SAN FRANCISCO – Johnny Dawkins finally showed some progress with a roster full of players he recruited last season. Stanford got a taste of winning big again, and the Cardinal even hoisted a national trophy following their final game.
Just not the one they had hoped.
After a strong finish last season culminated in an NIT tournament title, expectations are even bigger for Dawkins entering his fifth season on The Farm. Despite finishing 26-11 last season to end two straight losing years, there is still one major void on his coaching resume: an NCAA tournament appearance.
"I thought we gained a lot of momentum last year," Dawkins said Thursday at Pac-12 media day in the conference's new network studios in downtown San Francisco. "Winning the NIT was great for this group. But winning our last eight out of ten games was terrific. I thought our kids played best at the end. And a number of those kids are returning, so I'm very excited about our potential this upcoming season."
Stanford still will face a daunting task to supplant Arizona, UCLA and California at the top of the conference or reach its first NCAA tournament since 2008. All three were picked ahead of the Cardinal in the preseason media poll.
Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright highlight a brilliant backcourt that should help ease the losses of frontcourt staples Josh Owens and Andrew Zimmerman. Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis' roles will increase, and so will others' from a young team that started to blossom last spring.
The Cardinal posted their best win total since that 28-8 campaign in 2007-08. Despite finishing seventh in the conference, the deep NIT run helped Stanford finish with the most victories of any conference team.
"Definitely, I think the momentum will carry over this year," Bright said. "Toward the end of last year, I think guys just offensively and defensively, we just knew our roles and we just wanted to play in the postseason. So offensively guys were making the right play and we didn't really care who scored. We were making the extra pass and guys were taking the shot.
"And then defensively, we relied on our help, and with that came us getting a lot of stops. And I think it will definitely carry over to this next year."
Dawkins, the former Duke star and assistant coach, needed a big season last year just to silence critics calling for his job.
After going 20-14 in his first season at Stanford, he went 14-18 and 15-16 in his next two. One successful year might not be enough to quiet everybody, but it has helped in other areas, including recruiting.
Even prep star Jabari Parker, who plays for Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, plans to visit Stanford Nov. 9-11. All the other programs on his final list — Michigan State, Duke, Florida and Brigham Young — have been among college basketball's best.
While it's still a long shot to land Parker, the fact Stanford is even being considered shows how far Dawkins has come.
He also hired former Stanford standout Mark Madsen, who played nine years in the NBA with the Lakers and Minnesota and won two titles in Los Angeles, as an assistant coach this season. He even got Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to give a pregame pep talk before an NIT game last season at Madison Square Garden.
After Lewis tore his right triceps earlier this month and was lost for the season, Stanford players taped a video message wishing the linebacker well. That's about the most Dawkins or any player wants to look back now.
With a nonconference schedule that includes No. 6 North Carolina State, No. 15 Missouri and potentially second-ranked Louisville should Stanford advance past the Tigers in the "Battle 4 Atlantis" tournament in the Bahamas, the Cardinal have enough to worry about on the horizon.
"We had great success last year," Dawkins said. "But what we want to do is we have the ability this year to play different lineups. What we have told our players, we have seven or eight kids that we need to all view themselves as starters, and in doing so we're able to play any of those young men on any given night to help us based on matchups and based on what we're trying to do out there on the floor."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP