Stanford Basketball Fans: Don't Give Up, Show Up

R.J. Abeytia talks about Stanford's opening 2-0 weekend, and implores Cardinal fans to return to Maples Pavilion.

         I've been wrong about Coach Johnny Dawkins for a while now.  I realized this a few weeks ago as the start of Coach Dawkins' eighth season edged closer and closer to the reality that it is tonight at Maples Pavilion.  My standard line about CD has been "Johnny Dawkins is still looking for his Johnny Dawkins."  To a certain extent, I believe that to be true.  Despite the tremendous career of Chasson Randle, when you look at Duke's success under Mike Kryzewski, it all started when he secured Johnny Dawkins as a commit, and along with the rest of that class, the juggernaut we now know as Duke was born.  This was Durham's Big Bang.  Randle was an absolute joy to watch and certainly one of Stanford's all-time greatest players, but was neither transcendent nor transforming.
    This is not meant to disparage Chasson, who certainly had great talent and matured into a tremendous leader and performer in his time at Stanford. His cross was to be slotted as Stanford's point guard because the Cardinal had nobody else it could trust with the heavy volume of ballhandling that was required. He, like Johnny Dawkins, was a hightly touted player coming out of Rock Island, Illinois (Just like Jake and Elwood) and in that regard stands as a refutation of my larger point here, but it's a point I'm going to make.  Coach Dawkins isn't looking for his Johnny Dawkins.  He's looking for his Brevin Knight.
    It's both the process and the consequences that make Brevin Knight unique and so crucial in Stanford's history.  The Cardinal had had outstanding players in its recent history (Messrs. Lichti and Keefe, take a bow), but those guys weren't revolutionary.  Brevin changed everything.  He didn't do it by himself of course, but he was the catalyst.  And he arrived at Stanford after being slighted by his hometown school (Seton Hall) and not even a blip on the radar of the larger programs.  It was a fortuitous sequence of events, and it impacted Stanford Basketball from the moment it happened. It reverberates even more powerfully now as the Cardinal's current coach tries to lift the program up to its previous heights.
    My pivot here comes with the knowledge that recruiting has transformed dramatically since Brevin matriculated up Palm Drive.  Stanford's had its name mentioned along with a number of highly touted recruits from this freshman class of '16, and of course none of them are heading to The Farm.  Guys like Brevin Knight don't slip through the cracks with nearly the frequency as in the past, and the slew of weekend upsets this past weekend strongly suggests that there a number of guys out there playing with chips on their shoulders much like Brevin Knight.  Let's be clear:  It's much harder now to recruit than it's ever been in college basketball, and the philosophical and logistical complexities of Stanford getting one and done talent are far more vast than a school like Duke doing it.
    That being said, as I look at the current Stanford team, that's what I see is missing.  The absence of a player like Brevin Knight is being exacerbated by the absence of a player like Robert Cartwright, who was a true point guard and thus manned one of the two positions John Platz so sagely identified as the most likely landing spots for the most impactful players.  Point Guards can raise the level of play of those around them.  It's inherent in the tasks they have and the spots they occupy on the floor. Stanford's point guard drought is almost inconceivable after that magnificent lineage of Knight, Lee, McDonald, and Hernandez.  Yes, there was a bit of dry spot between McDonald and Hernandez, but my point still stands.
And that brings us all to this season.  Stanford started its first half of play befuddled by a pressing Wisconsin-Green Bay team.  Stanford turned the ball over more than 20 times on the night, and the absence of a true point guard was glaring.  Christian Sanders, like Chasson more of a self-described "hybrid" guard, was Stanford's primary ballhandler, and he ended up with six turnovers.  The Cardinal was languishing and lethargic, down thirteen points late, and the muted dozens who showed up had seemingly moved on mentally to the next night's football game vs. Oregon.  And then something funny happened.
    Stanford dealt with it.
    The players, Sanders especially, started to play with a more attacking mindset.  The coaches made the key tactical shift in the press break, moving Rosco into the inbounder slot and thus making him a ballhandling and decision making option.  After that, Stanford was able to attack and initiate.  Sanders went to work off "15" screen-rolls (PG-C) set quickly and decisively from the wing as opposed to the top of the key. He started piercing the Phoenix's interior defense and finishing at the rim.  Suddenly, Rosco woke up from a first half slumber, and he, Sanders, and Dorian Pickens combined for 30 second-half points on 10-17 shooting.  Stanford still needed overtime to survive, but survive they did.  Afterwards, Sanders was very candid about the need to clean up their act offensively, as was Coach Mike Schrage, who also talked about the emphasis on improving the team's defense.  And then another funny thing happened.
     Stanford did it.
    The Cardinal came out against a Charleston Southern team who'd clearly watched film of Stanford's opener and proceeded to shred the Buccaneer defense.  Sanders had 8 assists and no turnovers.  Pickens had eight more assists, and the team assisted on a whopping 62% of its buckets for the game.  Stanford even extended its own defense, utilizing the athleticism of Pickens, Malcolm Allen, and Freshman Marcus Sheffield to leave no doubt about the outcome Sunday night.  And by the way, they did it with 8 healthy scholarship players.  Charleston Southern finished with an offensive rating of 86.8 (points per 100 possessions).
