Success in college basketball is a strange thing. There are so many things to play for — the NCAA championship, Final Four “regional titles,” conference tournament championships, conference regular season championships, even the National Invitation Tournament. In fact, as I write, Stanford men’s basketball is preparing for the NIT semifinals. But while only two games separate the Cardinal from a trophy, is that particular trophy a success?
Stanford will play under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, but while the NIT is not chopped liver, it’s still the second-tier tournament. In theory, the worst at-large team in the 68-team NCAA field could still beat the NIT champion. In light of this fact, has this season been a success?
The Cardinal’s latest NIT run is all the more amusing because — once again — Stanford looks ready to claim the dubious honor of being the best team to miss the Big Dance. It beat Vanderbilt, the only team in the NIT ranked above it in Ken Pomeroy’s famous ladder. It may not win the NIT, but even if it doesn’t, it’s still firmly entrenched itself in the realm of “could have made the tournament but didn’t.”
Nor, for that matter, is that honor new. Last year, Stanford made the NCAA tourney (and went to the Sweet Sixteen, no less), but the year before it was the fourth best team to miss the tournament. In 2012 it was the best, and collected the NIT title to prove it. Johnny Dawkins has done a good job of digging Stanford out of the hole in which he found the Cardinal back in 2008 (when Stanford couldn’t even make the NIT). But you can’t really ignore recent history, and it doesn’t help that when Dawkins made his only tourney appearance in seven seasons, Stanford got into the Dance by the skin of its teeth. After four years of being on the edge, I am wondering just how good Stanford can be. Was Mike Montgomery a once-in-a-century outlier? Or can Stanford basketball stand and deliver?
Stanford’s last moment of greatness was in 2008, when the Cardinal picked up a three-seed in the tourney before falling to Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s not too far of a stretch to say that the Cardinal don’t have that much time left before recruits no longer remember Stanford as a real basketball power. These memories matter.
In fact, when he was being recruited, Jabari Parker put Stanford in his top five. While it’s hard to believe (with the benefit of hindsight) that he seriously considered Stanford, it’s also not as though he listed Stanford just to sound smart, as he did end up at Duke.
Parker was growing up when Stanford was one of the giants of college basketball, and his recruitment reflected that fact. There will always be great players who will give Stanford a look because of the name on the degree, but it’s possible that there will soon no longer be great players who give Stanford a look because of the name on the jersey. And when it’s competing with teams like Duke and Georgetown and Harvard that have both academic excellence and basketball success, Stanford’s going to suffer.
Nobody on this Stanford squad came here to play in the NIT. They came to play in the NCAA tourney and to compete for conference championships. We have to remember that. And let’s be clear — there is a lot riding on the team’s success in the next four or five years, but Stanford is still stuck in neutral. The Cardinal are at a crossroads.
At this point, I feel compelled to say something about Johnny Dawkins.
There’s no sugarcoating the numbers. In his seven years at Stanford, Dawkins is five games below .500 in conference. He has made one NCAA tournament (note that making the tourney as an at-large implies being a top-45 team nationally). He has done this despite three top-25 recruiting classes in the last six years.
Coaches deserve time to put their stamp on the program, and at a school that is not a blue blood, they shouldn’t be expected to win trophies straight off the bat. Perhaps Dawkins has matured as a coach in recent years. That would mitigate some of his early seasons. But has he improved?
Before the team retreated into a devastating late-season swoon, I was ready to pronounce this season Dawkins’ finest coaching job. He had lost several key leaders from last year, but the team was still a tourney lock at midseason. The athletes, from freshmen like Reid Travis to seniors like Stefan Nastic, seemed to be developing rapidly. The team looked more confident and self-assured. Defensive rotations looked better and better. Opponents weren’t going on long, devastating runs. And Dawkins’ Xs and Os seemed to be putting the players in position to win more often than not. But after this latest collapse I’m not sure whether I was seeing better coaching or just a nonconference-fueled mirage.
Last season, I seriously considered using the term “malaise” to describe Stanford men’s basketball. One Sweet Sixteen later, I’m forced to conclude that while Stanford may not display malaise in the 1970s sense of the word, it certainly suffers from sustained mediocrity. This season, Stanford made its first appearance in a major poll in years, but Johnny Dawkins is paid to graduate players, run a clean program, and win games, and he’s only been able to consistently accomplish the first two.
I once asked: “What, though, constitutes success for Stanford?…I don’t know, and it’s different for every person. But the empty seats in Maples indicate that what is going on right now, despite last night’s win, is unacceptable.”
At the very least, there were fewer empty seats this season than in years past. There were definitely fans. Ticket sales didn’t go up just because Arizona flew the entire state to Palo Alto, although it remains embarrassing that the Cats always manage to do that. That’s success. But is it enough? Stanford has won 22 games (and hopefully it will win two more), but it didn’t make the tourney and it certainly didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four or the national championship game. I don’t know if we should be demanding titles, but with Stanford recruiting and Stanford resources, the Cardinal should go dancing most of the time. It certainly shouldn’t be going one-for-seven.
Stanford needs to find a coach that can make it great again. Maybe Johnny Dawkins is that coach. Maybe he isn’t. But Dawkins or no Dawkins, Stanford seems dangerously close to accepting mediocrity. I can see the Cardinal shrugging at one tournament appearance every three years. And that is not something that the Cardinal should accept.
A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the Dayton Flyers were the worst-rated at-large team in the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. The worst-rated First Four at-large team according to win-loss record, RPI, and KenPom is 11-seed Ole Miss (21-13, #57 RPI, #48 KenPom). The worst-rated overall at-large team is probably 10-seed Indiana (#63 RPI, #52 KenPom). The Daily regrets this error.
Winston Shi has been eagerly awaiting Stanford’s NIT semifinal match against the Monarchs of Old Dominion for a while. Help him temper the excitement at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.