How Will Kansas’ NCAA Tournament Flops Affect Bill Self’s Legacy?

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 31st, 2014

My 62-year-old uncle said something interesting while discussing the picks he made in his bracket a couple of days after Selection Sunday. He said he considered picking #2 Kansas to lose its Second Round game against #15 Eastern Kentucky. Still, like all but a minuscule fraction of the bracket-filling populace, I picked Kansas. Then I told my uncle that he was crazy, that I had the Jayhawks advancing to the Elite Eight, and asked why he would consider picking the Colonels to upend a team with the likely 2014 No. 1 NBA draft pick in its starting lineup. “I don’t buy Kansas,” he said. I didn’t pay much mind to his comment. Kansas was going to beat EKU anyway, I thought. Then, after the Jayhawks fell last weekend in the round of 32 to #10 Stanford, my uncle called me. The first thing he said was, “I warned you about Kansas.” That he did. His lack of confidence in Kansas is not a product of what he had seen this season from the Jayhawks. It’s a feeling that he has developed over the past 10 years of NCAA Tournaments.

The tourney upsets his Kansas teams have suffered will not be forgotten (Getty).

The tourney upsets his Kansas teams have suffered will not be forgotten (Getty).

Bill Self was introduced as the head coach at Kansas in April 2003, less than a month removed from his predecessor, Roy Williams, guiding the Jayhawks to the national championship game (a loss to Syracuse). The former Illinois boss came right in and guided Kansas to an Elite Eight appearance in his first season in charge. But since 2005, Kansas has seen five of its 10 Tourney runs end at the hands of a team seeded at least eight spots lower.

  • In ’05, #3 Kansas fell to #14 Bucknell in the round of 64.
  • In ’06, #4 Kansas was clipped by #13 Bradley in the round of 64.
  • In ’10, #1 Kansas advanced past the opening round, but lost to #9 Northern Iowa (thanks, in large part, to a shot and a last name college hoops fans will never forget).
  • In ’11, #1 Kansas was undone by #11 VCU in the Elite Eight.
  • And the latest upset — #2 Kansas losing to #10 Stanford – came a week ago Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »
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In #5 vs. #12 Games, Avoid the Chic Picks

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 19th, 2014

They are extremely tempting. They are the most difficult picks on your bracket to make, and history says you should pull the trigger on at least one each year. I’m talking, of course, about #5-#12 matchups. Merely seeing the number 12 next to the name of one team, a centimeter or two below the number 5, next to the name of another team, gives you pause. This is natural. Picking #12-#5 games isn’t supposed to be easy. There’s often a gap in quality between the teams placed on the #4 and #5 lines. The latter quartet is usually decent, but a clear notch below the four teams seeded one line above them. Teams seeded on the #12 line usually fall into one of two categories: 1) the quality mid-major that piles up a lot of wins against so-so competition; 2) talented major conference team with major holes in its resumé. In some instances, the #5 will overwhelm the #12. But the #12 shocks the #5 more often than you might think — it’s happened 25 times since 1999. How many #12-#5 shockers will we see this season? That’s what I’m here to help you figure out. Below you’ll find some analysis on this year’s four compelling match-ups, with an emphasis on explaining whether each #12 seed is worth picking.

West 

With Braun leading the way, don't be shocked if NDSU ousts Oklahoma (AP).

With Braun leading the way, don’t be shocked if NDSU ousts Oklahoma (AP).

#5 Oklahoma vs. #12 North Dakota State. The Bison won’t be overwhelmed by a team from a major conference, as they won at Notre Dame earlier this season (when Jerian Grant was available, mind you). NDSU ranks in the nation’s top 20 in offensive efficiency and posted Summit League-highs in offensive and defensive efficiency during conference play. The Bison are shooting 56 percent from inside the arc, good for fourth in the country, and only have five percent of their shots blocked (first). Senior guard Taylor Braun (18.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.9 APG) is the Bison’s engine, and by the end of this game, you’ll definitely remember his name. To pull big upsets, smaller programs often need one guy to take over – to drop at least 20 points and hit a few big shots in crunch time — Braun’s that guy. NDSU also has one of the most efficient frontcourt players in the nation in Marshall Bjorklund, who is shooting 62 percent on his twos. Oklahoma can really score – it ranks 13th in offensive efficiency this seaon – but the Sooners haven’t been nearly as good on the defensive end. Whether NDSU pulls the upset, this game promises to be a fun watch. Don’t miss it.

