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Tuteja: Cardinal’s tourney run the beginning, not the end

Shawn Tuteja is a junior at Stanford, and is the men’s basketball play-by-play announcer for KZSU.

There’s an old, overused saying that goes, “All good things must come to an end.” (It was supposedly Geoffrey Chaucer who said this, in case anyone feels the need to recite some of the Canterbury Tales.

In my whole life as a sports fan, I’ve always seen this statement affirmed. As a bandwagon Lakers fan in the early 2000s, I saw the Lakers’ streak of three consecutive NBA championships come to an end. As a tennis fan in 2010, I saw Roger Federer’s streak of 23 consecutive grand slam semifinals come to an end. And Thursday night, at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn., I saw Stanford’s run in the NCAA tournament come to an end in the Sweet 16.

Or did it?

In a literal sense, yes, Stanford is out of the NCAA tournament. However, for a program that had not been to the Big Dance since 2008, I think that the “good things” are only starting to begin.

 

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            Two years ago, Stanford ended its season in Madison Square Garden by winning the NIT. For many Cardinal basketball fans, there was a feeling that the program was headed in the right direction. As such, many expected the Cardinal to threaten to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Unfortunately, as we know, the team was eliminated in the second round of the NIT last season, which on paper seemed to be a regression from the previous year.

The sentiment of disappointment from last season seemed to carry over into this year. Whether it was through conversations that I overheard during the Cardinal/White preseason scrimmage or the preseason exhibition against Seattle Pacific, it seemed there was doubt as to the direction the program was heading in — it would take something big to win back confidence in the fan base.

Coach Johnny Dawkins and his team truly delivered “something big” this year.

Moreover, they did so by overcoming injuries and obstacles along the way. To start the year, Stanford found out redshirt senior Andy Brown would need his fourth ACL surgery since joining the Cardinal. And with preseason injuries to sophomores Rosco Allen and Christian Sanders, the year was certainly not off to a storybook start for the Cardinal.

As Stanford started to pick up steam with a run to the finals of the Progressive Legends Classic earlier this season, news broke that senior point guard and former NIT MVP Aaron Bright would miss the remainder of the season with a dislocated shoulder. How would the Cardinal respond to this adversity?

The answer was that they would overcome it, as they did throughout the entire season.

Three out of the four times in conference play in which Stanford lost the first leg of a two-game road trip, they responded with victories in the latter game. The team began to feed off of the road energy and learned to play under some of the brightest lights in all of the world (such as the Barclays Center), and at moments in which everyone was expecting the “old Stanford team” — the team that conceded “bad losses” at crucial points during the season — the Cardinal proved everyone wrong and continued to surge.

In fact, the team did this against some of the best competition in the nation. CBS Sports rated Stanford’s schedule as the 17th toughest in all of college basketball — and against that schedule, Stanford posted a 19-11 regular-season record and a 13-5 non-conference record. Stanford went to the buzzer with teams like Arizona and Michigan, and they pulled out victories against the likes of Connecticut, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State.

So where is the program heading now?

I think it’s clear that Stanford did not just catch lightning in a bottle during its run to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal showed all season that they could play with and beat the best, and they did it both at Maples Pavilion and on the road. This should be an encouraging sign to all Stanford fans going forward, as it is clear that Coach Dawkins is building the groundwork for a successful team for years to come.

A large part of this groundwork is due to the hard work and leadership that this year’s senior class — Dwight Powell, Josh Huestis, Robbie Lemons, John Gage, Aaron Bright and Andy Brown — displayed throughout their careers. These seniors can look back on their years on the Farm with a sense of accomplishment. Just think: Four years ago, Stanford finished the season 15-16, without even having earned an invitation to the NIT. What a difference four years can make.

At the podium following Stanford’s loss to Dayton, senior forward Dwight Powell, who has played the most games of any men’s player ever to put on a Stanford uniform, reflected on that.

“Hopefully, the guys that won’t be with the team next year have left a legacy, like Coach [Dawkins] said,” Powell said, “and have left a path for those guys to follow and exceed.”

One of “those guys,” junior guard Chasson Randle, instead talked about the motivating aspects of a loss.

“It’s definitely motivating,” Randle said. “It just means we have to work so much harder to advance and go further next year. I’m looking forward to it.”

And we all as fans are certainly looking forward to next year. Stanford will welcome one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Robert Cartwright, Michael Humphrey, Dorian Pickens and Reid Travis will all join the team as freshmen next year, and starters Chasson Randle, Stefan Nastic and Anthony Brown will be back for the Cardinal.

In 10 years, when we talk about the legacy of this year’s team and this run to the Sweet 16, I think we will all agree that this was the run that helped Stanford turn the corner in men’s basketball. After all, don’t the song lyrics go something like, “the best is yet to come”?

Contact Shawn Tuteja at sstuteja atstanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @stuteja.

About Shawn Tuteja

Shawn Tuteja is a senior studying mathematics and statistics. He serves as the color commentator of KZSU 90.1 FM's coverage of the Stanford football team and the play-by-play announcer for men's basketball broadcasts. Hailing from the great state of Alabama, Shawn grew up an avid fan of college football and has written feature articles and columns on a wide range of Stanford sports. Contact him at sstuteja 'at' stanford.edu