We're going to start with the narrow focus of the
Dayton game, and move further out to include
Stanford's performance in
March, in the 2013-14 season, and finally a revisit to the
Dawkins' six year tenure.
Unfortunately, we're going to delve into a lot of areas where
all the facts are
not available, and much of
the analysis is going to be sum of the subjective impressions
of the author
and others, but such is the nature of the task. Ultimately, if
you care about the state of this program,
you've got to get your
hands dirty, and whatever side of this decision you find
yourself on, it's just not
one where the objective
case alone is enough. (The objective case, by the way -- Part
1 of my analysis -- can be found on my blog here. This is my
first article for The Bootleg.)
The Dayton Game
Stanford strutted into Memphis at the apex of its public perception in the Dawkins Era. Defenders of Dawkins were crowing on the board that the 80 minutes of basketball we saw in St. Louis were the inevitable culmination and reward of all the good faith they'd showed for the previous six years in the face of scathing criticism of both the process and results from this team's leadership. Stanford had seemingly morphed into a battle-hardened, blue-collar defensive machine that many now viewed as a serious threat to make it to North Texas and the Final Four. As excited as I was about the win over Kansas, I still had the foresight to warn:
"I think it's a bit of a stretch to assign any long-term prognoses based on this stunning and complete identity transformation. This may not even be who they are this Thursday, let alone moving forward."
The reason for my caution was simple. The defense Stanford played in St. Louis was in no way reminiscent of the defense it had put together during the course of the season. Stanford won its 21 games prior to St. Louis primarily on offense, and the zone defenses the Cardinal used to defeat Kansas had hardly been the panaceas the national and local media (now awake from its season-long hibernation) hailed them as over the course of the year. Furthermore, the offense praised by the New York Times had been ground into an ineffective slog, an inconvenient truth getting in the way of the story the Times wanted to run.
Unfortunately, my statements were more prescient than I ever would have wanted, especially after shelling out for airfare to Memphis. The Four Factors tell the grisly details from the FedEx Forum:
Stanford was, in effect, blitzed from the 8:50 mark in the first half to about the 3:00 mark, and in that stretch Dayton built the margin that would sustain it through an evenly played second half. The Flyers were magnificent, using spacing, ball movement, and aggressive fundamentals to put a blow torch to Stanford's defense, and an end to its postseason run. The broadcast media, much like its print brethren, displayed its ignorance throughout the broadcast, during and after the game. Most of the broadcasters settled for a narrative of the game being played "at Dayton's pace." The truth is that Stanford and Dayton played at basically the same pace all season long, and indeed were virtually identical teams statistically (see above). They certainly weren't identical in their tournament encounter, especially not in the crucial stretch as the first half wound down and decisive margin was built. I went to the DVR also expecting to see more of the same discombobulation from the Stanford offense, but really what stuck out was the difference between the two teams when Dayton had the ball.
Down 26-23, Stanford comes out in its 2-3 zone, and Dayton expertly uses formation to outflank the Cardinal. The Flyers put three guards around the three point line above the foul line extended. Stanford's got only two covering three. Two passes lead to a wide open three from the corner because the low corner man in the zone had to pop up to cover the man on the left wing. Simple. Splash. 29-23, Dayton.
Down 31-23, Stanford experiences a defensive breakdown when miscommunication in transition leaves Verhoeven on the perimeter. Dayton immediately attacks him off the bounce, the help comes and it leads to a dish and another Dayton score. 33-23 Dayton, and the margin of victory is secure. The stat sheet does say that Dayton led 9-0 in fast break points, but the stretch above didn't include any of those fast break points. In other words, "pace" didn't kill the Cardinal necessarily, although fatigue can't be totally discounted in the equation (we'll get to that in a moment).Stanford fought back in the second half and closed the gap to four points twice in the first eight minutes. The Cardinal even had the ball down 4 at 15:51 of the half. Two empty possessions put the ball back in Dayton's hands, and the Cardinal defense just couldn't hold firm. Dayton got lay-ups on its next two possessions. Stanford cut the lead down to six points but Dayton came right back with three-point play to extend the margin and the Cardinal would get no closer than nine points after that.
- Stanford looked tired during this game, and I'm not
sure it was totally obvious on television, but
in person, many players
had slumped shoulders and looked winded. Time and again,
defenders watched Flyers blow by them off the bounce. In
theory, there was no reason for this
fatigue, and as usual
with this program, that's where things get murky. Did
Stanford get run off
the floor by Dayton? The
game was played at a pace faster than each team was
accustomed to be sure, but not that much faster as to
explain why Stanford was a step slow.
