You read it right. Stanford leveled Minnesota Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, 75-51, to claim the championship of the National Invitation Tournament. The Cardinal got there by winning three straight at home over Cleveland State, Illlinois State and Nevada, and in New York, outlasted Massachusetts before routing the Gophers with a strong second half.
Props to Aaron Bright, the sophomore guard from Bellevue, who had 15 points and six assists and won most outstanding player honors for his work in New York. Check Bright’s numbers for the five NIT games: A 16.8-point average on 25-of-39 shooting from the field (.641), 12 of 18 from three-point range and 22 of 25 from the foul line. Bright had a phenomenal game against Illinois State in the second round — 11 of 13 from the field, including 6 of 7 from three-point land and a career-high 29 points.
What’s it all mean? It could be a nice jumping-off point for the Cardinal next year. They return five of their top six scorers, minus Josh Owens in the middle, and I’m told their recruiting class is underrated, with a couple of 6-9 prospects incoming in 6-9 Grant Verhoeven of Visalia, Calif., and 6-9 Rosco Allen of Las Vegas. The NIT title, rather than easing the pressure on coach Johnny Dawkins, could reinforce the idea that it’s about time for Stanford to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time on his watch.
Meanwhile, this will be fuel for those who argued at the end of the regular season that the Pac-12 was much improved since the start of conference play and deserved better in the NCAA selection process. I’ll buy that the league was better; in fact, I was so impressed by Colorado’s sweep through the Pac-12 tournament that I risked picking the Buffs over UNLV in the NCAA tournament (correctly, while the rest of my bracket was crumbling).
Problem is, there was no way to quantify any of that. While the Pac-12 was undoubtedly better in March than it was at the start of January, so were a lot of leagues. But it’s impossible to measure how much better, without any meaningful non-league games after the conference season starts. So the bed was made by the league by New Year’s Day.
Friday night in Pittsburgh, for what it’s worth, Washington State seeks the CBI title against Pitt, so there’s a chance of a second post-season championship for the league.