transfer away from Stanford before his senior year after apparently being replaced in the backcourt by Anthony Brown.
For those who remain with the team, the return to New York promises to bring a final chance to make a mark on the history of Stanford basketball. At stake is less a chance to add another year to the banners in Maples Pavilion and more a chance to define the state in which they leave the Stanford program.
The Cardinal haven’t looked to be particularly troubled in the tournament thus far. Stanford breezed through its first matchups against UC Davis and Rhode Island by double-digit margins. Its quarterfinal matchup against the Vanderbilt Commodores was more competitive than the early rounds had been, but Stanford’s three-point victory wasn’t as close as the score line made it seem.
Randle, Brown and sophomore Marcus Allen have taken turns putting in dominant offensive performances, each setting a personal season-high in consecutive games. Meanwhile, senior Stefan Nastic has filled in for injured freshman Michael Humphrey by providing an above-average effort on the boards, totaling 25 rebounds in the first three games.
The Cardinal will carry this momentum into their first matchup in New York against Old Dominion of Conference USA. The Monarchs were one of the favorites going into the tournament after losing just seven games during the regular season and going 3-1 against eventual NCAA tournament opponents.
However, the Norfolk-based squad has experienced a little more drama in their campaign than many would have expected. It took a layup with 18 seconds remaining to put Old Dominion past Illinois State in the second round and a spectacular buzzer-beater to knock off Murray State in the quarterfinals.
The Monarchs rely heavily on guard Trey Freeman to put points on the board. Freeman averages 17.5 points and 3.4 assists per game, both of which lead his team. The junior is far from alone in the backcourt, however, as five Old Dominion guards often enjoy considerable minutes each game and are easily capable of scoring in the double figures.
Old Dominion’s real strength, however, lies in its incredibly stingy defense. The Monarchs have afforded their opponents an average of just 56.8 points per game, the seventh-lowest figure in all of DI men’s basketball.
The team is particularly effective at slowing down the pace of its opponents and has held its adversaries to 48.2 field goal attempts per game, fewer than anyone else Stanford has faced this year. The Cardinal’s success in this game should be a function of how well head coach Johnny Dawkins can get his veteran starters to control the game’s flow against this stubborn opponent.
A victory over Old Dominion would land the Cardinal against either Temple or Miami (FL). Both teams have shown tremendous potential but remarkable inconsistency over the course of the season.
Temple knocked off the Kansas Jayhawks convincingly when they came to town but then seemed uncompetitive against many of its weaker in-conference opponents. Miami took Virginia to overtime and decimated Duke in Durham just a few weeks after looking outclassed by Eastern Kentucky at home. Stanford’s prospects against these teams may very well depend on which version of these opponents shows up.
In some senses, the Cardinal winning these games would provide retribution and respect for the entire team. However, even more than that, victory seems like it will bring a final point of pride for the veterans to leave on.
“Obviously we were disappointed we didn’t get to the NCAA Tournament…[but] whatever we’re in, we’ve got to win it. The seniors want to go out with a win in their last game,” Brown said.
Indeed, in truth, the team’s motivation may be that simple. Randle, Brown, Nastic and the rest of the team’s seniors have already anointed their resumes with a line saying they won a NIT. Now they have one final chance to add a little extra style to them.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.