Cardinal Sin: More Non-Conference Struggles For Stanford and DawkinsPosted by Bennet Hayes on November 27th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC national columnist. He filed this report after Tuesday night’s Pittsburgh vs. Stanford game from the Legends Classic.
As our own Chris Johnson noted last week, Johnny Dawkins and the Stanford Cardinal have had little issue of late on the recruiting trails. The same cannot be said for their life on the hardwood. After a shaky Legends Classic semifinal victory over Houston on Monday, the Cardinal were blasted in last night’s championship game, losing 88-67 to Pittsburgh. The Panthers deserve much of the credit for the lopsided result. Dawkins’ went so far as to label Pitt a “buzzsaw” in the post-game presser, and Jamie Dixon’s team really was that clinical in dispatching the Cardinal. But while a loss to said buzzsaw won’t do too much harm to the Cardinal NCAA Tournament resume, Tuesday’s loss is just the latest example in a troubling trend of missed opportunities. The talent has been there at Stanford, especially of late, but they have yet to find their way out of the cloud of mediocrity that has followed Dawkins to the Bay Area. The half-decade with the former Duke assistant at the reins has been an era sans signature victory – sorry, those don’t come in the NIT – and after the not-so-well disguised ultimatum offered in the offseason by Stanford AD Bernard Muir, it’s an epoch that may need at least one such win to survive. Needless to say, Dawkins and the Cardinal couldn’t find it at the Barclays Center on Tuesday night.
Dawkins was effusive with praise for Pittsburgh after the game, and he may be right that his team “just ran into a team that was playing very, very well” on this night. But unfortunate timing or not, this wasn’t the first non-conference test that the Cardinal have failed in recent years. Two seasons ago, Stanford dropped its sole showcase game to Syracuse. Last year, attention-grabbing opportunities went by the wayside in losses to Missouri, Minnesota, and NC State – all teams that finished in KenPom’s top 35. In fact, Dawkins has just one non-conference win against a team that ended the season in KenPom’s top 50: a 2011 home victory over an NC State team that wouldn’t end up hitting its stride until February. December dates with Connecticut and Michigan should allow for two more chances to improve upon that distressing total, but the early season losses to BYU and Pittsburgh fit right in with recent history.
It’s difficult to find anything about the Cardinal under Dawkins that hasn’t been extremely middling. Both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings have never been bad, but they’ve also never achieved either at an elite level, with last season’s national rankings of #43 on offense and #70 on defense again telling that story. The individual personnel has also flat-lined. Chasson Randle suffered through a vastly less efficient sophomore season a year ago, and struggled on Brooklyn’s stage this week (8.5 PPG on 6-of-17 from the field). Backcourt mate Aaron Bright also may have peaked in that 2012 season, as he struggled shooting the ball last season (32 percent from three). Bright went just 3-of-8 with four assists in the two games this week. Even the gifted Dwight Powell, the one guy with whom Dawkins said he “pretty much knows what he’s going to get,” has rarely proven capable of taking over games, although he did at times this week; Powell averaged 20 points and eight rebounds in the two games in Brooklyn. None of Stanford’s issues begin with Powell, but when a team loaded with this much good-but-not-great individual talent (Anthony Brown and Josh Huestis round out a pretty talented starting five) struggles in the big games for as long as the Cardinal has, looking to your most naturally gifted player to seize control may not be the worst idea.
I’m inclined to take Pitt very seriously, so Stanford gets one more pass here with me. No such exception will be made if the Cardinal falls flat against Connecticut and Michigan in a few weeks, and expect the NCAA Tournament committee to share a similar view. But the marquee win(s) need to come not only for resume-bolstering purposes, but also for the confidence within the locker room. We know that faith in Dawkins is fast-eroding outside the team; if that “can’t quite get over the hump” feeling continues to exist with players heading into conference play, the hump could quickly turn into a mountain. It’s now been been six years of “we’ll get ’em next time” with Dawkins. Muir delivered the message back in March, but Pitt may have driven it home last night: for Johnny and the Cardinal, the time is very much now.