Commentary: Did Stanford Meet the Standard?

Head coach Johnny Dawkins

When it comes to evaluating season-long performance in terms of preseason standards and expectations, Stanford basketball certainly made things complicated in 2013-14. Andrew Santana has broken the club's performance down all season long. Here's Part One of his final postmortem.



As the dust settles following Stanford's disappointing finish to what was both a reinvigorating week-long ride to the Sweet 16 and a full season that frustrated as much as it inspired, the program now looks to the future with a fitting mix of short-term stability and some long-run uncertainty.

This much is sure: Much maligned and recently redeemed (so the seemingly prevailing narrative goes) head coach Johnny Dawkins will be back on the Stanford bench next season.

Dawkins entered this season with a not-so subtle, albeit rather attainable, produce-or-else decree from his boss, athletic director Bernard Muir.

Speaking to the San Jose Mercury News last March after a late season collapse and another year without a Tournament berth, Muir articulated his standard for Stanford basketball moving forward: "We want to be playing for a (conference) championship. We think we have the caliber of kids who can do that. And we want to play in the NCAA (Tournament). The goal has always been and will not change: We want to play well into March on the grand stage of March Madness. There's a clear expectation that we can do that next year."

It's unclear as to why this wasn't the standard for evaluation from the administration in year five (after an NIT Championship in 2011 and another—admittedly disappointing—NIT appearance in 2012), but with a football program booming just a stone's throw from Maples Pavilion, Muir's declaration was regarded as understandable -- if it didn't actually go largely unnoticed.

Nonetheless, the public comments -- the mere fact that the athletic department felt compelled to speak on the state of its basketball program at all -- set the stage for a make-or-break year for Dawkins. With tangible pressure mounting on Stanford's head man from the outside, Muir spoke out, yet neither denounced nor backed Dawkins. Rather, he assigned the Cardinal's head coach with the one-year task of defining what kind of program it was that he was running.

However, what exactly would be expected from the Stanford basketball team in this its defining season remained, well, open to interpretation. Playing for a conference championship and making the NCAA Tournament are two radically different benchmarks. On one hand, competing for a regular season conference championship would assume not only making (and being in position to advance deep into) the NCAA Tournament, but also overcoming the inconsistency that had hurt Stanford basketball in recent years. A season of sustained success against quality competition would suggest an upward trend for the future. That would signify that a winning culture had been installed in Maples Pavilion.

On the other hand, focusing on a Tournament berth in and of itself seemed like a standard that assumed very little in the way of trends. In fact, with a roster both stocked with high-level talent and brimming with experience, holding up the low-hanging fruit of a tournament appearance as the sole standard for success would be negligent.

Not surprisingly, deciphering Muir's nebulous pre-season decree proved difficult as the season wore on, particularly as it became clear that Stanford had come up short when it came to seriously competing for the conference crown. The Cardinal finished 10-8 in Pac-12 play—smack dab in the middle of the conference pack, never seriously threatening the top tier of UCLA and Arizona. Ultimately, that was good enough to enter the tournament as a 10 seed, and depending on how one interpreted the athletic department's "expectations" (and how in line one one was with them), it was possible to either feel underwhelmed, content, or in a need to see more.

***

This all may seem irrelevant considering the Cardinal's run to the second weekend of the tournament, but it is of utmost importance in understanding the culture and state of the Stanford basketball program moving forward. This make-or-break experiment was set up to function in a manner where success was open to interpretation, where uncertainty as it came to long-term trends was a satisfactory result, one good enough to stay the course.

On the precipice of a "defining" season, that type of leeway could be construed as surprising coming from an institution like Stanford, one that prides itself on top-level athletic excellence. There may have been a huge cloud of uncertainty hanging over the team as the season tipped off in November, but this much was clear: Stanford basketball was not an elite program, and they would have to significantly exceed the "make the Tournament" part of Muir's standard in order to finally again have a chance of being considered one.

***

We live in a world where, for better or for worse, college basketball coaches are ultimately judged, first by the national media and then by athletic departments, by how they perform in a three week period in the middle of March.

Steve Lavin went to five Sweet 16s in six years at UCLA and extended his coaching life there by about five years in the process. Andy Enfield won two games at Florida Gulf Coast and landed a job in the Pac-12 seemingly the following week. Manhattan's Steve Masiello almost won a game and would have shot up the coaching ranks because of it had he just remembered to take that final online class at Kentucky.

These are but a few examples.

Even if you think that overemphasizing what amounts to a days-long stretch in a tournament completely dependent on match-ups (against injury-plagued teams, overseeded teams, underseeded teams, teams not used to your style, teams that don't know who your best players are, etc.) against regular-seasons worth of information to the contrary is shortsighted, there really is little use in arguing to the contrary.

"Sweet" and "Elite" are magic words in this sport. They prompt late-to-the-party media types to proclaim for three straight days in uninterrupted and unchallenged fashion that a coach has gone from "on the hot seat" to the land of milk and honey and an extension. Media-types, mind you, who in the process set the guidelines for what would constitute a complete public relations disaster while providing great buzz-word fodder to be used in the defense and support of those very extensions and hires.

Bottom line: Good luck trying to attract a coach to your school if you don't bow down to these milestones.

Some of you are probably about ready to cut my head off, but alas, that's not where I'm going with this. There is no re-writing the rules of the game.

With two wins in the Tournament -- and two good wins, I'm not here to devalue beating higher seeded teams, one in a particularly hostile environment -- Johnny Dawkins has earned another year at Stanford. In the nick of time, Stanford's head man managed to take control of what had been a tumultuous and dangerous ride through an inconsistent conference season and tournament. In the process, his team met the expectations of the public at-large and did much in the way of quieting any bickering that may have arisen over the aforementioned preseason "uncertainty."

