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Blanchat: Delighted with Dawkins

Just a few months ago, I was ready to see the day that Johnny Dawkins got fired.

 

For a kid who grew up watching the Stanford basketball team make it into March Madness every year from 1994 to 2008 (with the lone exception of the 2005-06 season), it was painful to watch Cardinal basketball the past few seasons–three years in a row, Dawkins’ squad finished seventh or worse in the Pac-10. And after last year’s effort, I was hoping that the Stanford basketball team would have another bad season this year so the Cardinal could move on from Dawkins’ regime and begin its return to respectability.

 

I hit rock bottom as a Stanford basketball fan last year. On a nightly basis, my rage would boil every time I saw Jeremy Green jack up another terrible three-pointer while Dawkins sat placidly on the bench. If Dawkins was going to sit there like a man checking stocks on his iPad while his team played subpar basketball, I was not going to support the team any longer.

 

But lo and behold, halfway through the 2011-12 season, my feelings have changed. In his fourth year as head coach for the Cardinal, things have finally crystallized for Dawkins’ squad–and I couldn’t be happier about it. The Stanford basketball team is back.

 

In case you haven’t realized, the Cardinal basketball team is 15-3 overall, tied for first in the Pac-12 and in good position to make the NCAA tournament. The 15 wins in 18 games have already tied the Cardinal’s win total from the entirety of last season. Now, the Pac-12 has proven to be a very weak conference this season, but Dawkins deserves to be commended for finally delivering a team that looks like a winner back to the Farm.

 

The most remarkable thing about the Cardinal’s transformation from “very mediocre with a lot of major question marks” to “pretty darn good” is that Dawkins was able to finally make it happen in just one year with pretty much the exact same team. So just how has he done it?

 

First, the addition of freshman guard Chasson Randle coupled with the departure of Jeremy Green has made the Cardinal’s backcourt infinitely better. Although Green led the team in points per game last season with 16.2 per contest, the Cardinal are far better off now than they were last season when  Green ran the show.

 

Simply put, Randle does all the things that Green never did last season–like pass the basketball occasionally. Last year, Green averaged just one assist per game. Just one. Randle averages 2.3 per game. It’s amazing how having a guard who creates opportunities for other players changes just how successful your team is. Additionally, Randle is the third-leading scorer on the team, with his 12.2 points per game essentially making up for Green’s scoring ability.

 

Second, Dawkins appears to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his team much better this season. Notably, this means that sophomores John Gage and Josh Huestis have earned far more playing time, and their energy and scoring ability have been a critical part of the Cardinal’s success. Gage averages three more minutes of playing time per game this year–and has even gotten some starts the last few weeks–while Huestis’ playing time has gone up from 9.9 minutes per game to 20.9 minutes per game. Although this has affected Dwight Powell and Jarrett Mann’s playing time, one can hardly argue with the results.

 

Finally, I’d like to think fans like me, who were becoming disgruntled with the team’s recent performances, had something to do with the transformation as well. But I also know Johnny Dawkins would never admit that the hot seat was getting to him, even if it were true. But when I watch him prowl up and down the sidelines with a little more spring in his step or wave his arms to pump up the crowd (like he did last Thursday against Utah), I have to believe that Dawkins knew he had to deliver a winner this season. And he has.

 

In sum, it’s clear to me that this team, under Dawkins’ leadership, has finally turned a corner. Even though his team is far from being one of the best in Stanford history, the Cardinal looks primed to return to being the program that was always competitive in the Pac-10 during the Mike Montgomery era. For a fan who was as bitter as I was last season, this is a big step. But I have to admit it now, because my Grinch-sized heart has grown three sizes–and Johnny Dawkins’ head is a long way away from the chopping block.

 

Despite his revived enthusiasm, Jack Blanchat still can’t understand how a Division 1 basketball team can be so terrible at shooting free throws. Send pointers to blanchat@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @jmblanchat.