Ah, March. When basketball season really starts for the Stanford Cardinal.
Crisp passes zipping across a crowded gym packed to the gills with fans. Arcing shots spinning tightly through the air, tickling the inside of brand-new nets. A guard driving into the middle of the lane and picking up his dribble while every other player on the court stands with his feet in stone outside the three-point line.
Yes, that's what makes March so magical for Stanford, which draws Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the NIT today.
Let's be honest: when you hear the words "tourney" and "Stanford" we all know what comes to mind. Aaron Bright making three-goggles. Big Zimm throwing it down after a sweet post move. Jarrett Mann turning it over. Asking your buddies if you think Johnny Dawkins is having a stroke or if he always looks that comatose on the sideline.
And despite the fact that this is undoubtedly the best NIT field in history, the Cardinal has to feel confident that last year wasn't just some flash-in-the-pan title run. That was a team that knew what it meant to win and only got hungrier the closer it got to that title.
After watching Ray Lewis' inspiring run to another Super Bowl title this season, you have to believe that the Card will be dying to win the big one for the guy who jumpstarted this program on a real road to greatness. (Who doesn't love Ray's dancing? His speeches? The way he strings together marginally related cliches gives me chills.)
Sure, this program once just made NCAA tournaments. 13 tournaments in one 14 year span, to be exact. But this Stanford team wanted more than just a postseason appearance. It wanted it all. It wanted the garish hats with those big, bold letters on them. It wanted to feel the hot MSG lights burn the sweat off their skin while they climbed a ladder with scissors in their hands. It wanted the designation of being the best shitty basketball team in America, or at least the designation of being the only team that actually tried throughout the entire tournament.
Flags fly forever. And for that we have to say: Thank you, Ray, for showing us what it means to be a champion.
But when push comes to shove, one number doesn't lie: two. As in, there are only two teams in this tournament know what it's like to trim down the twine at the end of a long season - Stanford and Kentucky.
Attention Bernard Muir: Johnny Dawkins knows what it means to "win or else."
I mean, this guy was cut from the same cloth as Coach Freakin' K. You'd be a fool to think that Coach D is going to be satisfied with just one ring on his finger.
That's why I'm picking the Card and the Cats to battle for a title once again this season in the biggest stage in basketball - Madison Square Garden. And with a little luck, Stanford will achieve one of the rarest feats in sports: winning the NIT in back-to-back seasons. Want proof? It's only ever been done twice in history: St. John's in 1943-44 and South Carolina in 2005-6. Elite company.
Let's run it back.