Before Stanford thrashed Washington State last night, I was up and ready to write an article about the “malaise” of the Stanford men’s basketball program. I was more than ready, in fact.
Although one game doesn’t make a season or a career, I still would have felt a little strange if I’d criticized the program with such a blowout so fresh in my mind. There are, of course, still very good reasons to criticize the team. Stanford’s performance has not been commensurate with its aspirations — it hasn’t made the NCAA tourney in the last five years after going dancing in 15 out of the previous 16. And to a certain extent, Stanford’s fan support has mirrored that performance.
We already know the sad tale of “Maples Malaise” — attendance has nosedived, even in the formerly raucous student section. I personally heard the building get loud during the big win against Oregon last year, but when Stanford hosted the first round of the NIT — not the greatest postseason tourney, but the postseason nonetheless — the crowd was as muted as ever.
When the game started, it didn’t look like anything had changed. A rule of thumb among cameramen is that the tighter and closer the shot, the worse the turnout — and watching on television, at times the video feed was so confined I could barely see the crowd at all. The upper tier of the stands was, as usual, nearly empty. Even attendance in the lower tier was spotty. I’ve seen worse nights at Maples, but this certainly wasn’t anything to write home about.
The team, however, played extremely well last night. In retrospect, the Cardinal’s smooth first possession on offense was a very auspicious sign. Stanford moved the ball wonderfully — its players knew where they were supposed to be, moved off-ball to stretch the defense and passed inside and outside with both accuracy and confidence. Even though effort and execution were not initially rewarded with success, Stanford opened up a big lead in the closing minutes of the first half and blew the game open to begin the second.
There were plenty of good plays, and I will focus on just one. Although Dwight Powell’s huge dunk was a victory celebration in and of itself, Powell’s beautiful pass to a cutting Chasson Randle was the best play of the game and one of the best plays I’ve seen all year on any level. Even though Randle failed to score and had to reset the play, execution like that leads to wins. One play mirrored the entire game. Similarly, Johnny Dawkins would certainly like to see this game as a microcosm of the program over which he presides.
To be honest, pretty much every coach thinks that he’s on the way up. Even after three difficult years at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez was proclaiming that his reinvention of the Michigan football program was on the verge of greatness. And ironically, the year after Rodriguez was fired, the Wolverines rode a senior-laden team to the Sugar Bowl. The example of Michigan is a sign of hope to many coaches who dream of changing a program for the better.
In football, a Sugar Bowl means a successful season. What, though, constitutes success for Stanford? Does beating Washington State once constitute success? Does making the NCAA tournament constitute success? Or what about the tourney once in six years? Does making the Sweet Sixteen constitute success, or the Final Four or the national championship game? What are we prepared to accept? I don’t know, and it’s different for every person. But the empty seats in Maples indicate that what is going on right now, despite last night’s win, is unacceptable. As the season progresses, we will see whether Stanford can put up a season that is, in fact, acceptable.
If Johnny Dawkins can keep Stanford playing like it did last night, he’ll have had a successful season. And consider the context for a moment. Stanford made one NCAA tournament in its entire history — the national championship run in 1942 — before Mike Montgomery took over and revived its fortunes. That is a fact words cannot wipe away. But today’s recruits do not remember that time. They grew up when Stanford was still in the mix for conference championships. They know that Stanford is a good program that is capable of so much. Stanford’s players came here believing that they could raise the Cardinal back to that standard.
I don’t mean to lead this into a discussion of Stanford basketball’s future. I don’t know enough about the situation to comment or to make any concrete recommendations. I will repeat that one game doesn’t make a season, or a season a career. I will also say that if Stanford continues to play as it did against Washington State, tourney or no tourney, this will be a season worth watching.
Winston Shi is currently bedridden with a horrible case of Maples Malaise. Send him your best homeopathic remedies at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.