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Thursday, September 1, 2011
Updated: September 2, 10:57 AM ET
Can Stanford hoops regain its status?

By Diamond Leung
ESPN.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- The talk at Stanford isn't about treading water.

When Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins had Skip Kenney, the school's Hall of Fame men's swimming coach, address his players before basketball practice on Monday afternoon, the topic was the importance of team chemistry.

Kenney's credentials? His teams have captured 30 consecutive Pac-10 championships. Given the Farm's long history of producing NCAA titles (101 in all) and top scholars, the basketball team can simply learn by osmosis that excellence at the school is an expectation.

"We always have high expectations here," said Dawkins, whose team departs for its preseason tour of Spain on Saturday. "That's the nature of this university in every facet, whether it's academically, whether it's athletically. You look at the programs here and the success they've had. That goes along with the territory.

"For me, it's more exciting. You want to have expectations. That means that you have a chance to accomplish something. For us, having those expectations going into our fourth season, we're excited about the challenge."

Johnny Dawkins and Mike Montgomery
The Cardinal enjoyed unprecedented success under Mike Montgomery (right). Things have not gone as well under Johnny Dawkins.

But can the rest of the campus say the same? While the Cardinal features plenty of young talent and is poised to improve in the first year of the Pac-12, the program is looking to rebound following a 15-16 campaign that resulted in its first back-to-back losing seasons in 25 years.

Not long ago, the bouncy floor at sold-out Maples Pavilion represented the program's pulsating vibe during a Mike Montgomery era that saw Stanford reach the NCAA tournament for 10 consecutive years.

Mark Madsen did a little shake after his game-winning dunk in a comeback win against Rhode Island that sent the Cardinal to the 1998 Final Four. First Daughter Chelsea Clinton used to cheer on her school from the student section. Tiger Woods attended games, including the one against Arizona that ended on Nick Robinson's midcourt buzzer-beater that was so memorably captured by Brent Musberger and Dick Vitale. Back when the team earned numerous No. 1 national rankings, the tree mascot simply danced with more of a spring in its step.

But since Trent Johnson left for LSU following a trip with twins Brook and Robin Lopez to the Sweet 16 in 2008, Dawkins has yet to lead Stanford to the NCAA tournament. And in a complete role reversal, the school's football program went from laughingstock to the talk of the town during Jim Harbaugh's four-year reign that yielded a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists (RB Toby Gerhart, QB Andrew Luck) and upset wins against powerhouse USC. In Harbaugh's final game, Luck and the Cardinal capped off a 12-1 season with a win in the Orange Bowl.

When the Cardinal open their season Saturday against San Jose State, they will do so as the nation's No. 7 team, their highest preseason rank since 1950.

What a difference a few years make.

"The buzz was Stanford basketball," said Cardinal radio color analyst Drew Shiller, a Burlingame, Calif. native who played for Johnson and Dawkins. "It ruled on campus. The players walked around and were recognizable. That has totally shifted to football. It's all about Andrew Luck. It's all about the Orange Bowl. Look what Harbaugh did. They deserve it. Basketball does not have the same stature.

"In the last five years, the thunder of the program has gone away. Winning -- first and foremost -- will get that back."

While the football team ranks seventh nationally, the men's basketball team hasn't finished higher than seventh in the Pac-10 since Dawkins arrived from Duke. The Cardinal has been dealt numerous setbacks. Despite Landry Fields developing into the conference's scoring and rebounding champion in 2009-10, the team was hampered by the loss of key forward Josh Owens for the entire year due to an undisclosed medical condition. Last season, Stanford played 10 freshmen and had no seniors. In the spring, leading scorer Jeremy Green was placed on academic suspension and then unexpectedly turned pro.

As an example of how the program could overcome, Dawkins has at times pointed to the success over at Stanford Stadium and noted how the football team persevered through the lean years with commitment and hard work. "They, too, had that period where they turned it around," Owens said. "They stayed the course and in three or four years they kept making progress, kept making progress, and boom. Like Coach always preaches, 'Stay the course, follow the plan and it'll work out.'"

Dawkins isn't accustomed to losing. He was the national player of the year in 1986 while leading Duke to the national championship game. He eventually coached under Mike Krzyzewski, helping Duke win it all in 2001.

What Dawkins has done well is recruit. He brought in ESPNU's 18th-ranked recruiting class in 2010 and then added top-100 recruit Chasson Randle as a freshman to this year's team. Stanford gave Dawkins a two-year contract extension in July, and now the pressure is on after a couple of rebuilding seasons.

"For me, it's one of those things where I'm never satisfied with being just mediocre," Dawkins said. "It's not what I come from. It's not what I know. And so, of course, it's tough. It's tough. But you also have to realize there is a process. It just doesn't happen overnight.

"We've paid the price with some of the things we've gone through. From that, I think we're building a stronger chemistry. We're building our culture through all the things that we're facing. Because of that, things will be better when that time comes. Then we can turn the corner."

Brown/Powell
Rising sophomore Dwight Powell (left) and Anthony Brown are keys to the rebuilding effort at Stanford.

Having a team stocked with returning players that is only missing Green is reason for optimism. The 6-foot-8 Owens came back from his year away to average 11.6 points and a team-leading 6.5 rebounds, and he has senior leadership capability as the last vestige of Johnson's Sweet 16 team.

After making the Pac-10 all-freshman team, swingman Anthony Brown and forward Dwight Powell are looking to make a jump, with Brown gaining valuable experience on the USA Under-19 world championship team this summer. Point guard Aaron Bright is another player in the sophomore class that showed potential and cracked the starting lineup last season. Randle is a combo guard who is expected to receive major minutes in a backcourt that also includes senior Jarrett Mann.

Dawkins also hopes to get contributions from players coming back from season-ending injuries. Stefan Nastic, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman, should be able to play during the trip to Spain after being limited to five games last season by a stress fracture in his right foot. Andy Brown is expected to be available in October after the junior twice tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, forcing him to redshirt the past two seasons.

"It's a good recipe for Stanford to really break out and finish in the upper-echelon of the Pac-12," said Shiller, who played for the Cardinal in Dawkins' first two seasons. "He's recruited well, has brought players along and developed them. Everything seems to be there, but he needs to now get the results."

Randle, a big part of Stanford's future, doesn't remember much about the Montgomery era, but he is old enough to remember watching the success of the program on television back home in Illinois.

"I always thought I would come to Stanford," said Randle, who rooted for Josh Childress and the Lopez twins. "They sent the first questionnaire I ever got. I was in the backyard shooting and counting down: '3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Stanford wins.'

Stanford wins? After back-to-back losing seasons, that would certainly be a welcome change on The Farm.

"We've had back-to-back losing seasons," Randle said, "and everybody's mentality is, 'We got to get it done this year, make a statement, bring things back to where they were before.'"

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.