Verdict: Neither NDSU nor Oklahoma play great defense. This sets up as a shootout, one I think the Bison will win.

South

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Bracket Prep: On Wichita’s Draw, the Loaded South and Non-Conference SOS…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 17th, 2014

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At this point, you’ve probably filled out at least five brackets and torn up a few more. There are some match-ups you can’t wait to see and others you’re not so psyched about. There are trendy upset possibilities you agree with and some you’re staying away from precisely because everyone else seems to be leaning that way. You feel good about two of your four Final Four picks; the other two are toss-ups. If you filled out multiple brackets, there may be 16 teams about which you’ve casually tell your friends and co-workers, “I have them in the Final Four.” Me? I filled out one bracket, but I’m not here today to reveal my picks. That’d be more embarrassing than anything else; over the years I’ve come to learn a painful lesson: Watching and write about college hoops doesn’t make you any more likely to win your bracket pool than your football-obsessed friend who’s taken in two full games all season. What you see below are simply the first four thoughts that coalesced in my mind after I printed and scanned this year’s bracket for the first time, mere minutes after the selection show.

The Midwest region isn't as tough as it seems (Getty).

The Midwest region isn’t as tough as it seems (AP).

Did Wichita State Really Get ‘Screwed’? 

The reaction to Wichita State’s placement in the Midwest region with #2 Michigan, #3 Duke, #4 Louisville and #8 Kentucky was nearly unanimous: The Shockers are toast. This sentiment is understandable. Duke and Michigan are incredibly tough to guard; both rank in the top three in the country in points scored per possession. Louisville ranks second in Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings and has won 12 of its last 13 games, seemingly peaking at the perfect time. And in three SEC Tournament games, Kentucky more closely resembled the juggernaut we all predicted in the preseason – wrongfully, might I add – that would reach the Final Four. None of those teams will be easy to beat. This is a tough region; I’m not disputing that. Wichita State will have its hands full, for sure. But saying Wichita State got ‘screwed,’ or even that it faces a much tougher road to Arlington than, say, Florida, is a bit of a stretch, if you ask me. The most arduous path the Shockers could face is the following: Kentucky in the round of 32, Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen, and Duke in the Elite Eight. The only game out of those three I wouldn’t take Wichita State in is against Louisville, and that one would be a toss-up.

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Challenging the Narrative: Marcus Paige Has “Unpredictable” North Carolina Rolling

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 28th, 2014

College basketball media coverage is predictable. Early in the season, teams become associated with certain narratives. As teams evolve over the course of the season, the narratives may seem less and less apt, but we do our best to hang on to them as long as possible. Some teams don’t change enough to warrant a reconsideration of the way they’re written and talked about. Others change so much, and so quickly, that by February we can’t possibly attempt to re-apply the labels we slapped on them in November and December. Let’s run through some examples.

Since falling to 1-4 in the ACC, North Carolina has rolled off 10 straight wins (Getty Images).

Since falling to 1-4 in the ACC, North Carolina has rolled off 10 straight wins. (Getty Images)

  • Iowa: “KenPom likes ‘em, but they can’t win the close games.”
  • Michigan State: ‘Boy, if this team ever gets healthy, it’s winning it all. Mark it down.”
  • Kentucky: “So much talent, but not enough leadership.”
  • Louisville: “Pitino’s guys can really play, but without Chane Behanan, that frontcourt is going to be an issue come March.”
  • And, my personal favorite, North Carolina: “I have no idea what to expect from this team on a nightly basis.”

