Who is Stanford? After major upset of Kansas, answer is: a Sweet 16 team
ST. LOUIS -- Josh Huestis looked down at his jersey, at the big white 24. Well, it used to be white. Now it's the color 40 minutes of brutish basketball, of a 60-57 Stanford upset win over Kansas in the South Regional. It's the color of blood.
Huestis doesn't know whose blood it is.
There's a bit on the two, and a dash on the four and it didn't come from the cut above the senior forward's left eye. That's from Friday, from the New Mexico game, back when Stanford was a team so unknown its future opponents couldn't even name its point guard.
Who is Chasson Randle? became the story of Saturday, when Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden devolved into a fit of giggles when asked about the Cardinal point guard. Silence, then giggles, that is. It was too easy: the big-time stars don't know the small-time opponent. They're too cocky, too assured, with about as much poise as a couple of 19-year-olds -- which they are.
Sunday's was a better story: Who is Stanford? People care now. People are asking, and the Cardinal are happy to answer. They are Randle, the scrappy point guard and quiet leader. They're Stefan Nastic, the junior center whose game resembles that of a robot, but who finished the afternoon with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting. They're Huestis, who had just six points Sunday but snared a team-leading eight rebounds. They're Dwight Powell, who struggled Friday but led Stanford with 15 points against the Jayhawks.
They are a unit, a team, something that's grown over the past three years, which until this season did not include an NCAA tournament appearance but did include an NIT title in 2012. Does experience trump elite talent? Not always, but it did on Sunday.
With the game slipping away in the second half, Kansas, which was without freshman center Joel Embiid and got an uninspired four-point performance from Wiggins, decided to shift strategies. It would win the game with its defense, it decided, and so it pressed. Hard. There were moments when midcourt must have seemed like a mile away to Stanford, when it was pinned back by the basket, gasping for air. Over that time, the Jayhawks overcame a seven-point deficit to the tie game with 5:11 remaining, and Stanford looked like it might be headed for the exit so many had expected.
Except, of course, that it wasn't.
"You try to stay as calm as you can," Nastic said of the press, which he admitted was one of the toughest he'd faced all season. "You try to see the game. If you start getting as frantic as the defense, you're playing to their style. We tried not to do that. We tried to stay composed and just play our game."
Added Huestis: "I feel like a lot of teams would have crumpled after that."
Crumpling was the furthest thing from Stanford's mind. The Cardinal regained the lead on a jumper by Powell and eventually pushed the margin back out to seven before Kansas made a final push. The Jayhawks got two three-pointers from Conner Frankamp to keep their hopes alive, but Frankamp missed another three that would have tied it and the clock expired.
The game wasn't pretty. It was brute, at times, and awkward. Instead of storming, Stanford scrambled, and it worked. Instead of letting Kansas dictate the flow of the game, the Cardinal battled back, like the furthest thing from a 10-seed hoping to upend a No. 2, using its zone defense to flummox Kansas into an early exit.
So who is Stanford? Well, it beat Kansas, beat Wiggins, but it's more than that. It's a team on its way to the Sweet 16 for a meeting with fellow upstart Dayton, and it has seen its share of trials. Its players are mature, and its coach, Johnny Dawkins, is more than ready.
In the days leading up to his first tournament as a head coach, Dawkins placed a call to Mike Krzyzewski. He asked his former head coach and boss at Duke for advice in his first tournament as a head coach, and Coach K had an unconventional tip: Share your stories. Before that, Dawkins, a star player and longtime assistant for the Blue Devils, had been hesitant to bring his own tournament experiences into the conversation, but if the guy with four titles to his name suggests something, you go with it.
One such story sticks with the Cardinal players. It's of Dawkins' junior season, 1984-85, when Duke lost to Boston College on the first Sunday of March Madness, and the story isn't really about Dawkins, at all. It's about Danny Meagher, a Blue Devils senior. His college career ended that day.
"I will never forget... Danny Meagher," Dawkins begins. "Danny Meagher was a great player for us. It was his senior year, and we lost to Boston College, I will never forget that. We all were down, and it was a sad locker room, of course, because of the finality of everything. But no one was more distraught than he was. He was visibly just crying."
Dawkins remembers Meagher repeating one statement: "You just don't understand." The younger players on the team were mystified. They'd all just gone through the same thing. How could they not understand?
Meagher explained: "This is it for me," Dawkins remembers him saying. "This was my last opportunity."
"We need all of our players thinking of themselves as seniors, not as freshmen and sophomores," Dawkins continues. "If we can all have that feeling, we'll play with that sense of desperation that is required to be successful."
In some backward way, it's the foreign feeling of going home that's powering this team to advance. Huestis recites the tale like it's a bedtime story, like a fable, and the moral is clear.
"It's just the finality of the tournament," he says. "One loss, you're done. Your college career could be over. You have to play with the aggressiveness knowing you're on the edge, but you can't let it give you too much pressure."
Stanford has seen the edge. It's teetered. There may be blood, and there may be sweat, but the only tears this team knows are Danny Meagher's.
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