Unlike the Pac-12 tournament, Stanford was working on three
days of rest from its last game,
something it had done repeatedly during the season (indeed,
playing on two days rest on occasion). Was the Cardinal fatigued because the
coaching staff put it through a grueling
practice the day before
the game and after its
trip in three days? It's hard
to substantiate this
without firsthand knowledge, but those boys looked gassed and it wasn't
like Dayton was
full-court pressing or playing at warp speed. The most
likely culprit may have
been Dayton's depth. One
Flyer played 33 minutes, while Stanford had four players
minutes or more. Chasson Randle definitely looked like a player who had been playing
all season. It's hard
not to put some of the cumulative effect of the load he
carried on his 5-21
performance, including 3-11 from the three point line. Those
11 threes suggest a player settling
for jumpers, and that is often a matter of fatigue.
- There can be no question that Dayton was the better coached team during and before this contest. The Flyers used basic fundamentals of ball movement and catching the ball in triple threat position to get the jump on the Cardinal defense, and the coaches had the team prepared for the very zones that befuddled Kansas four days earlier.
- The only ‘tactical' move made all night was Coach Dawkins' technical foul. Again, the broadcasters were quick to identify this, but even Len Elmore caught himself on the verge of praising the move when he realized it had failed to move the score needle at all. Sometimes a team is a bad match-up, sometimes they have a great night, sometimes they're just better. Regardless, nothing about this game can be viewed as evidence that Stanford is being coached by the right individual.
Stanford in March vs.
Dawkins' defenders want to use St. Louis as the shield against his detractors, while it seems tempting to combat that with the letdown of the Dayton game. Frankly, I think it's just too small a sample size, even if they are ultimately the three games most people care the most about in the entire era. Let's widen the view to Stanford's performance in March vs. teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament:
The Cardinal did improve its defense cumulatively in
March against top-flight
defense rating of 100.6
was a significant improvement from the 103 rating it posted in
and that includes twice taking advantage of the
basketball-like substances known as USC and WSU. So
Stanford should get some credit, and there really was a
change, right? Well, like everything else
Stanford achieved during Coach Dawkins' tenure, it's murky. The same
systematic inconsistency that
has plagued the Cardinal
offense clearly showed up during March on defense. To wit:
|New Mexico (NCAA)
So again, we have a cumulative
improvement of the team's defensive effort against the
games of which occurred under the pressure of postseason
play. But the Cardinal
juxtaposed four exceptional defensive efforts with three
games in which they were absolutely owned. So is
that enough to speak
assertively about a defensive identity? In my opinion,
Offensively, the story is even
more discouraging. Clearly, the New York Times had no interest in
|New Mexico (NCAA)
The "magic" of the Triangle
Offense was reduced to a collapsed house of cards in
Cardinal was far, far too easy to guard when put on the
floor against elite competition, and that's frankly
been the case for
the last six years, with rare exception. Stanford's 91.4 rating would
have been last in
the conference and
worse than 339th in the nation if it had played offense this
ineffectively all season
long. The hesitation and frustration that curbs my
enthusiasm every time I am about to watch a
Stanford basketball game stems from this side of the
ball. As documented time and again, Stanford just
doesn't have it
together on the attack -- not as individuals, and not as
Stanford on the Season
Of course you expect a team to drop off in performance against the best competition, but this is Niagara Falls we're talking in terms of offense. Stanford took steps towards rectifying this by adopting the Triangle. The coaches deserve credit for at least improving spacing and somewhat reducing the stagnation that had metastasized over the course of the previous five seasons. However, I am still troubled by the fact that Stanford's offense is fundamentally rotten at the core. There's no base upon which to build success. Again, here comes the murkiness. Do we condemn Coach Dawkins for taking five seasons to figure out what many viewers picked up during season one? Or do we chalk it up as sunk cost and focus on the fact that he gets it now, and moving forward things will be different as the coaches get more experience teaching and implementing the Triangle? I loved hearing that the coaches had sessions with the women's coaches, who have been running the Triangle successfully for years. Again, though, why did it take six years? You have a resource like Tara VanDerveer down the hall, how are you not utilizing that from the get go, especially as a first-time head coach?
Regardless, simply adopting the Triangle was not a panacea, nor will it necessarily be going forward. Stanford basketball players are some of the most fundamentally unsound players in the country, a fact illustrated throughout this tournament. I'm tired of the arguments about the level of athlete, or talent, or whatever that the Cardinal can recruit. Teams with lesser athletes and less heralded recruits made hay all Tournament and season long. Look at Wisconsin. Those boys can shoot, yes, but that offense is maximizing everything they do well and minimizing what they don't. Dayton killed Stanford with the simplest, most fundamental, Day 1/Drill 1 of basketball camp: The Triple Threat. When was the last time a Stanford player caught a pass in triple threat position? When was the last time one even threw a pass from the triple threat? Yes, there is an extent to which I see the game through the eyes of Norman Dale, but the truth is simple: Many schools are talented enough to eschew the fundamentals, but the ones with talent who embrace the fundamentals are the ones who are good year after year.
