Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 21, 2014

Cardinal seniors finally achieve their NCAA goal

by Rick Eymer

Postseason action is no stranger to the Stanford men's basketball team. The NCAA tournament, though, brings an entirely different atmosphere.

The Cardinal (21-12), which received a No. 10 seed, meets 17th-ranked New Mexico (27-6) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis on Friday at 10:40 a.m. (TBS) as part of the South Regional.

Stanford ventures into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, but the Cardinal has played on a big stage before. The current senior class won the National Invitation Tournament in 2011 on the floor of Madison Square Garden.

Aaron Bright, who was forced to miss his senior season but who will be playing at St. Mary's next year, was named the tournament MVP.

Anthony Brown, named to the Pac-10 All-Freshmen Team, appeared in 30 games, with 12 starts, and was a major contributor to the title.

This week, Brown nervously sat with his teammates watching the selection show and waiting for Stanford to be named.

"I was anxious," Brown said. "I didn't know what my reaction would be. Once we were announced, I thought we get a chance to play on the national stage."

Dwight Powell started nearly every game for the Cardinal in 2011, bringing a masterful pedigree with him from Canada, and Josh Huestis was a valuable player off the bench.

Stephen Nastic and Andy Brown were both out for the year with injuries and Robbie Lemons, who walked on to the team, wasn't playing a lot. John Gage made 20 appearances, making one start.

Chasson Randle, committed to Stanford, was completing an All-American senior season at Rock Island (Illinois) High, where he left as the school's all-time scoring leader.

"We'll be extremely focused," Randle said. "Once we found out we were going, we were excited but we want to make some noise once we get there. We'll be ready for New Mexico."

The Cardinal fulfilled one of its top goals of this season by qualifying for the first time under coach Johnny Dawkins.

The South Regional features overall No. 1 seed Florida and Pac-12 opponents Colorado (seeded eighth) and UCLA (seeded fourth).

The Stanford-New Mexico winner most likely will meet No. 2 Kansas in the second round. The Jayhawks meet No. 15 Eastern Kentucky in their first game.

For Powell, Huestis, Gage, Lemons, Bright, Brown and Nastic, the at-large berth is the realization of a dream they all brought to Stanford out of high school.

"I was nervous just not knowing what would happen and where we would be placed," Randle said. "Crazy things have happened to teams with better resumes than us. So it was a waiting game."

Stanford has been dreaming large for years, but has had to wade through the College Basketball Invitational and the NIT before getting the call to the Big Dance, something that may spark a trend, with Randle, Brown and Nastic returning next year.

A top 25 recruiting class joins the program following the quality of freshmen Marcus Allen, Malcolm Allen, Scott Woods and Schuyler Rimmer brought to the table this season.

Dawkins, under the pressure of a directive made by athletic director Bernard Muir following last year's disappointing finish, continued to believe in his team all year even as the Cardinal seemed to underachieve.

Stanford played its best basketball when it needed, winning twice in the Pac-12 Tournament last week after finishing in a five-way tie for third, to assure its berth in the NCAAs, which includes five other conference teams.

"It was a relief," Randle said. "We finally get the chance to make a run in the tournament. A lot hand shakes going around the room. We're excited for the opportunity on Friday."

A tough preseason schedule, which included NCAA qualifiers Pittsburgh, Michigan and Connecticut on the road and BYU at home, also helped the Cardinal in reaching its goal.

Overall, Stanford was 7-9 against the NCAA field this season.

Stanford, however, possesses a 21-15 record in NCAA Tournament competition and is making its 17th appearance overall. The Cardinal was a No. 3 seed during its last tournament appearance in 2008, falling to Texas in the Sweet 16 following victories over Cornell and Marquette.

The Cardinal is 2-1 against the Lobos, who have won nine of their past 10 games. The teams last met during the 2001-02 season when Stanford defeated New Mexico, 81-66, in Albuquerque.

Anthony Brown and New Mexico's Kendall Williams played together on the same AAU team during the sixth and seventh grades.

Stanford achieved 20 wins for the 22nd time in school history, and third during Dawkins' six-year tenure. The Cardinal finished 3-2 against Top 25 opponents this year.

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