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Zimmerman: NIT win can catalyze Card

The NIT is a tournament begging to be punned. It’s the participation trophy for the grass pickers in the outfield, a second-rate competition for second-rate teams. It’s the ultimate slap in the face, a reminder that for a single college basketball season, your team was inferior to schools you’ve never even heard of.

 

Elite programs wouldn’t be caught dead with the ugly prom date. Appearances are rare for the top tier, and when they occur, they’re justified with humiliating, “we’re in rebuilding mode” excuses. In a place like Chapel Hill, N. C., the year 2009 never happened.

 

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and for the Stanford men’s basketball team–your 2012 NIT champions–finishing the season as the 69th best team in the nation never felt so sweet.

It’s hard to not be slightly cynical about the postseason performance. Stanford didn’t play away from the Farm until the Final Four in Madison Square Garden, and its road to the championship featured no opponent seeded better than fifth. It was, by nearly any quantitative measure, the Cardinal’s tournament to lose.

There’s also the shadow of recent history that taps the excitement brakes after the win. Stanford’s consistent level of talent, combined with a now almost-forgotten legacy of the late 20th century, should never lead to D-list postseason losses and early trips home. But it did, and the fluctuating showcases of effort and ability for the first several years of Johnny Dawkins’ coaching career drove a lot of passionate fans, like me, to distribute copious amounts of irrational blame throughout the program.

So why be optimistic about the Card’s first postseason title since 1991? For starters, we finally got a glimpse of how head coach Johnny Dawkins has progressed in his role. In his fourth year, Dawkins finally settled on a suitable, predictable and effective rotation this postseason. And how many coaches in the country would be willing to take a seldom-used player like Andrew Zimmermann and thrust him into their starting lineup during the most important stretch of the year? Not many, and even fewer would be able to properly reconstruct offensive and defensive schemes to accommodate such a delayed adjustment.

Zimmermann, along with fellow seniors Jarrett Mann, Jack Trotter and Josh Owens, will not be around for the next campaign, but the continued emergence of the most dynamic backcourt in the conference, coupled with a boatload of returning and incoming talent, should more than make up for graduation attrition. Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, the fantastic underclassman guards, dazzled in the NIT with stellar one-on-one play and precision shooting. Not since Brevin Knight has Stanford had a triple-threat point guard with a fondness for dribble-drive penetration. Now, the Cardinal has two.

What’s most important is the confidence gained from stringing together an impressive series of convincing wins. The Ray Lewis pregame speech was impressive, but this group actually needed to practice what he preached. It did, and now Stanford has to be considered a favorite heading into next year’s Pac-12. Don’t believe me?

Regular season champion Washington lost in the NIT semifinal to the same Minnesota team that was shellacked by the Cardinal. Cal, the only conference foe that received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, put up just 13 points in the first half of its play-in game loss to USF. And Colorado, an 11-seed in this year’s dance following their shocking conference tournament victory, lost both contests against Stanford this season by a combined 44 points.

With the loss of key Cal seniors, the declaration of UW superfrosh Tony Wroten for the NBA draft and Colorado’s inevitable regression to the mean, it’s impossible to find a team better prepared for the upcoming season than the Cardinal. It’s a more-than-welcome position for fans more accustomed to months of uncertainty and disappointment.

I’m not one to blindly donate my optimism. The NIT was an impressive stretch for a group of young up-and-comers, but the result still has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, this same Stanford team was torched by the outside shooting of the Illinois State Redbirds.

But for a team that has been making a series of baby steps, this was the first leap in quite some time. With significant positive momentum, Stanford can finally turn the proverbial corner.

The NIT isn’t the Big Dance. But it’s not the size of the trophy that matters; it’s how you use it.

 

Zach Zimmerman is happy about the NIT win, but not as happy as Johnny Dawkins is in the first few seconds of the Ray Lewis video. Watch closely, then drop Zach a line at zachz “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter “at” Zach_Zimmerman.