…to win some media respect?
Things were set up nicely for the Saint Mary’s brand Sunday night: on hand was a loud and energetic crowd — immeasurably improved by the presence of the SMC rugby team — a phalanx of open computers lined up on media row, and the welcome sight of an ESPN television crew trying to get a word in edgewise midst the rowdy Gael Force contingent.
Unfortunately, we got ESPN’s third string, and it had a specific mission that had little to do with re-establishing Gael hoops credibility after two shaky seasons. ESPNU, which trails he main ESPN crew and ESPN2 in prestige and quality, sent us Adrian Branch and some other guy whose name I didn’t recognize.
Branch is a pleasant enough fellow, and he seemed to get the idea that Joe Rahon was inflicting major damage on the Stanford Cardinal. But Branch brought a history with Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins into McKeon Pavilion, and was determined to share that with viewers whether they wanted it or not.
Branch and Dawkins were DC-area high school phenoms in the 80s, Dawkins at DC’s Macklin High and Branch at DeMatha under its legendary coach Morgan Wooten in the Maryland suburbs. Branch stayed local and went to Maryland, where he helped the Terrapins win the 1984 ACC championship. He was a second-round NBA pick and won a championship as a reserve for the 1987 Lakers. He later drifted to Australia and other foreign locations, and hooked up with ESPN in 2007.
Dawkins followed a more illustrious path, first with Duke where he became the national player of the year in 1986, and later with a nine-year NBA career. He is well-respected by former players and among U.S. coaching ranks, and has had sporadic success at Stanford. A Sweet 16 run and two NIT Championships have been the highlights of his tenure on the farm.
But a balanced view of his Stanford tenure reveals a lot of 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th-place finishes in the Pac-12, and his current team was picked to finish 9th this year. You would not know that from Branch’s glowing intro of Dawkins and his persistent praise throughout a game that wasn’t going so well for Stanford.
He was enamored of comparing Dawkins to the NFL’s Tony Dungy, because he “walks softly but carries a big stick.” It was bad enough that he was borrowing a hoary political slogan from President Theodore Roosevelt, but worse was the empirical evidence to cited to support that claim: that Dawkins is the fourth winningest coach in the Pac-12.
Dawkins is entering his eighth year at Stanford, which makes him one of the most senior coaches in the conference. Even casual fans know there are new or relatively new coaches at Cal, Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington State, Oregon, Utah, UCLA, Colorado and USC. Only Arizona and Washington have what could be called long-running coaches, so how was that statistic as the fourth most successful c0ach compiled? Against a bunch of guys who haven’t been on the job as long as he? Who knows. It was an ESPN factoid and Branch was running with it.
The pity, from a Saint Mary’s point of view, was that he could have made a convincing case for conference longevity and success by taking a look at Dawkins’ opponent Sunday night, a guy named Bennett. That Bennett was kicking Dawkins’ posterior in the coaching department didn’t keep ESPN from giving the Gael coach short shrift. Dawkins’ most penetrating analysis was that Bennett seemed concerned with the game’s outcome even after the Gaels compiled a healthy lead. I guess he would have preferred a Red Auerbach cigar-lighting moment.
About the game
Even Branch’s Dawkins fetish couldn’t hide the excellence of the Gaels’ effort Sunday night. It is not true that Rahon could have defeated the Cardinal all by himself, but it sure looked that way at times. Whether the Gaels had a brilliant scouting report or some internal voice told Rahon that the center of Stanford’s defense was softer than the pumpkin pie served in the Soda Center before the game, he scored at will in the paint.
A guy who took only four shots in the Gaels’ 89-63 win over Manhattan last Monday, was 11-16 against Stanford, with only one of those coming from outside the paint. When a Stanford defender finally blocked one of Rahon’s drives in the closing moments, he couldn’t hide a smile that seemed to say, “Okay, I’ll give you one.”
The photo above, courtesy of Gael photographer Tod Fierner, is emblematic of Rahon’s slicing and dicing job on the Cardinal.
Emmett Naar was only slightly less effective than Rahon, putting the emphasis on the long ball rather than the paint. Naar hit two three-point daggers in the latter part of the second half that removed any thoughts of a Stanford comeback. The usually self-contained Aussie was so excited after the second one — pumping his fists and swinging his arms — that a referee ran over to prevent him from decapitating any of the Stanford players.
Many players deserve credit for the Gael win besides Rahon and Naar, but I was impressed most by Evan Fitzner. Whether scoring 15 points on 4-6 shooting, flying around the basket after rebounds or giving a shooting clinic with his 5-5 free throw performance, Fitzner was a force. The stat sheet credited him with only 6 rebounds, but he had his hands on many more in a relentless pursuit of any airborne basketball. I was going to give him credit for shutting down Stanford’s Rosco Allen (1-5, two points), but closer analysis showed several Gaels combining to keep Allen — one of Stanford’s biggest weapons — from becoming a factor. The Gaels exposed many weaknesses in Stanford, but Allen’s complete non-productivity was the biggest.
It is a shame that Branch and ESPN combined to make the telecast a bouquet to Dawkins, but the Gaels’ performance was good enough to erase any bad memories.