The Stanford men's basketball program climbed to new heights the past few years, guided by point guard Brevin Knight, the brash kid from Jersey who time and time again carried the weight of an entire team on the shoulders of his 5-foot-10 frame. Stanford attracts many of its basketball players from America's antiseptic suburbs and quiet little towns. Knight was different, so different. He added a no-fear, East Coast playground element to the Cardinal, and the results were unprecedented.
Before Knight arrived in 1993, Stanford had qualified for the NCAA Tournament only two times in the previous 50 years. Knight immediately altered the landscape and changed expectations. The NIT? Hah. Not any more. NCAA or bust. Three years in a row, Stanford won at least 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament. And Knight made sure his teammates weren't just glad to be there.
Two years ago, for the first time in five decades, Stanford won an NCAA Tournament game. Last year, the Cardinal did it again and then nearly knocked off top-ranked Massachusetts in the second round. This year provided more history: a Sweet 16 berth.
Knight played his final game for Stanford last Thursday night, turning in one of his most enduring performances in the NCAA West Regional semifinals against Utah. He scored 25 of his game-high 27 points after halftime, including an off-balance three-pointer that tied the game near the end of regulation and nearly knocked the roof off San Jose Arena. He also had nine assists and only one turnover and played the last 18 minutes of the game strapped with four fouls. It wasn't enough.
Utah ended Stanford's season and Knight's career by winning in overtime, 82-77.
Their basketball season had ended less than one hour earlier, and already many of the Stanford players were trying to imagine what life would be like without Brevin. So was their coach.
"I don't think the players on our basketball team realize how much Brevin has meant to their success," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "They're good players and they deserve credit, too, but all the pressure has been taken off. So much of the confidence and bravado that we had near the end of games was because of Brevin.
"We got somewhere that we've never been before, and this little guy got us there. He's something special."
Knight and forward Rich Jackson are Stanford's only seniors. The Cardinal will return four starters from a team that went 22-8 this season. Plus, Montgomery has lured in one of the top recruiting classes on the West Coast, featuring Jason and Jarron Collins, the 6-10 twins from two-time state champion Harvard-Westlake High.
Yet, how in the world do you compensate for the loss of the best point guard in the nation?
"So many people will look and say, 'Wow, look at what they have coming back,'" Montgomery said. "But, as would be my wont, I'll look at it and say, 'Look at what we don't have coming back.'"
Arthur Lee is the one who has the large Nikes to fill. He spent his freshman season two years ago backing up Knight before moving to shooting guard this season. Now he's moving back over to the point.
"On a confidence level, I'm fine," Lee said after the Utah game. "You cannot learn from a better guy than Brevin. He's the epitome of a leader, as he showed again tonight. He carried us, like he always did. If I'm even half as good as Brevin, I'll be satisfied."
Montgomery always has been a winner, first as coach at Montana and then at Stanford. Those who murmur that Stanford's recent run of success had more to do with the extraordinary talent of Knight than the coaching ability of Montgomery forget that the Cardinal went to the NCAA Tournament in 1992 with Marcus Lollie at point guard. Lollie was a nice kid and a solid player--as a senior he boasted one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the nation--but he didn't have to ability to take over a game and dominate it.
If Montgomery, himself, returns to Stanford next season--Ohio State is reportedly trying to hire him away--he'll likely reshift the focus to the inside power game. It worked with the likes of Howard Wright, Eric Reveno, Andrew Vlahov and Adam Keefe, and now the Cardinal seems well equipped to pound down low with Tim Young, Mark Madsen, Pete Sauer, Pete Van Elswyk, Mark Seaton and the Collins twins.
Still, it's going to take time adjusting to not having Knight around as the security blanket.
"I haven't had time to think about it yet," Madsen said. "It wasn't just the points and assists Brevin gave us, but it was his character, the way he ran the team."
It is something that's difficult to measure. Only time will tell.
"We're going to keep this thing going," Lee said. "We're not going to stop here."
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