The origin of the unpredictability the Heels have become known for this season is easy to pinpoint. Over its first nine games of the season, Carolina beat then-No. 1 Michigan State, then-No. 11 Kentucky, and then-No. 3 Louisville. It also lost at home to Belmont (ranked #73 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings at the time) and on the road against UAB (#66). This mix of great wins and baffling losses didn’t sit well with us narrative architects. How does one go about describing a team that’s so unpredictable? It was maddening. That’s how Carolina earned its reputation as the most unpredictable team in the country. Trust Carolina at your own peril, was the thought. The only thing we thought we knew about the Heels was how much we didn’t know. Which is to say, a lot.

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Florida Forward Chris Walker isn’t Sitting Out Because of Academics

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 15th, 2014

Two Southeastern Conference games took place on Tuesday night. If you’re reading this site, you probably watched one of them. Arkansas beat Kentucky in double-overtime on one of the craziest finishes you’ll ever see. The other game wasn’t nearly as interesting – not in a competitive sense, anyway. Florida beat Georgia, 72-50, to move to 3-0 in conference play and 14-2 overall. The Gators look Final Four-good, and they showed why by thrashing a plucky but overmatched Bulldogs team. It was the kind of beatdown you expect elite clubs to lay on lower-tier outfits like Mark Fox’s group. Ho-hum. The game, however, did provide a reminder of an issue most college hoops fans don’t seem to understand. A few members of Florida’s Rowdy Reptiles student section were wearing white T-shirts with the words “FREE CHRIS WALKER” plastered across the fronts. The students also started a “FREE CHRIS WALKER” chant after the forward came on the court to help officials adjust the net.

(USATSI)

It doesn’t look like Chris Walker is going to hit the court anytime soon. (USATSI)

The first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name Chris Walker is academics. Walker endured an unstable family environment and attended a high school that does not have a long history in putting high-level athletes on an academic path suitable for Division I eligibility. Walker took online classes over the summer and had enough credits by December to be declared academically eligible by the NCAA, and he was admitted into Florida and has practiced with the Gators for about a month. Walker still hasn’t played in a game, but the reason why has nothing to do with academics. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s About Time Wichita State and Kansas Play Each Other

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 6th, 2014

It’s easy to see why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other. They are two of the three best basketball programs in a basketball-obsessed state. They are physically separated by less than 200 miles. They have played each other 14 times, most recently for a short run between 1989-93, and the Shockers are far better now than the teams that fell to the Jayhawks by at least 20 points in each of those meetings. Their histories – one a cultural monolith and longtime juggernaut; the other a historically mediocre Division I program – make for an excellent in-state, big brother-little brother dynamic that’s unique in college basketball. There are politicians who want these teams to play each other so badly that one went as far as to introduce a bill, later defeated, that would have forced them to play. Many others have tried to fan the flames of what could be one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Wichita State fans are vehement: They want nothing more than for their Shockers to get a shot at the Jayhawks. For crying out loud, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall once called Kansas the “chickenhawks”. I could go on, but instead of laying out the obvious, sensible reasons why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other, I’ll get into the more timely question of whether the two teams are any closer to actually playing each other.

It's clear Marshall wants Kansas and Wichita State to play each other (Getty Images).

It’s clear Marshall wants Kansas and Wichita State to play each other (Getty Images).

Sadly, it seems that they are not. Bill Self has long held that a game against Wichita State would not benefit Kansas, and that his program schedules games solely that are in its best interests. He argues that a potential match-up with Wichita State – despite all the seemingly logical reasons listed above – just isn’t worth it. “This isn’t knocking Wichita State,” Self told The Kansas City Star on December 17. “But if it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not. I’ve heard a lot of talk about them wanting to play us so bad; Gregg Marshall’s never contacted me about playing.” Marshall reportedly reached out to Kansas officials to propose a three-game series that would comprise one meeting at Allen Fieldhouse, one at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and one at Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita (not Wichita State’s home court). Whether Marshall has spoken directly with Self about the proposed series is beside the point, because Self doesn’t seem like he’s willing to budge. He simply doesn’t want this game to happen.

