MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Dwight Powell and his Stanford teammates only appear to be overnight sensations.

In fact, their journey to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, has been a long and sometimes difficult process.

Now the Cardinal is on the big stage, playing Thursday against another surprise team, Dayton, with the winner advancing to face either Florida or UCLA on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four. Powell, an enigmatic senior forward and generally acknowledged as the team's most talented player, is peaking at the right time.

In Sunday's 60-57 upset of No. 2 seed Kansas, Powell had 15 points and seven rebounds.

"He definitely rose to the level we needed him to against Kansas," said teammate Josh Huestis. "He's going to bring that for the rest of the tournament."

Stanford Cardinal’s Dwight Powell (33) takes a shot against BYU Cougars’ Luke Worthington (41) in the first half at Maples Pavilion in
Stanford Cardinal's Dwight Powell (33) takes a shot against BYU Cougars' Luke Worthington (41) in the first half at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif. on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) (Nhat V. Meyer)

Coach Johnny Dawkins compares Powell to the most valuable and versatile piece in chess, saying playing without him is "like taking your queen off the chessboard. Anytime he's off the court, we miss him."

And yet they so often miss him, sometimes even when Powell is on the court. His performance in Stanford's first tournament game was a case in point. Powell took eight shots, missed all of them, and fouled out.

Then he starred in the upset against Kansas.

"It was a matter of him leaving it all out there on the line," guard Chasson Randle said. "I'm not saying he has not done that before. But we all know what is at stake."

As Powell puts it: "Somebody's going to win the tournament. We're in the tournament, so we have a chance to do that."

His low-key manner belies his passion. In the Kansas game, when Huestis blocked a shot to quell a late-half charge by the Jayhawks, he was greeted by Powell, shouting as he sprinted to give Huestis a chest-bump. Dawkins said that rare show of emotion was almost as valuable as Powell's points and rebounds.

"When your teammates are getting that kind of endorsement from one of your best players, it means more," he said.

Stanford Cardinal’s Dwight Powell (33) takes a shot against University of Arizona Wildcats’ Aaron Gordon (11) and University of Arizona
Stanford Cardinal's Dwight Powell (33) takes a shot against University of Arizona Wildcats' Aaron Gordon (11) and University of Arizona Wildcats' Kaleb Tarczewski (35) in the first half at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) (Nhat V. Meyer)

Nate Vandersluis, who coached Powell for three years at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., said what Powell brought to the Kansas game has always been in him. "It's having the attitude match the moment," he said.

A 6-foot-10 native of Toronto, Powell is the top recruit Dawkins has landed in six years on the job. He twice has been named to the all-conference team. He ranks 12th all-time in scoring at Stanford (1,488 points). He's seventh in rebounds (844), 13 behind Mark Madsen. This season he led the team in steals and assists while ranking second in scoring (13.9) and rebounds (6.8).

And, still, there always seems to be more waiting to come out, if only he would let it.

Huestis said Powell is unselfish "almost to a fault. He sometimes forgets how talented he is. He has the ability to take over games, to completely change them."

Most often, Powell has been content to let others carry the scoring load. For a couple of years, Dawkins has tried convincing Powell the team needs him to contribute beyond the rebounds, assists and defense.

"His role for us has to be someone who does more than that," Dawkins said. "Even when he played at IMG, he was really a glue guy. We've moved him out of his comfort zone by needing him to score more."

Most young players expect a green light to shoot the ball. For Powell, it has always been a flashing yellow. "Becoming an assertive scorer was something I had to learn to do," he said. "It was just knowing sometimes the right play was for me to take the shot."

Stanford will take its best shot Thursday against Dayton, and Powell's teammates know they can count on their reluctant star.

"Absolutely," Huestis said. "He's really going to rise to the occasion."

Staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this report.

Stanford Cardinal’s Dwight Powell (33) answers questions during a press conference the day before their game against the Dayton Flyers for their
Stanford Cardinal's Dwight Powell (33) answers questions during a press conference the day before their game against the Dayton Flyers for their regional game at the NCAA college basketball tournament at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

THURSDAY'S GAME

South Regional Semifinals, at Memphis, Tenn.: No. 11 Dayton (25-10) vs. No. 10 Stanford (23-12), 4:15 p.m. CBS

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Stanford: Defeated No. 7 seed
New Mexico 58-53; defeated
No. 2 seed Kansas 60-57
Dayton: Defeated No. 6 seed
Ohio State 60-59; defeated
No. 3 seed Syracuse 55-53

THURSDAY'S GAMES

South Regional (Memphis, Tenn.)
Stanford vs. Dayton, 4:15 p.m. CBS
UCLA vs. Florida, 6:45 p.m. CBS
West Regional (Anaheim)
Baylor vs. Wisconsin, 4:47 p.m. TBS
San Diego St. vs. Arizona, 7:17 p.m. TBS