Yes, Michigan State and Florida get great players, but
watch the Spartans run sets and set screens. They
are being coached
and they move in
sync more often than not. Watching Florida live in
couldn't get over
how well it ran pick and roll. Unlike Stanford and most
teams, it had the cutter sprint
to the pick, so the
defense had to react quickly to the play. Stanford time
and again trots out from the
block to the wing and by the time the screener is set,
the entire defense is able to react, and there is
activity and no achievement.
This is the subjective review,
but I dare somebody to prove me wrong: No
team gets less out of its on-ball screens than Stanford. And
don't even get me started on off-ball
screens, which hardly ever occur (despite running the
Triangle) and yield even less than their on-ball
Then there is the Cardinal's
dribbling. Again, this was the worst dribbling team, man
man, that I saw all
year in college basketball. Anthony Brown, a player who
displayed tremendous talent
and was a phenomenally efficient player, still dribbles
far too high, upright, and weakly to be the
absolute monster he could be. This flaw had a terrible
ripple effect. On a team without a true point
guard, it meant that Randle had to be on the floor more
than was optimal, and that of course
best player in the Dayton game. So when Dawkins praised
depth, there was some veracity to that sentiment, but
part of me also wanted to say, "Yes, but if we taught
our players to dribble properly, it might not have
been so devastating."
Virtually every frustrating and
fruitless Dwight Powell foray into the lane can be
traced back to his weak dribble, a weakness he had
when he arrived on campus and which should have been
corrected before he played his second season.
These are talented
players who have very high ceilings. The fundamentals
held them back.
The jump stop is a maneuver that would have served every
Cardinal player well this year, but I don't
remember the last
time I saw a Stanford player execute it either as a
ballhandler or a screener.
- Passing is no better, as evidenced by the fact that Stanford had the worst assist percentage of any team in the conference this season.
- Shooting? Stanford was right in the middle of the conference from the free throw line and the three point line. Mediocrity, defined.
- Dribbling/Passing? Stanford was 8th (or 5th Worst) in the conference in assist to turnover percentage.
Jump Stops. Triple Threat. Dribbling. Screen Setting. Free Throws.
These are the building blocks
of the game, from the lowest level to the highest level.
your perception of
Stanford's talent is from year to year is irrelevant.
There is nothing stopping the
from proficiency in these areas of the game. NOTHING.
You instill these fundamentals
into your program so that in seasons when the talent is
lower, your fans and your program can take
solace in the fact that the team maximized its
potential. In seasons like the one concluded when you
have a good amount of talent, you instill these
fundamentals so that great tournament runs can become
magical runs, and an entire season can be spent
legitimately chasing championships (League, League
Tourney, National, not National Invitational.)
Stanford was never going to reel off six straight victories in the Tournament. How do we know? Aside from the fact that it never had a winning streak of six or more than four at any point in the season, the real reason was that it never established a foundation of strength built on sound fundamentals. It never excelled at any aspect of the game for any sustained period of time. This is how you win championships and games when you have bad shooting nights, when the other team is having a great shooting night, or beat teams that are more athletic, or more experienced.
And yes, sometimes you do everything right and you still come up short. But the greatest coach of all time defined success as the knowledge that you did everything you could do to be as successful as you could. Can Stanford really say that about its basketball program? Maybe my favorite game of all time is a loss: The '98 National Semifinal against Kentucky. I felt no shame in losing that game, and I actually felt as proud of my team as I ever had, because it played sound basketball, and took a more talented, athletic, tournament tested team to the wire. The Cardinal forced Kentucky to make a few more great plays than they could match, and that's how the game was decided. Now that was a team that knew how to use triple threat, set screens, off-ball movement, dribbling, and play together. It all crystallized towards the end, when from the floor, I watched Arthur Lee trigger a baseline to baseline sprint from Ryan Mendez with a simply mouthed "Go!", make a move on his defender with a strong dribble, then swing the ball on time and right in place to a Mendez emerging from a crisp, solid downscreen which bought him just enough time to catch in triple threat, rise and fire. The play didn't bring Stanford a victory, but it was perfect basketball synchronicity executed under pressure on the game's biggest stage.
