Well, Santa finally came back to Palo Alto.
Here it is, Christmas Eve, and would you look at that: There's finally a Cardinal present sitting under that tree.
For the first time in Johnny Dawkins' tenure, Stanford fans will have reason to wake up early and run down the stairs Friday morning, as the tenth seeded Cardinal find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons, set to take on seventh seeded New Mexico at 10:40 Pacific time.
There's no denying that core excitement; indeed, you'd have an easier time ruining the real Christmas as opposed to the opening weekend of the Madness: No matter how Stanford got here, it does feel good to be back.
And yet, if we're taking emotional MRIs here in the final lead-up to the Cardinal and Lobos tipping off in St. Louis, there is another creeping feeling that warrants acknowledgement, one that like that unadulterated and youthful Christmas excitement is tied to the very fickle, chaotic, and completely-unpredictable-no-matter-the-amount-of-Bracketology-you-watch nature of March. This one is harder to pin down, but I suppose it may have something to do with the concept of delayed gratification, something to do with seeing the bigger picture. It is, you might say, a parent-like caution.
Indeed, the Tournament is an interesting place for a program at a crossroads, and, at least in my opinion, that is where Stanford finds itself now: a veteran team that, by and large, has just gotten by in this, its statement season, skating to the tournament on a streak of inconsistency noteworthy to even those of us that have grown accustomed to them, and one that, at least on paper, looks to take a couple steps back next year.
For here now is a three-week stretch where wins are magnified to the nth-degree, where one often makes a season, where two regularly gets a coach a new job at others, and where anything more than that may render a head man anywhere from secure to immortal.
All this is to say that there is no skirting the big issue at play as Stanford enters the tournament, no matter how hard one tries. And that is this: Stanford needs to figure out where it falls on that "win-bonus" spectrum, if it falls there at all. This Tournament is, of course, about the uncertainty clouding Johnny Dawkins' job, like it or not. It has been ever since the athletic department declared this his make-or-break year. It has been ever since the administration set "being in the Tournament" as one of the standards for the Stanford basketball program.
Questions have abounded since then: namely, will making the tournament be enough, even if it comes at the hands of another largely unfulfilling season? And they continue to abound now. Will a close loss to the Lobos be enough? Does a win earn Dawkins more time? Does a run to the Sweet 16 (and presumably a win over second seeded Kansas) earn him a long contract extension? What about a win and a close loss to Kansas? What if? What if?
Needless to say, asking and playing 'what if' in a month that has a penchant for coming up with some ridiculous answers is a dangerous proposition.
Making public ultimatums for what constitutes a successful season—and, frankly, a successful tenure—is indeed hard enough when one boils it down to a little over three months. It is damn near impossible when one whittles it down to a little over three weeks. One has to hope, then, that the powers-that-be are close to having their minds made up. That whether enough has been done to this point to carry on or whether some downright serious convincing still has to be made is settled upon.
Leaving it to March, to a game here or a game there, just doesn't seem fair.
As for the draw itself, the Cardinal have a tall task in front of them. In New Mexico, they face a tough, veteran, and probably under-seeded team with what could be the three best players on the floor Friday morning in Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Kendall Williams. It must be said, though, that the Lobos have been all-too familiar with the early tournament flameout. Nonetheless, if one were to rank the other seven seeds in order (Texas, Oregon, UConn), the Lobos would surely top the bunch—and it might not be that close. Waiting for Stanford in the second, err third, round would most likely be the aforementioned Jayhawks, a team that despite missing center Joel Embiid is as talented as any in the country.
Couple the draw with a wholly uneven end to the season for Stanford, not merely finishing 3-4 but literally playing their best game and worst game of the year on back to back nights in Arizona State and UCLA at the Pac-12 Tournament, and the prospects of a deep run do look very uncertain.
We haven't done much, if anything, in the way of predictions here this season, and that probably has to do a lot with this Stanford team being as hard to forecast as any. We do have to at least pretend to look smart.
Yet now seems as good a time as any to start. The gut screams defeat at the hands of the Lobos, but if there is one thing we've learned with this team, it's this: As soon as it looks like it's time to jump off the ship, you'd better consider sitting back down and strapping on a seatbelt.
But not for long.
Let's take the Card over New Mexico in a nail-biter before a sound defeat at the hands of an Embiid-less Kansas, leaving everyone, quite fittingly, unsure.
But for now, there is indeed a gift in that corner, and that's a good thing.
Time to open it up and see what's inside.
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