By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Johnny Dawkins won't be letting his team look too far ahead. There's another game to be played Monday night and he's busy preparing for it. There must be times, though, when he sneaks a peak at the possibility of ending Stanford's season on one of basketball's grandest stages.
The Cardinal (22-11) earned another home game in the Postseason National Invitation Tournament without even playing Wednesday night. Stanford, seeded third, took care of business Tuesday night with its 76-65 victory over Cleveland State.
Dawkins and his players had to enjoy watching No. 7 seed Illinois State beat host and No. 2 Mississippi, 96-93, in overtime Wednesday night. It meant not having to make travel plans, being able to sleep in their own beds, and getting the extra time to study for finals.
Even better, Stanford is now the highest seed remaining in its region. That means the Cardinal can win its way to Madison Square Garden for the Final Four (March 27-29) on its home court.
Bucknell knocked off top-seeded Arizona, 65-54, and travels to Nevada for its second-round contest on Sunday. Stanford hosts Illinois State (21-13) on Monday night at 8:30 p.m.
Should Stanford win, it would host a quarterfinal game on Wednesday against the winner of Bucknell and Nevada.
The Cardinal is attempting to become just the fourth team to play at Madison Square Garden in both the Preseason and Postseason NIT during the same season. Notre Dame (1999-00), Syracuse (2001-02) and Ohio State (2007-08) have done it previously.
Stanford got this season under way by going 3-1 in the NIT Season Tip-Off, losing only to Syracuse in the championship game, 69-63. Syracuse is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which also got under way this week.
"I'm excited for the ability to keep playing," Dawkins said. "It's an opportunity to keep growing. It's great for our seniors too. They had a good year and deserve to play in the postseason."
Stanford reached the postseason for the first time in three years, drawing 1,339 fans against Cleveland State. A few more are expected to show up at Maples Pavilion this time.
Stanford improved to 31-22 all-time in 23 postseason appearances overall, including an 8-4 record in six NIT appearances. The Cardinal captured the 1991 postseason NIT championship.
Illinois State, which shot 63 percent in winning Wednesday night, finished third in the Missouri Valley Conference and lost in overtime to Creighton in the conference tournament final.
The Redbirds (21-13) lost at Fresno State earlier in the year. Stanford beat the Bulldogs to open the preseason NIT.
Stanford is one of three Pac-12 teams remaining in the NIT along with Washington and Oregon. The only way the Cardinal would run into one of them would be in the NIT championship game.
On Tuesday night, Aaron Bright produced a prolific second half, scoring all 17 of his points, to help the Cardinal beat Cleveland State. His awakening gives Stanford another outside shooting threat, with Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle.
"I was happy to see Aaron step up," Dawkins said. "He took ownership and came out in the second half and made us better, not just with his play but also with his leadership."
Josh Owens and Anthony Brown each added 15 points for the Cardinal, which has won four of its past six games.
Brown also led the team with a career-high 12 rebounds, recording his first double-double of the season and the second of his career.
"I was proud of Anthony and I think he can be a terrific rebounder," Dawkins said. "He really stepped up and made a lot of plays for us. That was one of the best games he's had here."
Brown reached double figures in scoring for the third time in five games. He need the prior 17 games to reach double figures three times.
"I think the team was excited to play," Brown said. "The consensus was that we were not going to the NCAA and the NIT was the next-best thing. Getting a home game was nice for us."
Now he gets another one.