ZIMMERMAN: Dawkins in position to improve youthful Cardinal

Jan. 11, 2011, 1:31 a.m.

The Pac-10 men’s basketball season began exactly as we expected—unexpectedly.

Projected bottom-feeders have thumped perennial powerhouses, only one conference team (No. 18 Washington) is nationally ranked, and 9-5 Stanford, a team littered with underclassmen, sits in third place.

Sunday’s loss to Arizona came under unique circumstances for the Cardinal, but the inconsistent play throughout the game paints an accurate picture of the season that has been. Stanford, down 15 after looking like an above-average AAU team, managed to keep the game within striking distance with stingy perimeter defense and streaky displays of athleticism. Although the Cardinal lost by 10, Johnny Dawkins has to be optimistic with the way his team played.

That said, there is obvious cause for concern. Dawkins regularly plays four freshmen, including two starters, in his nightly rotation. When the new guys are meshing and playing with the passion displayed during portions of Sunday’s second half, Stanford is a tough team to compete with. But the problem with freshmen, as has been made unfortunately clear, is that when the going gets tough on the road, chaos ensues.

The Cardinal is a perfect 8-0 at home, with all five losses coming away from Maples Pavilion. In front of supporting fans, Stanford has soundly beaten the likes of Virginia and Cal while eclipsing the 80-point mark three times. The Card, especially the freshmen, looks exponentially more comfortable with the general flow of the game. Guys just seem to enjoy playing with one another, and the basket opens up like a black hole when shots are launched from behind the arc.

On the road? Stanford has surpassed 60 points only twice, averaging just 53 in the other four games. Defensive passion is there, but the offense is a cramped mess of confused red jerseys lacking cohesion and spewing inconsistency. When it’s good, it’s really good. But when things turn sour, the team showcases the lack of development that places it 249th in points, 229th in rebounds and 288th in assists per game in the nation. Not exactly promising rankings for a squad boasting a top-15 recruiting class.

But the beauty of it all is that despite room for improvement and occasional play that would make the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets cringe, things can’t get much worse. While Stanford’s 44 percent shooting from the field may not fluctuate, the 0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio will undoubtedly improve as Dawkins’ guys get more comfortable with each other’s tendencies. The talent is there, and as the season progresses, Stanford will become more efficient on the offensive end.

Combating a struggling offense is the surprisingly staunch defense of a Cardinal squad that lacks frontcourt size. Stanford ranks 22nd in the nation and first in the conference in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 59.5 points per game. The team also ranks in the top 100 in turnover margin, which is a testament to its ability to keep games within reach with active hands along the perimeter. It’s a skill most teams lack and every team needs.

This year’s Stanford squad is passionate on both ends of the floor, a noticeable difference from last season’s team. If the young guys are able to sustain this level of energy over the course of the conference schedule, and it is a big if, they could make a legitimate run at a conference title. Its floor is relatively low, but if offense on the road improves in the coming weeks, Stanford’s ceiling is sky-high. Less-talented teams have made more improbable runs, especially considering the unpredictability of this year’s Pac-10.

Confidence in hostile territory is gained two ways: coaching and experience. The latter is inevitable, with road trips to Washington, southern California, Oregon and Cal left on the schedule. The former is more valuable and will give Dawkins his biggest test in what is now his third year on the Farm. This is his recruiting class, his team and his year to make a significant impact in one of the most illustrious conferences in college basketball. The team needs time to grow, but Dawkins to accelerate it.

Coach knows that the road is long, but it doesn’t have to be bumpy. It’s Johnny’s time to smooth out the ride.

Zach Zimmerman realized that there are other sports other than football. Let him know what you think of hoops at [email protected].

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