So, are we supposed to believe this Stanford team that just bruised its way in bar fight fashion through two RPI top-15 teams is the same squad that had earned a reputation for its soft, inconsistent play over the past six years?
The scoreboard isn't lying. The results are set in stone: Previously red-hot New Mexico is already bloodied at home, while powerhouse Kansas may have a broken jaw as it limps back to campus, too. Meanwhile, the Cardinal are now favored to reach the Elite Eight, regardless of whether or not they're still trying to figure out how to break a full court press. Upstart 11-seed Dayton awaits them next in the.... Sweet 16?
Wait, who the heck wrote this script?
In theory, it actually all makes sense. Promising talent has filled the Stanford roster for some time now. The Cardinal feature four top-line players and an enviable combination of athleticism and length. That much has been apparent in a handful of impressive wins interspersed through the past several seasons.
In practice, though, this March success represents a remarkable reversal.
Just this past Friday morning, Stanford was still facing questions regarding its 25-point obliteration at the hands of UCLA. Perpetual inconsistency was the Cardinal basketball story of the Johnny Dawkins era. Outside of the NIT, disheartening disappointment would inevitably follow great success. The only clear takeaway from the team's mercurial routine was a negative one: When it came to the scoreboard, the Cardinal was getting less value than the sum of its parts.
Suddenly, during this past weekend -- the do-or-die one that mattered most -- the maddening trend reversed. First, Stanford wore New Mexico down into 58-53 submission. Then, the Cardinal strong-armed Kansas into a 60-57 victory.
A sense of urgency seems to have overtaken the Farm Boys, and -- at least on first look -- both Cardinal wins were no flukes.
A Sustainable Formula
It would be one thing if Stanford had ripped through New Mexico and Kansas thanks to a torrid shooting stretch. That's how the Cardinal usually used to pick off victories over quality opponents: They'd happen to shoot the lights out en route to an impressive win before turning around and delivering an unrecognizably poor encore performance. Stanford had lived and died by shooting percentage, particularly from beyond the arc.
This past weekend's success is especially remarkable because it appears to be potentially sustainable. Stanford displayed a rigid backbone against the Lobos and the Jayhawks. They didn't win because they shot unconsciously well from the floor. Against Kansas, in fact, Stanford did not hit a single three pointer for the first time in 423 games, a stretch that'll take one all the way back to 2001.
In the recent past, that sort of shooting performance would have played directly into an ugly loss. Yet in this new world, the Cardinal prevailed anyway. A ferocious defensive mix-and-match (from Josh Huestis on Jayhawks star Andrew Wiggins in man all the way to a stifling zone) led this charge, but an equally recalcitrant rebounding stand against a Kansas team known for hitting the glass hard was just as important.
Granted, a two-game sample size is still small. But it's much easier to sustain rugged dirty work than a 60 percent shooting clip. The Farm Boys took care of the gritty details remarkably well this weekend. Stefan Nastic asserted himself in the middle while Dwight Powell did the same on the glass. Huestis set an authoritative tone with a handful of electric swats. Even the bench delivered big-time contributions: John Gage maintained the attack when Powell sat, Marcus Allen infused energy in his loose ball chase, Grant Verhoeven delivered out of an inbound play, and Robbie Lemmons delivered dagger free throws against New Mexico.
This Stanford team, talented but wishy-washy for so long, emerged with a hardened identity that did not compromise in its quest to execute the ever-important details. Red swarmed the perimeter defensively. It allowed no freebies underneath.
Overcoming the Offense
In fact, Stanford's defensive and rebounding performance was so good that it overcame suspect offensive play against top-line competition twice in a row. The Cardinal's effort Sunday conquered not only the aforementioned three point shooting woes, but also some woeful execution against the Jayhawks' swarming full court press (press break will certainly require some repair before Thursday). This stat illustrates it well: Stanford won despite turning the ball over 16 times yet dishing out only six assists.
If we compare to football terms, this defensive performance may have been slightly reminiscent of Stanford's 2012 shutdown of Oregon, a game in which the Cardinal held the Ducks at bay despite seeing their own offense go scoreless for 10 straight possessions. The Farm Boys guarded their own basket with relentless vigor that did not waver even when the going was rough on the other end of the floor, and that much marked a departure from the topsy-turvy play earlier in the year.
So consistency has been re-established, at least for a weekend -- but a critical one at that. The Stanford fan base needed this success. It had become wary of inconsistency and the resulting disappointment. Now, though, it's reinvigorated with energy and enthusiasm.
There's a new spring of optimism flowing as Stanford heads to the Sweet 16 in Memphis with a solid backbone, one hardened by two vicious bar fights in St. Louis -- the types that championship teams consistently find a way to win.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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