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NCAA Considering Change in Transfer Rules… Again

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 3rd, 2014

One of the topics college basketball people frequently debate and nitpick is transfer culture. They get into other macro issues from time to time, like changes to how the game is officiated and amateurism, but transfer-related issues – a certain player’s waiver getting denied by the NCAA, for instance, or an inconsistent application of transfer rules, or the vast increase in transfers in recent years, or coaches deciding to block or limit where a player can transfer, or something else – seem to spark discussion and controversy on a national level just as (or more) often than anything else. A new transfer-related development has, to no one’s surprise, created a bit of a stir among college hoops folks.

Josh Smith Represents a Transfer Ruling That Didn't Make Much Sense (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Josh Smith Represents a Transfer Ruling That Didn’t Make Much Sense (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The NCAA Division I Leadership Council, which was at one point considering a loosening of the restrictions that apply to transfers ineligible for the one-time transfer exception (football, basketball, baseball and men’s ice hockey players), is discussing the notion of making all transfers sit out a season regardless of circumstance. Student-athletes would be granted an extra year to their “five-year” eligibility clock if they transfer after using their redshirt year. Student-athletes who have not already redshirted would not be granted an extra year. This would essentially eliminate the waiver process you read about so often – the one that initially denied Rutgers transfer Kerwin Okoro immediate eligibility after he moved closer to his New York home following the death of two family members, but allowed UCLA transfer Josh Smith to play right away, just because.

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Assessing Louisville’s Frontcourt Issues Looking Forward

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 30th, 2013

(Ed. note: this post was largely written prior to Monday afternoon’s news that forward Chane Behanan had been dismissed from the team, making a dire frontcourt situation even worse. Inconsistent as he was through the early part of the season, Behanan has proven that, when engaged, he can be an effective scorer and rebounder. The Cardinals will need to adjust to recreate his lost production.)

On Sunday, one day after Louisville fell, 73-66, to in-state rival Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino took to his website to address some issues he feels his team needs to address as it prepares for American Athletic Conference play (which begins New Year’s Eve, when the Cardinals play at Central Florida). Chief among them was what Pitino perceives as a weak frontcourt. The analogy he uses to make this point is probably the funniest thing you’ve heard a college basketball coach say since Barry Hinson went rogue in a now-famous postgame press conference earlier this month. “Let me give you an analogy of our frontcourt knowing who they are. It’s like having Christina Aguilera to sing at a concert, she comes out, ignores her great voice and dances for two hours. That’s our front court,” Pitino writes. Later in his post, the Hall-of-Famer points out specific players… and name-checks another pop star. “In other words, Montrezl and Chane – Need to dominate the paint. Rebound like Kenneth Faried , defend like Dennis Rodman, block shots and dunk.  Score off rip moves and leave the dancing to Justin Timberlake.”

Did Saturday's loss to Kentucky reveal major problems in Louisville's frontcourt? (Getty Images).

Behond Behanan’s dismissal, did Saturday’s loss to Kentucky reveal major problems in Louisville’s frontcourt? (Getty Images).

If you watched Saturday night’s game, wherein Kentucky’s forwards outplayed Louisville’s, Pitino’s assessment might sound accurate. The Cardinals looked overmatched on the low block. Most fans and media came to the same conclusion. The question is, what does Louisville’s underwhelming frontcourt play on Saturday night augur for the rest of the season? Is the Cardinals’ frontcourt so flawed, especially with the Monday loss of Chane Behanan, to the point it can’t be fixed in time for them to compete for a national championship? Is there nothing Pitino can do between now and March to make his team’s frontcourt better? Do I need to go back and listen to all of Christina Aguilera’s albums to find out?

