The cancellation of all sporting events has overshadowed what was truly an embarrassing end to the season for Stanford. Just two months ago, the Cardinal were on the cusp of their first AP Poll ranking since the Lopez twins, and moments away from a 5-0 start to Pac-12 play. Yet if the NCAA tournament had been held this year, they more than likely would not have been part of it.
That has a lot of people in the Stanford community wondering, should Jerod Haase’s job be in danger? The short answer is no. Here’s the long answer:
When Haase arrived on campus four seasons ago, the cupboards weren’t completely bare, but they were sparse. Johnny Dawkins’ antepenultimate class was terrific, featuring Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens, Michael Humphrey, and Robert Cartwright. But his last two classes didn’t provide much more than a raw Josh Sharma and his oft-injured, seldom efficient friends. To make matters worse, the presumed fifth year leader Rosco Allen opted to go pro before Haase took the helm.
The second year showed a lot of promise. With Travis and company now seniors, Haase went out and grabbed a marquee group of players the world over with his first Stanford class. If you look at the second half of the year, they were a tournament team. But for the first half of the season, they were playing without KZ Okpala, Dorian Pickens, Kodye Pugh, and Marcus Sheffield. That meant significant playing time for a walk-on. Lest we forget, though, they finished in a share of third place in the Pac-12, ahead of teams that went dancing.
Last year didn’t pan out great. Once again, the injury bug hit Stanford. Cormac Ryan and Daejon Davis both missed significant stretches, but most everyone missed some amount of time, including KZ Okpala. There was significant player improvement, as Josh Sharma suddenly became a star and KZ Okpala turned into an NBA prospect. But the lack of veteran leadership and roster continuity game to game derailed any hopes of doing more. They did, however, nearly topple Kansas in Lawrence.
This season, regardless of how it ended, was a remarkable coaching job by Jerod Haase and his staff. Last year’s team had flashes, but they weren’t anything special. In the off-season, Josh Sharma graduated, KZ Okpala heard his name called, Marcus Sheffield went to put up numbers at Elon, and Cormac Ryan left for Notre Dame. Before the season, Kodye Pugh and Trevor Stanback were lost to injury. Most everyone in the know had them finishing 10th in the Pac-12, and envisioned them struggling to win more than a few games. An NIT bid seemed like a long shot.
Yet somehow, they turned into the nations 7th best opponent-adjusted defense, and showed they could play with anybody. Mind you, this team effectively had just three classes of players, with no seniors seeing any sort of important action. Spencer Jones, who had little to no recruiting interest until late, became a key player for the Cardinal. James Keefe, who had been expected to walk-on and redshirt, played important minutes and swung a couple games in Stanford’s favor. When their starting five was on the court, they were among the most efficient lineups in the conference.
Players once again took steps forward. Bryce Wills was one of the nation’s youngest players last season, and this year blossomed into perhaps the conference’s best defender. By year end, he had become something of an offensive threat as well. Oscar da Silva went from an unassuming role player to a captain and First Team All-Conference. Jaiden Delaire was peaking at the end, as well, and became a legitimate threat to score 20 off the bench. This doesn’t happen by accident.
Obviously they shot themselves in the foot at times. The meltdown at USC was on them, and was largely the catalyst for a stretch that saw them lose 7 of 8. But if you look back at that losing streak, there was more to it than just slumping play. If Bryce Wills doesn’t go down at Utah, they more than likely win that game. They were up big in Boulder before Oscar da Silva suffered a scary injury, which immediately led to a massive run by the Buffs as the Cardinal overcame their shock and grief. Against Arizona State, Oscar was still out of the lineup. It’s not a jump to say that Stanford wins at least two of those with different injury luck. The losing streak would’ve been a non-story, and their resume wouldn’t have even been particularly bubbly.
Next year’s team will presumably have everyone back. Tyrell Terry will likely be an even steadier floor general in 2021. Spencer Jones will continue to round out his game. Daejon Davis will rekindle the shooting percentages that the face mask took away. The defensive rotations will become second nature. And on top of that, they’re adding three players with a shot to contribute from day one in Noah Taitz, Brandon Angel, and Max Murrell. Haase is still in the market to fill one more spot, and 5th ranked recruit Ziaire Williams isn’t off the table. This team will be better next year.
If there’s one thing that’s been clear following this team, it’s that the players buy in to Haase and what he’s building. For one, his fire for the game makes him the kind of guy that players want to play for. And there’s also a clear, deep bond that transcends basketball. His mantra of Invested, Tough, Selfless is borne out in the way that he carries himself every day, and it’s contagious. How many star players like Daejon Davis would yield their ball-handling duties to a new freshman? That transition could not have been smoother, believe me.
Haase and his staff nearly always put their players in position to succeed. This year’s team didn’t fall into schematic failure as often as the casual fan may think. Yes, there were still times where the players admitted to straying from the game plan for stretches, and other times shots didn’t fall, but the game plan itself was seldom the problem. And what’s more, his team was always ready to play hard for him. Their energy level was among the best in the country, with few exceptions (Wednesday, unfortunately, being one of them).
So yes, this team may frustrate the heck out of you. They can drive with tunnel vision, and can force passes they shouldn’t bother attempting, and don’t always go up as strong as they need to at the rim. Isaac White still hasn’t learned to catch the ball and be ready to shoot. Lukas Kisunas still gets happy feet under the basket. Ty falls in love with the mid-range when he often shouldn’t.
But more ball-handling and floor spacing is coming. The front court depth will be better. There will be a second 3-and-D wing. And the player improvement that’s become a staple of Haase’s will manifest itself in exciting ways. Continuity is a valuable thing in college basketball.
Next year’s team is going to the tournament, and they’ll make their long-awaited return to the AP top 25. Jerod Haase isn’t going anywhere. He’s too busy building something special.