After a seventh-place Pac-12 regular season finish and a loss in the second round of the conference tournament, many thought Stanford’s season was over. But in a surprising turn of events, the Cardinal (21-11, 10-8 Pac-12) was one of four Pac-12 teams invited to the postseason National Invitational Tournament (NIT), where it received a No. 3 seed in its region and will face fifth-seeded Cleveland State (22-10, 12-6 Horizon League) at home on March 13.
Stanford’s season was up and down throughout, but the Cardinal’s impressive out-of-conference performance was especially appealing to the selection committee. Stanford almost upset No. 2 Syracuse in an early-season matchup and was the only Pac-12 team to defeat three RPI top-50 schools: Colorado State, Cal and North Carolina State.
With the bid, the Cardinal will make its first appearance in the postseason since the 2007-08 season. Stanford has made five trips to the NIT in its history, most recently in 2006, where it fell to Missouri State in the second round. The Cardinal has won the NIT before, defeating Oklahoma in the 1991 title game.
Cleveland State finds itself in the NIT after finishing second in the Horizon League and falling in the semifinals of the season-ending tournament for the second straight time. The Vikings were a surprise snub from the NCAA tournament last season, when they were led by guard Norris Cole, who led the team in scoring, assists and steals. Cole was picked in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, but was traded to the Miami Heat on draft day.
As such, this year’s Cleveland State team entered the season with low expectations, but they promptly obliterated those expectations by defeating No. 7 Vanderbilt 71-58 to open the season. After leading the Horizon League for much of the season, a rough stretch of five straight losses saw them drop out of contention for the league title.
The Vikings feature a balanced offensive attack in which five players average over eight points per game. Their leading scorer, senior guard Trey Harmon, is talented but inconsistent, putting up 20 points at times but single digits at others. After scoring just eight in Cleveland State’s season-ending loss, Harmon will be looking to bounce back against the Cardinal.
The Vikings are weak on the boards, however. They average just 32 rebounds per game, as opposed to Stanford’s 37. Cleveland State has just one elite rebounder in freshman forward Anton Grady, who pulls down 6.3 boards per game.
Additionally, Cleveland State is a very slow, deliberate team, scoring just 66 points per game. Look for Stanford to attempt to push the Vikings out of their comfort zone by speeding up the pace of the game.
By no means will Cleveland State go down without a fight, as its top three scorers (guards Harmon, D’Aundray Brown and Jeremy Montgomery) are all seniors. This is likely the Vikings’ seniors’ last chance to compete on a big stage for some time.
If Stanford were to defeat the Vikings, the Cardinal would face the winner of No. 2 Mississippi and No. 7 Illinois State in the second round. Mississippi had an uneven season, finishing seventh in the Southeastern Conference, but played its way into the NIT with a run to the semifinals of the season-ending tournament, where the Rebels fell to eventual champion Vanderbilt. Illinois State finished its season third in the Missouri Valley Conference, yet also made an impressive run in its season-ending tournament. The Redbirds defeated regular-season champion No. 14 Wichita State in the semifinals before falling in overtime to No. 24 Creighton.
The matchup tips off in Maples Pavilion on Tuesday at 8 p.m. Two other Pac-12 teams, Washington and Oregon, will also be in action Tuesday, with the first-seeded Huskies taking on Texas-Arlington and the third-seeded Ducks battling LSU. Arizona, the top-seeded team in Stanford’s region, will face Bucknell on Wednesday.