Jaffe: Successful season for men’s basketball? I think so

March 3, 2011, 1:45 a.m.

Stanford men’s basketball has one more regular-season game left. After the team squeaked out a win Tuesday night, the Cardinal sits at 15-14. With the NCAA Tournament out of reach (barring a miraculous Pac-10 Tournament victory) and the NIT likely to pass on Stanford as well, the question has to be asked: was this a successful season?

There can be arguments on both sides, and it all really boils down to an ever-more difficult question to answer: what is a successful season for a team like Stanford?

This is a question that most Stanford teams don’t have to answer. Women’s basketball can be a top-five team all season, but if it doesn’t at least reach the Final Four, this season will be a disappointment. Both gymnastics teams and tennis teams expect to be contending for national titles, so an early postseason exit–not to mention missing the postseason entirely–would be disastrous. On the flipside, the wrestling team has never won a conference or national title, so just finishing in the top half of the conference can be seen as somewhat of a success.

People often look at the teams at the top of each sport when thinking about a “successful” season, and teams that greatly improved or disappointed compared to preseason expectations. The majority of teams, though, fall into a somewhat nebulous middle ground between success and failure, and only fans of these particular teams pay close attention to assessing the end result.

It is this category where Stanford men’s basketball finds itself. The team is flirting with a .500 record and a sub-.500 Pac-10 record. The Cardinal is coming off a 28-8 season in 2007-08, a 20-14 season in 2008-09 and a 14-18 season last year, but it is somewhat hard to compare each of those teams.

The team three years ago reached the Sweet 16 and was led by the Lopez twins and head coach Trent Johnson. All three of them left after that season, along with three seniors, so the ’08-’09 team was all about rebuilding under new head coach Johnny Dawkins. That team got off to a fast start, winning its first 10 games during a very easy non-conference slate. Once Pac-10 season rolled around, though, the Cardinal regressed, going 6-12 in conference play. The non-conference success was enough to get Stanford into the College Basketball Invitational, where the Cardinal won two games before being ousted by Pac-10 foe Oregon State in overtime of the semifinal.

After that season, Stanford lost four key contributors–Lawrence Hill, Anthony Goods, Mitch Johnson and Kenny Brown–to graduation, so the burden last year fell squarely on the shoulders of Landry Fields. Fields responded, reaching double figures in points in all 32 of the Cardinal’s games and rising from a relative unknown to an NBA draft pick, but the team around him was young and inexperienced. Stanford finished below .500 and missed the postseason entirely for the first time in 17 years, but the team actually improved its Pac-10 record by one game, which is surprising considering the team was picked to finish last in the conference.

That brings us to this year. The Cardinal lost Fields to graduation, leaving the team with large shoes to fill and no seniors on the team to fill them. Instead, Stanford brought in a highly touted group of freshmen and plugged them in along with the returning role-players. Jeremy Green, who was the Cardinal’s second option when Fields was around, was expected to take the lead role, and Josh Owens returned from a medical absence to give the team more physicality down low.

Stanford was picked to finish ninth in the conference, and currently sits in eighth with one game to play. The Cardinal has lost most of the games it should lose (at Butler, at Oklahoma State, etc.), won most of the games it should win (vs. North Carolina A&T, vs. Yale, etc.) and pulled a few surprises both ways (beating Washington but losing to Oregon at home). All in all, though, the record stands about where most people expected it to: around .500 overall and a touch below .500 in Pac-10 play.

Apart from just the wins and losses, the product on the court has been everything you would expect from this team. The returners have shown some ability to take over games (see Green’s 7-for-7 start on Tuesday night and Owens’ 31 points and 11 rebounds last weekend) and some ability to fall flat on their faces (see Jarrett Mann’s one point and six turnovers against Seattle University and Owens’ 3-for-11, two-rebound performance against Oregon State).

For as up-and-down as the juniors have been, the freshmen have been even more volatile, which is everything you expect from teenagers thrust into big-time roles on a Pac-10 team. A starter most of the year, Dwight Powell has had performances befitting his athleticism, notching two double-doubles and as many as 20 points in a game, but he has also been held to five points or fewer nine times this season and has looked visibly frustrated on the court more than once. Anthony Brown has been a starter for the past month and a half, scoring 21 points on two separate occasions and giving glimpses of elite talent, but he has also disappeared at crucial times (three points total in 51 minutes in home games against the Arizona schools). Aaron Bright, John Gage and Josh Huestis have also had significant ups and downs in their first season on the Farm, and all have given signs of future promise.

That promise could be the key take-away point from this year, because the 2010-11 campaign can’t be labeled as a major success or failure. Instead, this season was almost an extended introduction to the team we’ll see for years to come.

And in that sense, this season was successful.

 

Jacob Jaffe just wants to be, just wants to be successful. Give him career advice at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.

 

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