Stanford men’s basketball (23-13, 9-9 Pac 12) will end its long and winding season in one of the most storied basketball venues on the planet.
“They say this is the world’s most famous arena, and I believe it,” said senior Chasson Randle. “You walk in here, and you see what’s happening in the rafters, and you’re kind of in awe. It’s a great honor to be able to [play here] with this group of guys.”
For Randle and other Cardinal veterans, this trip to Madison Square Garden is less of a debut and more of a return. Stanford won the NIT at the Garden just three years ago, blowing out Minnesota by one of the largest margins of victory in the history of the tournament’s final game.
The Cardinal have largely picked things up where they left them in 2012. The team got out to a furious start in the tournament semifinals against Old Dominion and held on down the stretch for a 67-60 win. The University of Miami (25-12, 10-8 ACC) is the last obstacle standing between the team and a college basketball tournament championship banner.
Victory or not, Stanford has already had an NIT to remember. The Cardinal have generally looked a cut above their opponents and have advanced with relative ease. The school’s record books have been breached as well, with Randle becoming the program’s all-time top scorer, a mark that had stood since 1989.
In some senses, then, this final game seems almost anticlimactic. Randle has already achieved the designation he chased all season, and even victory in this second-tier tournament will just cause more questions about what the program could have been. Yet a win in the game would provide something that to the Cardinal’s seniors that they could carry with them forever – a rare opportunity to end their collegiate careers with a victory.
“For our seniors, [to go out] on top and win our last game…would be very special for us,” Randle remarked.
Miami may have other plans.
During stretches of the season, the Canes have looked straight up dangerous. It took two overtime periods for No. 3 Virginia to put them away on Jan. 3. Ten days later, Miami knocked off No. 4 Duke in Durham by a 16-point margin in what became Duke’s only home loss of the entire season. Junior guard Sheldon McClellan shoots almost 50 percent from the field and is complemented by a number of young but competent colleagues in the backcourt.
“They have some really, really good players,” remarked Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. “Looking at their roster, they are a younger team but a team that has played really, really good in a lot of different moments…they have guys that can play multiple positions. They play well together and are well coached.”
Week in and week out, however, Miami’s season was filled with a few more ups and downs than head coach Jim Larranaga may have liked. The Duke win was the Canes’ only true quality victory, and they finished the season with an in-conference record of just over .500.
Miami will have to face the Cardinal without key playmaker Tonye Jekiri, who suffered a concussion just over six minutes into the team’s matchup against Temple. Jekiri was the team’s top rebounder and third highest scorer over the course of the regular season, and his aggressiveness on the offensive glass will be difficult for the Canes to replicate.
Junior guard Angel Rodriguez, Miami’s second highest scorer, will likely be absent as well after apparently aggravating a long-term wrist injury during the early rounds of the tournament.
The absences of Jekiri and Rodriguez haven’t plagued the Canes excessively thus far, however. McClellan led a Miami rally over Temple in the semifinals with both Rodriguez and Jekiri were off the court, with the Canes holding the reasonably accurate Owls to a remarkably low 30.2 percent from the field.
Dawkins will have to hope that Randle and fellow senior Anthony Brown’s proficiency from range can help Stanford avoid the fate of Miami’s comparably bested opponents. Senior Stefan Nastic will also be counted on to get the better of the Canes’ weakened interior, as will freshmen Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey.
Stanford’s season finale against Miami tips off this Thursday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.