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“Fire Rick Barnes?” Not So Fast…

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 19th, 2013

One of the things college basketball observers thought they knew to be true heading into the 2013-14 season was that Texas coach Rick Barnes’ tenure was nearing its end. He was doomed to be fired at (or possibly before) the end of the season, was the thinking. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Last season, the Longhorns missed the NCAA Tournament and lost more games than they had won for the first time under Barnes. It was the second consecutive year his team didn’t post a winning record in Big 12 play – after finishing above .500 against league competition the previous 13 years. Texas hasn’t advanced past the round of 32 in the Tournament since 2008, and Barnes’ recruiting prowess had seemingly eroded to unthinkable depths; of Scout. com’s 21 top-40 recruits from Texas in the past seven recruiting classes, only one (2012 center Cameron Ridley) had signed to play with the Longhorns, according to Gary Parrish. There was plenty of talk that Barnes – who in the past had brought in such top prospects as Avery Bradley, Daniel Gibson, Damion James, Cory Joseph, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, Myck Kabongo and Tristan Thompson — had lost the drive and energy to recruit top prospects as persistently as he once did. Sources who spoke to Parrish said, “Barnes became disenchanted with the off-court grind it takes to maintain a certain level of success.”

One of the biggest positive surprises early this season is 10-1 Texas (Getty Images).

One of the biggest positive surprises early this season has been 10-1 Texas (Getty Images).

Top-ranked 2014 point guard Emmanuel Mudiay’s commitment to SMU in August was seen less as a promising development for Mustangs hoops than an indictment of Barnes’ inability to recruit in-state talent. Not only did Mudiay, who is projected as the fifth overall pick in DraftExpress’ 2015 mock draft, spurn Texas – he didn’t even consider the Longhorns one of his final choices. Things looked even bleaker when former Texas Director of Athletics DeLoss Dodds, long an ardent supporter of Barnes, announced on October 1 he was stepping down. A week later, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel released a comprehensive report on the state of Texas’ athletic department that included quotes from Dodds and an anonymous high-ranking athletic department official that seemed to add credence to the widespread speculation that Barnes’ job was in danger. “I worry more about basketball,” Dodds told Thamel. “If I were going to pick one [program] to worry more about, I worry more about basketball.” Said the official, “I can’t imagine [Barnes] turning it around.” Another reason why Barnes’ job security appeared so tenuous heading into the season? His top four-scorers from 2012-13 (Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, and Ioannis Papapetrou) had, either by way of transfer or signing professional contracts, left the program. The writing was on the wall for Barnes. His long and mostly successful stint as Texas’ coach had run its course, it seemed. He had virtually no hope of turning things around.

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Jay Bilas and Mark Emmert: How About a Meeting of the Minds?

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 12th, 2013

The reputation Jay Bilas has developed over the years as one of the most vocal critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association is well-earned. He frequently hammers away – via Twitter and otherwise – at president Mark Emmert and the controversial institution he presides over. Just last summer, Bilas highlighted the NCAA’s fundamental hypocrisy regarding its stance on player likenesses with his ShopNCAASports search bar revelation. Months before, in an extensive interview with Andy Glockner, Bilas opened fire on the NCAA in general, and Emmert in particular, calling the latter an “absentee president.” Those are just two examples. Scroll through Bilas’ tweets and you’ll find an endless supply of reasoned NCAA criticism (with plenty of rap lyrics sprinkled throughout; Young Jeezy even dropped Bilas’ name in a song). Most sports fans also know Bilas for his college basketball analysis, which – much like his frequent disparagement of the NCAA – is almost always, whether written or televised, very much on-point. If, in the preseason, you read Bilas’ “College Hoops Opus,” for instance, you’d feel so prepared for the upcoming campaign, you probably wouldn’t have spent any money on preview magazines.