Dawkins may have flirted with what would have been the disastrous middle ground in the public's eyes as recently as early March, but with a two-game stretch of inspired play and of a team maximizing its potential on the sport's biggest stage, the decision to bring him back is an easy one.

In fact, if the handling of the evaluation process last year is any indication (and at this point, there is little else to go on), there is very good reason to believe that there is not much internal pressure on Dawkins for the time being, that he will coach out the rest of a 2011 contract extension that takes him through the 2015-16 season.

With an administration content and at least a semblance of a buzz around the program for the first time in recent memory, what was a rocky ride for Stanford basketball during 2013-14 should be steady moving forward in at least one sense: The Cardinal can count on its current head man roaming the sidelines for at least the foreseeable future.

***

The effects of the varied, unclear standards for success surrounding Stanford basketball at the end of last season have been interesting to watch, especially in the wake of the Cardinal's loss to Dayton in the Sweet 16.

That is to say, there has been little more than a passing sigh and "oh well" given to the fact that the Cardinal left some meat on this season's bone. There is no sense over-analyzing the year's final loss at this juncture (we have already provided extensive coverage in previous articles), but the fact remains that the loss had much to do with a couple factors: 1) a puzzling, rigid, and quite stubborn first half allegiance to a zone defense that had worked very well against Kansas but that repeatedly surrendered open looks to a hot shooting Dayton team and 2) the Cardinal's inability to consistently exploit a pronounced size advantage down low.

It must be said that the loss was a team effort. For while the blame of failing to adjust defensively in the face of Dayton's game film against Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone days earlier and a barrage of Flyer three pointers throughout the game's early moments lies squarely at the feet of the coaching staff, it would be unfair to regard Stanford's inability to take advantage of its size advantage in the same manner. Indeed, the latter had as much to do with silly fouls, poor shot selection, and missed open looks (looks that if made would have presumably gone a long way in keeping the Dayton defense honest) as it did with any failure in a game plan.

With that being said, there is no getting around the fact that Stanford underperformed all around in its biggest game of the season. To not own that disappointment, to have just been happy to be there, would be irresponsible. And frankly, it would echo the sentiments of a contingent that has attached itself to the lowered standards -- just half of Muir's comments last March.

Stanford ran into a well-coached, good Dayton team in the Sweet 16, but the Cardinal's surprising post-season run did not come to an end as many do -- the overachieving and suddenly overmatched Cinderella going down at the hands of a clearly superior opponent. Stanford did much to beat itself against Dayton. The Cardinal played a game with the weight of expectations on their back, and they failed to deliver.

***

That reality, the juxtaposition of finally playing to potential against New Mexico and Kansas coupled with under-performing against Dayton, all in the matter of an eight day span, begins to speak to the looming uncertainty with which Stanford basketball looks to the future.

In a vacuum, if we were to imagine honestly forecasting the year in November, a birth in the Sweet 16 would undoubtedly constitute a successful season for this year's team.

Maybe we should stop there, and I'm sure that some will.

But there is a creeping sense that a season which culminated in a Sweet 16 appearance didn't quite do as much as we would have liked in the way of proving that Stanford basketball is in a position to sustain long-term success, both during the course of a season and over the span of several years.

Stanford went 1-3 against its premier non-conference opponents (BYU, Pittsburgh, UConn, Michigan), did not seriously threaten to compete for a conference regular season or tournament championship, did not come close to earning the type of high seed that serves as the only true semblance of protection against the often random nature of the NCAA Tournament, and generally turned in a season plagued by the same inconsistency that has been the single largest complaint stemming from the current regime.  

Simply put, Stanford struggled most in the immediate afterglow of flashing what its true standard for success should be, fell short in the shadow of playing in a manner (however brief it may have been) that rightfully created heightened expectations. The Cardinal were blown out by Pittsburgh in November after having won four straight games, opened the conference season 0-2 in the shadow of encouraging performances against UConn and Michigan, suffered an embarrassing defeat at UCLA in mid-January after a three game winning streak, opened March on a three game losing streak after all but locking up a Tournament berth with the impressive home victory over the Bruins, failed to compete against UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament semi-finals, and then left something on the table in a Sweet 16 loss to Dayton.

The immediacy and thrill of a Sweet 16 run can do much to mask the bitter taste of an up-and-down season, and rightfully so. There is no better time to play your best basketball than in the middle of March.

Yet the loss to Dayton provides a fitting close to this rollercoaster season, a sobering reminder that the best answers that even the biggest optimist can provide to the all-important questions surrounding Stanford basketball are ones of uncertainty. Did the Cardinal prove that it is positioned to compete for Pac-12 championships annually? Was its postseason run enough to truly revitalize a dormant fan base?

The way this "do-or-die" season was set up to function, however, the uncertainty facing Stanford now was always going to be enough to ensure short-term stability moving forward.

With another roster brimming with talent and potential alike next season (albeit one that will have the tall task of replacing Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis) expectations should be heightened, particularly in the department of consistency. It remains to be seen whether they, in fact, will be heightened and whether the 2014-15 Stanford basketball team will be up to the challenge of meeting them.

In our opinion, there is no reason why Stanford basketball should not be an elite program on the West Coast. It has been done in Maples Pavilion before (with arguably less talent) and it has been done on the Stanford Stadium gridiron in recent years. As such, whether a run to the Sweet 16 was a flash in the pan or enough to establish a winning culture within the program are questions that should rightfully persist loud and clear in the immediate future. They are, though, questions coach Johnny Dawkins and his staff have earned the right to answer. 

Stanford basketball was tasked with defining itself in 2013-14. It did enough to survive, to buy itself more time in this quest.





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