Just when you least expect it, Stanford basketball comes through. As expected. With his back to the wall, Johnny Dawkins and the once-listless Cardinal have suddenly rattled off wins in four of their last five games, toppling eleventh-ranked Oregon, throttling USC, and taking down UCLA on Saturday. You could say they have the heart of a (NIT) champion.
They looked pretty good against the Bruins -- Michael Humphrey put on quite a show, with some help from Rosco Allen and others. But with no chance to win the Pac-12 regular season title, or match expectations it begs the question: what is Stanford playing for in its last two regular season games?
There are a couple fairly obvious things that the Cardinal can move toward accomplishing with wins against either of the Arizona schools.
First, it would help their seeding -- they could conceivably vault as high as fifth in the conference by winning at least one of their two next games (with major help). That's an very unlikely (but not completely inconceivable) task to accomplish given that they close out in Tuscon against a ranked Arizona and they only beat Arizona State by two at home. In case you haven't noticed, Stanford struggles on the road.
But let's be honest -- would a higher seed even matter? The reality is that this Stanford team is streaky, inconsistent, and sometimes downright awful when it leaves the frequently empty chasm of Maples Pavilion. This first home sweep of the season could very well be a mirage -- they're 3-7 on the road this season, only taking down juggernauts like Arkansas, Washington State, and Oregon State. It's very hard to see a team with road demons and an identity of not having an identity making waves in the Pac-12 tournament, regardless of their seed.
Another reason to discount this surge is the quality of opponents has been highly misleading. Both USC and UCLA were incredibly cold coming into this weekend -- the Trojans had dropped three of their last four, while the Bruins had dropped six of their last nine. This recent stretch has been so rough for UCLA that our friends at Bruins Nation proclaimed that after Thursday's loss to Cal, "the UCLA basketball program has started to resemble a dumpster fire." Yikes.
Bruin guard Bryce Alford echoed those sentiments after the Stanford game: "Same old stuff. As a team, we're kind of a lost cause right now. We're trying to stay together ‐‐ that's the hardest part. You can really tank a season and see teams go separate ways and really go individual.We have to know where we're at; we're at UCLA for a reason. We just have to have confidence, not only in ourselves but in our teammates." Double yikes.
The Oregon win was the only one that could inspire any real confidence. But then again, road teams are 37-74 in the Pac-12 this season. This one win isn't going to change the entire direction of the program.
Barring winning out and then winning the Pac-12 tournament (which is probably the only way Stanford will reach the NCAA Tournament), it's hard to see, or perhaps hard to justify, Dawkins coming back for another year. These four wins and any more going forward shouldn't change that. He's had eight years to prove himself as a head coach, but only has one tournament appearance to show for it. Unless NIT titles are your thing.
But it seems like we say that every year. But if there's anything we've learned about this team and athletic department, it's to expect the unexpected. When it seems like they're peaking and taking the next step, they pull their best Death Star impression and implode. When all hope seems lost, Dawkins pulls a miracle out of his hat.
This confusing team has left us in another confusing situation -- is boosting NIT seeding with wins over teams like ASU and UCLA and gaining momentum and experience going forward really best for the program, or will it give Muir a chance to excuse Dawkins for mediocrity and keep the program from taking the next step? Only time will tell, but the contingent of fans that want Dawkins out could have mixed feelings about giving Muir any sort of excuse to let Dawkins have another year on the Farm.
Personally, I don't think these next two games will have much bearing on Dawkins' future as Stanford's head coach -- Muir has seen countless late season surges that end with nothing meaningful. Whether Stanford wins and going forward or not shouldn't affect the program's future much -- so enjoy it all while it lasts.