Tuteja: Why Stanford men’s basketball is more than mediocre

April 1, 2015, 11:21 p.m.

A few weeks ago, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News wrote an article on Stanford’s collapse at the end of the regular season. The article concluded, “Stanford basketball will continue to bump along, year after mediocre year, until someone or something prompts Muir’s bosses to force Muir to make the change he doesn’t want to make.”

Wilner is not alone in many of his sentiments, as Daily columnist Winston Shi recently voiced similar opinions about the team and questioned where to place blame.

My answer to these articles and any others that voice a similar sentiment is simple: please stop complaining. Seriously, in my four years at Stanford, it has never made sense to me why people use words such as “mediocrity” to describe the men’s basketball team, and I’ll explain some reasons why in this column.

Proponents of the view that the men’s basketball program has become mediocre usually take one of several strategies to argue this point. I’ll discuss a few briefly along with my responses.

One argument is that the team must be mediocre because they don’t win as much as [insert other Stanford sports team]. I’ve never quite understood this one. In my mind, this comparison is like me saying football had a mediocre year because they didn’t win a national championship like the women’s water polo team did last year. I don’t think it makes sense to compare across sports and, moreover, it seems that many have used the fact that the men’s basketball team isn’t competing for national championships as a reason not to attend games. By that logic, the only sport that people should have attended this year is women’s water polo, as they were the only national championship team from a season ago.

What’s more is that even when the basketball team does well, people seem to always find excuses for it. Just a season ago, the team made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. However, whenever anyone talks about it, they say, “Remember, Joel Embiid was injured for Kansas” and refer to the run in the tournament as a “fluke.” Even stranger, it’s usually Stanford fans that remind others of the asterisk to the win.

A second argument people use is that the team just “isn’t very good.” Some go a little further and provide statistics to back this point, such as the fact that the team has made one NCAA tournament appearance in the last seven seasons and has had only two above 0.500 seasons in Pac-12 play in this same time span. However, I think that these two often-cited statistics miss some of the story. For example, in the last four years, Stanford is 91-52 overall, which is roughly a 64% winning percentage. During the past four years, the team has won an NIT championship (2012), made an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance (2014) and will play on Thursday to win its third NIT championship in program history.

While some would argue that winning the NIT is nothing to write home about, it should be noted that it’s not like Stanford is playing schools like Northwest East Southern Tech in every round. For instance, this Thursday in the championship game, Stanford is playing Miami, a team that just two seasons ago was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and won the ACC regular season and tournament titles. In the semifinals, Stanford beat Old Dominion, a team that many basketball experts were appalled did not get an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament this season. Moreover, there are a number of “big-name” programs that played in the NIT and were subsequently eliminated from it this season, including Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Arizona State and Tulsa. Yet, not many people talk about these teams suffering from mediocrity or dwindling fan attendance.

Further, it seems strange to call a program “mediocre” when it has produced professional talent. In last year’s NBA draft, Stanford had two players taken in the top 45 picks (Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell). The only other schools to have multiple players picked in the top 45 were Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Connecticut — not bad company to be in. This season, Stanford has three players that are graduating that have a chance to play professionally either in the NBA or overseas. On top of this, Chasson Randle just became Stanford’s all-time leading scorer during the NIT semifinals.

Lastly, I think people forget just how strong the Pac-12 is as a basketball conference. I hear from football fans all the time about how the Pac-12 is on track to overtake the SEC as the nation’s best football conference, and as such, when Stanford loses to Utah in football, no one really seems to mind. I hear statements like “Well, all the Pac-12 teams are good” and “on any given day, anyone can lose to anyone in the Pac-12.”

However, when Stanford loses to Utah in basketball, people automatically assume that the team has collapsed and the program is sinking. This season, four Pac-12 teams made the NCAA tournament, and three of these teams made it to at least the Sweet 16. The team that did not make the Sweet 16, Oregon, lost to No. 1 Wisconsin in a very close game in the 2nd round, and this is the same Oregon team that Stanford almost beat at home on March 1. What’s more, over 50 percent of Stanford’s conference losses this season were to those four teams.

Consider a team like Murray State, which finished the regular season with a record of 27-5. No one would call Murray State “mediocre,” and in fact, Murray State was undefeated in conference play. Yet, when they did not win their conference tournament to get the at-large NCAA tournament spot, they fell out of the tournament and to a No. 3 seed in the NIT. Isn’t it interesting that Stanford was awarded a No. 2 seed in the NIT and Murray State a No. 3 seed? I think this shows that basketball experts recognize that a 9-9 record in Pac-12 play means something. In case you’re wondering, Murray State eventually lost in the NIT quarterfinals to Old Dominion — a team Stanford beat on Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden.

Do I think that the program has room for improvement? Of course. Which program doesn’t? Do I think that the team should have made the NCAA tournament this year? Definitely; I’m a competitive fan just like anyone else. The point of this article is that I think the men’s basketball program is too often characterized as “mediocre,” and I think that it’s unfortunate that many seem to see things that way.

Three of the past four years the team has won over 20 games, with the lone season being a 19-win year. The team consistently has produced pro talent, and it has consistently played tough schedules. Just a season ago, Stanford beat a Kansas team that had last year’s first overall draft pick. I could think of at least 300 other basketball programs that would take the “mediocre results” that the team has produced. It’s sad to me that many at Stanford don’t realize the program’s merits.

Contact Shawn Tuteja at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Shawn Tuteja is a senior studying mathematics and statistics. He serves as the color commentator of KZSU 90.1 FM's coverage of the Stanford football team and the play-by-play announcer for men's basketball broadcasts. Hailing from the great state of Alabama, Shawn grew up an avid fan of college football and has written feature articles and columns on a wide range of Stanford sports. Contact him at sstuteja 'at' stanford.edu

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