LAS VEGAS – What a difference a Sweet 16 makes.
One year ago, there was palpable buzz coming out of Palo Alto that Johnny Dawkins was on the proverbial hot seat. He was entering his sixth season at the helm of Stanford basketball, and he had yet to get his team into the NCAA tournament. It was touch and go for much of the season, but the Cardinal managed to cobble together a 10-8 Pac-12 record and earn a bid. From there, the team upset seventh-seeded New Mexico and then shocked second-seeded Kansas (minus Joel Embiid, who was out with a bad back) to reach the second weekend. A 10-point loss to Dayton did nothing to diminish the good vibrations, and all the questions about Dawkins were put to rest.
When I caught up with Dawkins during the LeBron James Skills Academy, I asked if he thought he would have been fired had his team failed yet again to make the NCAA tournament. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’ve always had good support from my administration, so I never felt uncomfortable, but I know that perception can become reality in this business. You start putting out who’s on the hot seat and all that stuff, it can take on a life of its own.”
Dawkins and his program are still very much alive. For proof, look no further than the decisions of all three fifth-year players to return for their final seasons. Six-foot-2 guard Chasson Randle, 6-6 swingman Anthony Brown and 6-11 senior Stefan Nastic have all earned their undergraduate degrees, which means they could have transferred anywhere they wanted without sitting out. Yet, they all chose to come back to Palo Alto. That means Stanford will contend for another NCAA bid despite the loss of frontline starters Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell, who were selected 29th and 45th, respectively, in the NBA draft.
What’s more, Dawkins is bringing in by far his highest-rated recruiting class. It will be anchored by his first McDonald’s All-American, Reid Travis, a 6-7 forward from Minnesota. Travis is built like an NFL tight end and was a very good high school quarterback before deciding to focus on basketball as a senior. Given how good he is and where he is from, it’s remarkable that Stanford was able to convince him to turn down offers from the likes of UCLA, Michigan State and Gonzaga.
Needless to say, the pool of recruitable athletes is smaller for an academically elite school like Stanford than it is for most of the programs it is competing against. “Before we start recruiting anybody, we have to dig deep and figure out if they fit what we do,” he said. “Reid really valued what we talked about. To play for us and get a degree from an institution like Stanford, that means a lot to him and his family. And we lost several people in the position that he plays, so he has a chance to have an impact right away.”
Another freshman, 6-10 Phoenix native Michael Humphrey, will also have a chance to crack the starting lineup. Stanford will probably not be as big or as deep as it was last season, but it will still have a lineup boasting plenty of length. And Dawkins will once again play a lot of zone defense. As a college and NBA player, Dawkins almost never played zone, but last season he used it more than ever before. I asked him if it felt weird. “Yes, it did. I had to get comfortable with it for sure,” he replied. “The adjustment comes with having to decide, do you go zone or man? But we’re a long team, so for us it was a good move.”
Incidentally, while Stanford is obviously Dawkins’ favorite team, he has a new second favorite to replace his alma mater, Duke. That’s because his son Aubrey will be a freshman at Michigan. At 6-6, Aubrey is taller than his old man, so he’s more of a natural shooting guard than a point. But he has that same wiry athleticism. Given the return of 6-6 junior Caris Levert at shooting guard, Aubrey may not log a lot of minutes as a freshman, but he could well have a bright future. Dawkins told me that while he would have liked to coach his son, going to Stanford was never seriously discussed. “He wanted to be his own man. I told him I respect that,” Dawkins said. “He’s different from me. He’s long and real, real athletic. He’s a decent shooter and a great athlete. That’s not a bad combination.”