You can almost feel sorry for Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. Possessing a gold-plated resume (Duke All-American, nine-year NBA star, assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski), he stepped into a program that had flourished under his two immediate predecessors: Trent Johnson took the Cardinal to three NCAA appearances and one NIT Championship in four years, while Mike Montgomery achieved legendary status in his 18 years with 10 NCAA appearances, including Stanford’s first and only Final Four appearance in 1998.
But…while not exactly floundering under Dawkins, the Cardinal haven’t reached Montgomery-Johnson heights either. Entering his eighth season, Dawkins can boast of a Sweet Sixteen finish in 2014 and two NIT championships. Usually, however, Stanford is a mid-to-low pack finisher in the Pac 12, and heads into this season picked 9th by the media.
So, does that mean Stanford is ripe for upset by Randy Bennett’s Gaels on Sunday night in Moraga?
No, it doesn’t.
Dawkins has a roster filled with four-and-five-star recruits, most of whom were national top 50 or 100 high school players. The Cardinal’s projected starting lineup against the Gaels (using its first two games as a guide) features 6-8 forward Reid Travis, a 5-star, top 50 player, and 6-9 Rosco Allen, a 4-star, top 100 player; 6-5 guard/forward Dorian Pickens, Arizona’s Player of the Year in 2014 and a 4-star pick; and one of the Allen twins, Marcus and Malcolm, who traded accolades: Malcolm, a top 100 selection according to Scout, was Nevada POY in his senior year, while Marcus was rated higher by Scout (#28 nationally). Marcus has been sidelined by injury this season, so Malcolm has stepped in.
It makes you wonder what a team has to do to win more media respect in the Pac 12. Apparently the graduation of its top three players, Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic, dimmed Stanford’s prospects. Another factor was the preseason injury (broken arm) suffered by designated point guard Robert Cartwright, whom Dawkins was grooming to replace Randle. With Cartwright gone for the year, little-used shooting guard Christian Sanders has moved to the point.
One face Gael fans were hoping to see for the first time in Moraga, Stanford center Grant Verhoeven, probably won’t suit up after suffering a heel injury. Verhoeven, a highly-recruited post player out of the Central Valley, narrowed his college choices to Saint Mary’s and Stanford in 2012 before choosing the Cardinal. He has been hampered by injuries throughout his Stanford career, so it is hard to indulge in “what ifs” concerning a Gael career that didn’t happen. Besides, his major is Earth Systems, so Saint Mary’s probably never had a real shot at him.
The graduation of Nastic, a 6-11, 245-lb back-to-the-basket post player, deprives fans of a low-block battle with Gael center Jock Landale. With no true center, Stanford utilizes the twin forwards Travis and Allen, bringing in 6-8 Michael Humphrey off the bench. This will be the first time in the young season that the Gaels’ Landale, Dane Pineau and Evan Fitzner will face opponents of similar size and ability. Allen, a senior, should present the greatest challenge to the inexperienced Gael forwards.
In the backcourt, the unsung Saint Mary’s duo of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar will get an opportunity to prove their mettle against more heralded opponents. Sharing playing time with point guard Sanders have been the 6-5 Pickens and 6-3 Malcolm Allen. If Scout and Rivals ratings mean anything, the Gaels will be outmanned, but Rahon has faced bigger challenges in the ACC, and Naar seems unperturbed by any competition.
Fans can catch Stanford in action against SMU tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN2. SMU has risen to near-powerhouse status under coaching and NCAA-infraction legend Larry Brown, but Brown won’t be making the trip to Palo Alto. He is sitting out a nine-game suspension after his latest brush with NCAA regulations — a small matter of an assistant coach taking exams for a player. That beef will also keep SMU out of the NCAA tournament at the conclusion of this season.
And the winner is…
Anybody’s guess. The Gaels have faced media skepticism similar to Stanford’s since the graduation of their entire starting five. Like Stanford, they have won their first two games, albeit more impressively than Stanford. The Cardinal had to go to overtime to beat Wisconsin-Green Bay, a predicted 5th-place finisher in the Horizon League, 93-89 in their opener, but bounced back to trounce Charleston Southern, picked 7th in the Big South Conference, by 93-59.
The Gaels handled D2 competitor San Francisco State by 24 points and MAAC contender Manhattan by 26. Both teams played their first two games at home, but Stanford doesn’t have to travel very far to Moraga on Sunday night (ESPNU, 8:00 p.m. Pacific).
It may be a culture shock for the Cardinal, however, moving from the comfortable confines of Maples Pavilion to the decidedly uncomfortable two-car garage known as McKeon Pavilion. Saint Mary’s fans, a notoriously fickle lot, may be inspired by the prospect of ESPN cameras to show up in force — Gael Force, that is — or they may not.
They were present en masse for the opener against SF State, but apparently were too busy studying for last Monday’s Manhattan contest — only a few hundred wandered over to McKeon. A raucous crowd unnerving fledgling Stanford point guard Sanders is one scenario Gael followers can savor, but a frontcourt beat-down of Saint Mary’s novices is something Stanford fans might be contemplating. Take your pick.