Realistically, what can we expect out of the Stanford men’s basketball team this season? Is this the year that the Cardinal re-establish consistency and find a place in the Top-25?
The program is coming off of its first NCAA tournament appearance in six years, head coach Johnny Dawkins has a new contract — locking him up for the foreseeable future — and the Cardinal boast a promising mix of talented freshmen and battle-tested veterans.
Yet, the air surrounding the program seems to be a bit deflated. No one is really talking about Stanford basketball, even while the football season provides more reasons to do so with each passing week.
It’s easy to write-off the barren state of Maples Pavilion during the team’s season opener as a result of a 9 p.m. game on a Friday night, but I’m pretty sure that if you scheduled a Duke or a Kentucky game at 3 .a.m on Armageddon, people would show up. I’m not saying that Stanford should be compared to those programs any time soon, but they provide a sense of just how far Stanford needs to come to enter that conversation.
Maybe this lack of excitement stems from a hyper-cautious fan base. After all, this team has broken hearts time after time, just after they manage to convince you that they’ve changed their ways. I’ve even talked to some pessimists who discount last season’s Sweet 16 run entirely, with people asking, “What’s the big deal about beating an overrated Kansas team sans Joel Embiid?”
The doubters are certainly out there. The Cardinal were predicted to finish fifth in the conference at Pac-12 media day, and the challenge of attracting students to games will almost certainly persist. A three-point exhibition win over Division II Cal Poly-Pomona probably didn’t do the squad any favors.
In my opinion, the only way out of this basketball purgatory for Stanford men’s hoops is building some consistency and keeping this train of momentum going.
Will the Cardinal keep the magic alive? I think so — they absolutely have the pieces to make something special happen. Going forward, here are some keys to look out for as this team progresses.
Can Stefan Nastic maintain his level of play?
After a stretch of breakout performances at the end of the last season, the Canadian’s towering presence in the middle has picked up right where it left off. In the Card’s season opener against Wofford, Nastic shot an absurdly efficient 11-of-14 from the floor, scoring 26 points. Through the first two games, Nastic has avoided his typical demons of early foul trouble and turnovers and the results have been huge for Stanford, especially on offense where the ball seemed to go through him in the post on almost every play. Going forward, the Card will need Nastic to continue coming up big, especially on defense, where the losses of Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis leave the Card especially thin on the interior. If Stanford does face off against Duke in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, we will see Nastic get his first serious test against an elite big man: Blue Devil wunderkind Jahlil Okafor. If Nastic can prove that he can hold his own defensively, Stanford could make some noise come March.
How much will we see the freshmen?
In the team’s season opener against Wofford, Dawkins didn’t hesitate to get his highest rated recruited class involved early and often. Forward Reid Travis — Stanford’s first McDonald’s All-American since the Lopez twins — broke into the starting lineup and displayed some much-needed aggressiveness on both heads of the floor.
Aside from Travis, though, I wouldn’t expect too much from the other freshmen. Robert Cartwright showed off some unbelievable quickness and slick ball-handling, but it looks like Chasson Randle will continue to handle the brunt of point guard duties. Michael Humphrey and Dorian Pickens both looked promising in their debuts, but Dawkins tends to keep his rotations very tight. Speaking of which…
Will the team be deeper than last season?
Remarkably, the Cardinal made the Sweet 16 last season despite what was essentially a six-man rotation with the occasional sprinkles of Grant Verhoeven and Marcus Allen. Last season, Stanford was always a couple fouls or a bad-shooting night away from absolute doom and gloom. With the return of Rosco Allen and Christian Sanders from injury, Stanford will likely be just fine on the wings, but the Card could run into issues down low. If Nastic ever gets into foul trouble, Stanford might have to play the 6-foot-7 Travis at center. With Verhoeven out with an injury and Humphrey still finding his place in the system, the lack of depth up front could really come back to bite Stanford down the road.
So far, though, the Card has taken care of business, but several huge games loom on the horizon. The hype may not be there now, but — with a few more wins — the magic of Maples might just return.
Given the absence of size on his roster, it’s been rumored that Coach Dawkins is planning on holding open tryouts to pad his front court depth. Vihan — all 5-foot-8 of him — thinks he could throw his weight around down low for the Cardinal, and is thinking of taking his talents to the tryouts. Send the man some encouraging words or suggestions for a good orthopedist at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.