A season mired by inconsistency could end on a high note if Stanford continues its postseason surge at the NIT Final Four in New York this week.
After sputtering out of the Pac-12 Conference tournament three weeks ago, the Cardinal (24-11) rattled off three straight wins in the NIT to land a date with UMass (25-11) in the world’s most prestigious basketball gym, Madison Square Garden, at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The sudden turnaround allowed Stanford to set a new record for home wins in a season (17), while giving seniors Jarrett Mann, Josh Owens, Jack Trotter and Andrew Zimmermann an opportunity to rewrite the final chapter of their college basketball careers.
“I’m just really proud of them and happy they were able to go out in their last home game with a win,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said.
The Cardinal flirted with the idea of an NCAA Tournament berth early in the season, amassing a 10-2 record in nonconference play and then opening the Pac-12 season by winning four of its first five contests.
But qualifying for March Madness required a near-perfect in-conference performance this season since the Pac-12 didn’t pick up a single win against a Top 25 opponent. Consequently, the Cardinal’s tournament hopes evaporated after it dropped five of six games in the heart of the conference schedule.
After getting bounced by Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, a new season was born in the NIT. Stanford routed Cleveland State 76-65 in the first round before winning a 92-88 overtime thriller against Illinois State.
The team was firing on all cylinders two days later in the quarterfinals as it dismantled Nevada 84-56.
“That was the most complete game our kids have played this season,” Dawkins said.
The key to knocking off UMass today will be slowing down sophomore point guard Chaz Williams while playing airtight perimeter defense.
UMass is at its best when Williams is flying up and down the floor fueling the transition game. The Minutemen have averaged 86 points per game over their last six outings.
“I don’t think we’ve faced a team that plays as fast as they play,” Dawkins said.
If Stanford gets past UMass, it will face the winner of Minnesota vs. Washington in the NIT final Thursday.