No Stanford fan expects
outcomes like the Final Four to be the norm, or even
play at the level I
described in the last paragraph. However, they can be well-coached. And ultimately this is where
at with regards to
our basketball program. I have always said that for
Stanford to be successful in
football or men's
basketball, the coaching must be elite. There is no argument to be
Stanford's head coach or its staff is
elite. None. So any argument in their favor is
ultimately one that
either says that they are about to become elite, or they
can be elite. Can anybody say with any veracity
at all that either is the case? If the answer is no, then it's clear that it is time
for a change. Here some final questions to ponder:
- With his
second top 15 recruiting class matriculating this
fall, do we judge Dawkins on
what he did with his last cycle with a top 15 class
(the current seniors)? Yes, and I don't see how it engenders any
optimism about the incoming group. Put it this way, if
he duplicates his
performance in the next six years with what he did in
the first six, nobody
him. So the expectation that he is going to improve is
a leap of faith, pure and simple.
- Is there anything to suggest the next six years will be better than the first six? There is the institution of the Triangle offense, the collaboration with the women's staff, the hiring of an assistant staff that led to the implementation of the hyped zone defense, and two wins in St. Louis, plus the fact that Coach Dawkins has the previous six seasons under his belt.
- What role did Coach
Dawkins' program play in the rash of injuries? This is a very delicate and
crucial aspect of
the program that got buried under the praise during
Stanford's run to the
Sweet Sixteen. The
rumors of the 4 hour practices after losses need to be
because this was a 12-loss team heading into the Dayton game. That's
48 hours of grueling
practice time over the course of a season. You can't
bemoan the loss of key players as the
cause for a lack of depth if you aren't managing your
team properly before and during the season. If the only answer
the coaches continue to have in season is to just work
then frankly I'm done with this conversation right
- What about Rotation Roulette? And lest we forget, I actually considered the injuries a blessing of sorts (taking no pleasure in injury to players, needless to say) because it safeguarded Dawkins from his constantly displayed struggles to establish a consistent rotation of players within the context of both a single game and a season.
- Where are the in-game adjustments? So far, the technical foul is the only tool I've seen in the toolbox. There were the vacillations from zone to man which did help against Kansas, but frankly -- throughout the course of the larger season -- this most usually was just swapping one poor defense for another, in my opinion.
- What is happening in the Cardinal's in-game huddles? Stanford coming out of a time-out....Good Grief. See this year's home games against Cal and Colorado, for extreme examples.
- What is the identity of this program? Defense has been the buzzword, but aside from two seasons ago, it's been lip service. Identity is TBD at this point.
- Why can't Stanford set screens or execute consistently? See above.
- Has the systematic
inconsistency this team exhibits been addressed?
By me, in multiple thousand-word posts, but on
the court, no.
- How do we reconcile the stunning drop off in attendance, both from regular fans and students? And this is the real killer. If everybody is so jazzed up about a turnaround, where is the announcement of the spike in season ticket orders? There is no way Stanford would sit on news like that. My conclusion can only be that there is no spike. Keep in mind that Stanford's inability to fill its 750 seat student section and its 7,500 seat arena with the same folks filling its sold out Red Zone and 50,000-seat football stadium is a reality that cannot be spun.
Bottom Line: Stanford's coaching is not elite. Stanford can do better. Whether you think better is working at VCU, Dayton, Portland, or on staff as an assistant somewhere else, I believe there are better, available choices out there.
Despite all this, I am at peace
with the fact that
Dawkins will be
returning for his
seventh season. I'm OK with it for a couple reasons.
First, I like him as a person, as it seems that most others do.
He is a man of integrity, class, and sincerity, and you
don't dismiss traits like that.
More importantly, however, I
believe that athletic director Bernard Muir's silence
has established an ultimatum just
as definite as last year's verbal one. Dawkins has two years left on
his deal, and has not
extended. If he
does not establish this program with a well-coached regular season, I think
because you don't let a coach move into his walk season
if you don't plan to
keep him. So if
Dawkins is not
this year, he will
not be extended without success on the court in 2014-15. If Muir believes with
conviction that he's
got his man, there is no reason to avoid extending him
now, especially at the height of
the program's state going into Memphis.
I'm fine with this situation. This recruiting class cannot be ruined with one year of coaching, and there would be a "full cupboard" opportunity going into 2015-16 if it comes to dangling that carrot to a potential candidate.
So, in finality, should Dawkins stay or should he go? He should go, but he's going to stay for another year, and I hope with every fiber of my being he proves me utterly wrong.
R.J. Abeytia ('99) lives in Los Angeles and has been rooting for the Cardinal his whole life. Home football Saturdays he can be found in Chuck Taylor Grove. During the week he writes and teaches. He recently published his first novel, Me vs. Life.
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