Jay Bilas and Mark Emmert Traded Barbs Yesterday

Jay Bilas and Mark Emmert Traded Barbs Yesterday

As you no doubt already know, Bilas is a pretty smart guy, and he knows it, too. Which is why his latest squabble with Emmert was so predictable. Emmert was in New York Wednesday for the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, where he fielded questions from reporters about various NCAA-related issues. Responding to a question about Bilas, Emmert said, “I appreciate how passionate he is about college sports. I don’t like the ad hominem [personal] attacks.” Emmert followed up. “I dare say I know more about running complex organizations than him and he knows more about basketball.” Naturally, Bilas retorted: Read the rest of this entry »

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Do Yourself a Favor: Watch UCLA Freshman Zach LaVine Play

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 11th, 2013

Anyone who watched Missouri beat UCLA last Saturday probably came away impressed with the Tigers’ backcourt trio of Jordan Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown. The three guards combined for 63 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and attacked UCLA’s defense from inside and out, on the break and in the half-court, on spot-ups and dribble penetration. The Tigers were impressive, so it was no surprise to see them ranked no. 24 in the AP Poll released on Monday. If you watched Missouri beat the Bruins, you might even be inclined to argue that the Tigers deserve a higher ranking. I was impressed with Missouri. I think it was underrated heading into the season. Now that coach Frank Haith is done serving a suspension that – if we’re being totally honest – should have kept him away from the sidelines far longer than five games, the Tigers are in position to climb the rankings in the coming weeks, and maybe even challenge Tennessee and LSU for the de-facto SEC regular season bronze medal (i.e., the team that inevitably finishes behind Kentucky and Florida for third place). But what really struck me about Saturday’s game had nothing to do with Missouri. Near the end of the first half, Bruins freshman Zach LaVine pounced on a Tigers turnover just beyond his team’s three-point line, dribbled the length of the court, took off from one step inside the paint and flushed home a ferocious, one-handed windmill dunk.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of LaVine. I knew coming into the season he was one of the nation’s better freshmen – though one who was more overlooked than he otherwise would have been in most years because of how loaded this freshman class is. I knew he was a good athlete, someone who could score, someone who could give the Bruins another scoring threat behind guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. But this – one of the most impressive breakaway dunks I’ve seen from any player at any level – was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. So I spent some time looking around on YouTube, found this clip, rewound each of LaVine’s dunks at least three times and quickly came to the conclusion his jam against Missouri was downright mediocre by comparison.

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How is Stanford Coach Johnny Dawkins Recruiting So Well?

Posted by Chris Johnson on November 21st, 2013

Recruiting well while you’re on the hot seat shouldn’t be as easy as Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins is making it look. On Wednesday, the Cardinal got a verbal commitment from Dorian Pickens, a 6’5″ shooting guard with scholarship offers from Arizona, Arizona State and several other power conference schools. Pickens is the fourth top-100 player in the class of 2014 to commit to the Cardinal since early September, joining four-star point guard Robert Cartwright and four-star power forwards Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis. The most impressive name in that group is Travis, who spurned offers from Arizona, Duke, Georgetown, UCLA and others before pledging to the Cardinal. Stanford’s 2014 recruiting class now ranks 14th in the country, according to Scout.com. With four good players arriving next year, the Cardinal will be well-equipped to restock its lineup with talent and athleticism and remain competitive in the Pac-12 after veterans such as junior Chasson Randle and seniors Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell and Aaron Bright graduate.

With Wednesday's commitment from Pickens, the Cardinal have one of the best recruiting classes in the country in 2014 (AP Photo).

With Wednesday’s commitment from Pickens, the Cardinal have one of the best recruiting classes in the country in 2014 (AP Photo).

The most interesting part about this recruiting surge is that Dawkins, now in his sixth season in Palo Alto, might not even be around campus at this time next year. In March, first-year athletic director Bernard Muir essentially said Dawkins needed to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament this season in order to keep his job. “There’s a clear expectation that we can do that here,” Muir said. So if the Cardinal doesn’t end the school’s five-year NCAA Tournament drought in March, those recruits that gave their verbal commitments to Dawkins could wind up playing for a different coach. Why, then, would these talented high schoolers – players that had good scholarship offers from other schools – pick Stanford? Maybe they’re confident Stanford will reach the NCAA Tournament this season, that Dawkins has Cardinal basketball on the cusp of a breakthrough, that Stanford hoops is just an evolutionary step or two behind Stanford football. Or maybe they don’t care whether Dawkins is their coach, as long as they get to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country, located on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country.

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