MEMPHIS -- After years of losses and mediocre seasons and NIT appearances, Stanford squeaked into this NCAA tournament and recorded two upsets in the first week. Here was Cinderella reimagined -- in glasses, with pocket protectors, revenge of the, well, you know.
No one exemplified Stanford's run and potential more than Dwight Powell, a Canadian drawn to soccer and track before he discovered basketball, a post prospect who actually stayed in school four years, a scholar who delayed potential NBA riches to return for a final season and complete both a promise and a degree.
Neither Stanford nor Powell fit the usual Cinderella mold, not like Dayton, their opponent here on Thursday night at FedEx Forum, not like Florida Gulf Coast last year, or so many tournament darlings before that. Stanford plays in the Pac-12, a power conference. Its athletes rank among the league's best students, like Powell, the conference's men's basketball scholar-athlete of the year. Stanford trains in California, for God's sake, its campus replete with sunshine and future Olympians and world leaders.
So it's not exactly a surprise that Stanford ended up here, opposite Dayton, one win from a trip to the Elite 8. What's surprising, to Powell and his teammates, is that it took nearly all of four years for the Cardinal to put together this type of run. In so many ways, it feels like a culmination, and yet in one way, in perhaps the most important way, it feels incomplete.
"I've thought about her often here," Powell said Wednesday, in a quiet moment inside Stanford's temporary locker room. "She would definitely be out here screaming."
She is Jacqueline Weir, Powell's mother, the woman who pushed him into academics, who dropped him at the IMG Academy, who helped him choose Stanford over other options like Harvard and Georgia Tech. This is what she wanted: the degree, the tournament run, all of it.
Powell had no idea how sick his mother was. He knew she had breast cancer, but she reassured him that all would be OK. He left the summer of 2012 for training camp with the Canadian national team, and when he returned to her home, outside of Boston, he learned that the cancer had spread into her liver. She died that September. She was 53.
When Powell explains how Stanford ended a five-year NCAA tournament drought this season, how it toppled New Mexico and Kansas last week, he starts with cohesion. He never felt that more than when his mother died and Stanford's coaches and several players traveled to Toronto for the funeral.
Stanford petitioned the NCAA to pay for the trip, and it did, but teammates said they planned to attend regardless. Like Josh Huestis, a forward and fellow senior. His family hosted the Powells one Thanksgiving. He considered Weir part of his own family.
"It was something we all had to do," Huestis said. "He was our brother. I loved his mom."
Huestis met Powell at an All-Star game in Los Angeles. They were roommates before they became teammates. Huestis would learn Powell was funnier than expected -- "the best word I can use to describe Dwight is goofy," he said -- that he performed spot-on impressions of celebrities and conducted entire conversations in a British accent.
Powell arrived at Stanford after a stint with the IMG Academy in Florida. His mother accompanied him on the visit there. She asked a lot of questions. She wanted to know about classes and tutors, the academic end of things.
The program was basically full-time: up at 7 a.m., breakfast, lift weights, practice, shower, lunch, school. There were nutrition sessions, mental conditioning sessions and team-building sessions. Powell blossomed from a 6-foot-6 beanpole into a top-50 national recruit.
That development continued at Stanford, the NIT champions in 2012 -- the best sushi in Iowa, or the college basketball equivalent. Where other universities like Kentucky and Kansas stocked and restocked their rosters with elite freshmen on stopover before they jumped early to the NBA, the Cardinal had no such luxury. They would develop players, or they would look for work.
Last summer, Powell considered entering the NBA draft. The league issued Stanford its usual evaluation, detailing of Powell's prospects, his strengths and weaknesses and where he might be drafted.
Powell declined to look at it. He had promised his mother he would obtain a degree in Science, Technology and Society (he is currently on track). He would overcome the knocks on his game (soft inside, injury prone). He would lead Stanford to the NCAA tournament for the first time under Coach Johnny Dawkins, whose office chair felt more like an oven in recent months.
"This is what Dwight's mother wanted," said Dan Barto, the head skills trainer for IMG's basketball program. "Everything that has happened is their plan. He's executing it."
Powell averages 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and shoots 45.7 percent from the field. He made the all-Pac-12 first team for the second time. He stands 6-feet, 10-inches and yet leads Stanford in assists (110) and steals (45).
What Stanford needed most from Powell was assertiveness, and to that end, in this tournament, he has delivered. "He's incredibly conscientious," Stanford assistant Tim O'Toole said. "He's cerebral. He's an unbelievable team player -- and sometimes to a fault. I always tell NBA scouts: There's not a lot of big guys who can guard Kevin Durant on the perimeter. He can. That's how he's built."
Built Mom Tough. That's Powell, Cinderella reimagined, not exactly an underdog but a surprise NCAA tournament contender nonetheless. If it took four years to arrive here, he noted in that impeccable Stanford logic, at least it did not take five. Mom would be so proud.