    Now, this is where the naysayers chirp up and kill the buzz.  Of course Wisconsin Green-Bay and Charleston Southern are not elite teams, but they are both well-coached and don't lack for recent histories of success. Both were undersized, which always makes things easier for a team with a frontline as powerful as Stanford's.  And these two wins aren't guarantees of anything, a point SMU and St. Mary's stand to make this week if they get their way. Finally, Sanders is no Brevin Knight, and even probably won't even end up being Robert Cartwright over the long haul.
    But he's who we've got.
    This is not meant to whitewash the underachievement of Coach Dawkins' tenure over the past seven seasons.  I am still the guy who wrote over 20,000 words that concluded he should probably have been let go two years ago.  I'm just saying that the negativity and the obsession with who Stanford's not is a bit grating two games into a season.  I know many have stopped watching this team altogether, and certainly people have stopped coming to Maples.  I know that if the team fails to make the NCAA's this season it'll be seven times in eight seasons that the Cardinal fails to qualify for the sport's grandest stage.  All I'm saying is that if you want to live there, already, two games into the season, I just can't with you, to use the parlance of our times.
    Have I lowered my expectations?  Within the context of this season, yes.  However, that's not because I've suddenly flip-flopped on my past evaluations of the program.  To repeat, Stanford has eight healthy guys, and two of those are true freshmen. They are replacing the bulk of their scoring and leadership, and they're doing it while incorporating a brand new offensive and defensive system.  Of course they're going to struggle.  But why live there?  Especially when they're bringing an awful lot to the table. First off, this is as athletic a group of players as I've seen suit up for Stanford.  Pickens, Malcolm Allen, Marcus Sheffield, Michael Humphrey, Reid Travis, Rosco Allen, and when he comes back, Marcus Allen, are all gazelles.  That means playing the game in the open floor, which is the best version of the game to watch.  It means ratcheting up the defense, even picking up some pressure turnovers and turning them into reverse dunks (It happened Sunday night, I swear!).  Who doesn't want to watch that?
    Coach Dawkins knows that there's no transcendent individual talent on the roster, and he said as much.  He talked last night about the fact that "we need each other to score," meaning offense is going to have to be the byproduct of multiple concerted efforts from the players, rather than the expression of exceptional talent.  Isn't the former at least as fun to watch as the latter, especially in the open court?   Not having an elite transformative player (Humphrey is the former, if not the latter) is inevitably going to cause Stanford trouble in games at the end of the shot clock.   It's going to lead to some lopsided losses to elite competition because sooner or later teams that don't have guys who can get their own (RIP Ralph Wiley) are gonna have those nights.
    Bottom line, if you are a Stanford fan avoiding Maples in protest until there's a coaching change or until the next Brevin Knight shows up, what is it costing you to hang in and support this team?  I'd never tell anybody what to do with their money, but the cost of going to a game is not back-breaking.  I have no counter for someone who decides that the team just hasn't been successful enough to make a season ticket commitment, but you can still make it to some games. This team is worth watching, and they are worth supporting.  And those of you who are concerned that showing up and supporting Stanford might delude the powers that be that failing to make the Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons is acceptable, fear not.  Of course it's not acceptible, but we're not at that point in the season.  There were 500 people MAX in that gym last night.  Are there really people concerned that if there'd been, say 2,500, Bernard Muir would have been skipping gleefully around the concourse?
    This team is building something.  They are coached by a group of smart, passionate individuals.  Whether or not the man at the top is the best person to be leading that group, he is the man leading that group.  And I can tell you that his players, our players, play hard for him and have shown in the last two games that they can learn from mistakes and play smarter as well.  The talent on this roster is legit, if inexperienced.  Yes, there are flaws, but I can tell you that UCLA, Wisconsin, Georgetown, and Arizona State all wish they were 2-0 right now.  Will Stanford be better than them after 30 games?  Probably not, but who cares? Live in the now!!
    Right now, they're 2-0, and they've got SMU coming to town Thursday night.  Get there.  Watch 'em. Cheer 'em.  It doesn't mean you think everything's all right and you forfeit your right to be disillusioned, disenchanted, and disappointed.  It just means you're willing to play your part in making things all right now. To quote Norman Dale, "I'd hope that you'd support us for who you are rather than for who we are not.  This is your team."  Don't get caught watching the paint dry just because Jimmy Chitwood hasn't shown up to play.


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