Thursday, March 27, 2014
Don't look now, but Stanford is surging
By Mitch Sherman
Through five years of basketball under Johnny Dawkins, Stanford went unnoticed on the sport’s biggest stage, failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament after a Sweet 16 appearance in the season before the coach’s arrival.
Guard Chasson Randle, who has averaged 18.7 points per game this season, and the No. 10 seed Cardinal take on No. 11 seed Dayton on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Dramatic finishes at other sites overshadowed the round-of-64 victory. And headlines from Sunday focused more on the circumstances of the second-seeded Jayhawks’ early departure than on what the Cardinal did to force it.
Stanford held star KU freshman Andrew Wiggins to four points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Give Stanford some credit here, primarily senior forward Josh Huestis, a three-time member of the Pac-12 all-defensive team who handled Wiggins for most of the game.
“I challenged him,” Dawkins said of Huestis, “and I thought he really responded. He did a great job defending.”
Stanford, in its first tournament appearance since 2008, remains content to fly under the radar as it prepares for a South Regional semifinal meeting Thursday against No. 11 seed Dayton. The Flyers have grabbed attention already with wins over sixth-seeded Ohio State and No. 3 seed Syracuse. Florida, the top seed overall in the tourney, and UCLA fill out the field in Memphis, Tenn.
Stanford again might go overlooked -- unless, of course, it wins two more games and advances to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
Don’t count out the Cardinal. Their steady style of play figures to create problems, starting with a frontcourt of 6-foot-7 Huestis, 6-10 senior forward Dwight Powell and 6-11 junior center Stefan Nastic.
Stanford is long and versatile. It beat the Jayhawks without making a 3-point field goal (0-of-9).
Floor general Chasson Randle, who scored a team-high 36 total points in the second- and third-round games, adds an element of creativity. And 6-6 wing Anthony Brown provides another athletic option. He hit five free throws in the final 44 seconds against Kansas.
Powell and Huestis rank atop Stanford’s career chart in games played. Experience, although not in the NCAA tournament -- Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament in 2012 -- has helped carry the Cardinal.
“We’re still in the race,” Powell said, “We’re still playing in March, and it feels great.”
Stanford entered the tournament on something of a roller coaster. It lost 84-59 to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal round after three straight wins that had followed three straight losses dating to Feb. 26.
“Every season is like a lifetime,” Powell said. “Obviously, you will have your ups and downs. But from day one, before we even started preseason, we always had a goal to make the tournament and make a run. And we never lost sight of that and lost hope.”
Stanford did lose firepower. Forward Andy Brown, who started 20 games last season as a freshman, has missed the entire season with a knee injury; guard Christian Sanders has sat out with a hip injury.
Additionally, guard Aaron Bright, a 22-game starter in 2012-13, missed all but the first seven games, and forward Rosco Allen went down early in the season.
As a result, the starters accounted for more than 85 percent of Stanford’s scoring through the regular season. Against New Mexico and Kansas, they scored 107 of 118 points.
Count Kansas coach Bill Self among the admirers of Dawkins and the job he has done to rebuild Stanford over six years.
“He epitomizes class,” Self said before Kansas faced Stanford. “He conducts himself in that way, and he always has.
“He was a great hire that Stanford made, and he's going to continue to do well. And everybody in our business that knows Johnny is happy for him.”
Also before that game, Wiggins and Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. unintentionally provided extra motivation for Stanford as reporters asked them a series of questions about Randle at the practice-day news conference.
The KU freshmen had no answer, other than a few uncomfortable laughs. Clearly, they weren’t familiar with the name of the Cardinal’s top playmaker -- understandable because the Jayhawks had yet to receive scouting reports from their coaches, but apropos, nonetheless, considering the Cardinal’s somewhat unnoticed run to the Sweet 16.
Randle said after the landmark victory, in which he scored 13 points with six steals in 40 minutes, that he watched footage of the news conference.
“I took it as a challenge,” Randle said. “So did my teammates. It wasn’t just a stab at me. It was a stab at our team.”
Noticed or not, the Cardinal are marching forward.