Let's rewind back nearly a year to the NIT championship game. Stanford has just beaten Miami. The small crowd of Cardinal faithful who made the trek to Madison Square Garden applauds the team, which poses with the array of trophies. The baggy white t-shirts that tournament officials slapped on them proclaim them champions.
Chasson Randle, the program's all-time leading scorer, hoists the shiny silver jug, and flashes a tired smile. His enthusiasm is visibly tempered -- and it's not just because Stanford has just been bestowed the honor of being the 69th best team in the nation. For Randle and several team leaders, it's his final game donning Cardinal. He might not be thinking of it, but it's the end of an era. Not just the era of Randle and Brown and Nastic and Huestis and Powell, but maybe also the end of Stanford's window to win.
Randle, Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic and Co. were the group that Stanford could have won with -- they showed they could hang with the best in the nation. Remember when they beat Andrew Wiggins' Kansas squad and made it to the Sweet 16? That group could beat the world-beaters -- yet they somehow finished fifth in the Pac-12.
Why couldn't Stanford do better with the talent it had? They couldn't finish games, especially under the spotlight, and played flat on a game-to-game basis -- top-level talent that apparently didn't have the mentality needed to get it done on a night to night basis.
Can that be traced back solely to Johnny Dawkins? To win in the deep Pac-12, you need to have a killer instinct. Stanford didn't quite have it that season, and they paid the price, ending up in the NIT with a veteran group that had won NCAA tournament games just a year before. Flash forward to today, and Dawkins is still around.
Stanford still has the talent to win and contend for an upper-level Pac-12 seed -- in a couple years. Something we say every couple years. After Randle and the rest of the left, 2015-16's team has been terrible on the road once again, while lacking a clear-cut identity. With less talent, they can't score consistently, are merely passable on defense, and they still can't finish games, a lingering hallmark of Dawkins' teams.
Although I can see them being a top four or five Pac-12 team in a year or two, I can't seem them truly contending for a title or making big waves nationally -- like Randle's team should have. Stanford has a lot of young talent which could blossom, from Reid Travis to Michael Humphrey and so on. But we've heard that before.
Dawkins has had seven years at the helm of Stanford basketball, and it appears he's missed his window to be very good, if not elite in the Pac-12. To truly be competitive on a national scale, Stanford basketball is going to have to grow up substantially. And that means that either Dawkins is going to have to change the culture that's lead to disappointment during his tenure -- or he's going to have to leave town.
So what does the future hold? Is there a reason we should continue to believe that Stanford basketball has a window to compete?
The future is beginning to look bleaker under a Dawkins regime, with recruiting slipping rapidly. They simply can't compete with marquee schools, missing out on blue-chip recruits Cassius Winston and Frank Jackson this year. Back in 2014, Stanford had the 14th-best class in the nation, and now they're 85th. Granted, there's still a lot of time to build this year's class before April 13th's National Signing Day, but what does Stanford basketball-wise have that would entice big-time recruits?
Athletic director Bernard Muir seemed thrilled after his first NCAA tournament berth in six years, handing Dawkins an extension for having a great stretch of two games. But how much does he continue to see a future under Dawkins?What Stanford brass decides to do with Dawkins - be it this year or next year - will show whether they're okay with being okay, or if they really want to become a perennial contender in the Pac-12.
And above all of this, there's one final caveat: perhaps Dawkins didn't miss his window -- it wasn't open in the first place. Maybe he was just never the right fit in Palo Alto.