Stanford won a school-record seven games last March en route to an NIT championship. The Cardinal is aiming to repeat the feat this year, but in the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford is suffering through the school’s longest NCAA Tournament drought since Mike Montgomery took over the program prior to the 1986-87 season. But with one of the strongest backcourts in the Pac-12 Conference, the Cardinal is poised to make a triumphant return to March Madness.
“The NIT win was great for our kids,” coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They gained a lot of experience.”
The Cardinal offense will be fueled by the guard tandem of sophomore Chasson Randle and junior Aaron Bright again this year. Randle led the team in scoring (13.8 points per game) last season while setting a school record for most 3-pointers by a freshman (85). Bright, meanwhile, earned the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player honors coming off the bench. He averaged 16.8 points per game in the tournament while shooting 64.1 percent from the field and an astonishing 66.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Despite their offensive prowess, Randle and Bright rarely play together. Randle is 6-foot-1 and Bright is only 5-11, so they can be a defensive liability in the same backcourt.
“We look at our team as having seven or eight starters,” Dawkins said. “We can put out different combinations because we consider them all starters.”
But the team will need to compensate for the loss of two key players up front: Josh Owens and Andrew Zimmerman. Sophomore Stefan Nastic will take over at center while juniors Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis fill out the forward positions.
At 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, Powell might be the most versatile Cardinal player on the floor. Powell was rated the No. 23 overall high school player in 2010 (Rivals), but he was hobbled by injuries last year. Dawkins expects Powell to make himself known this season.
“He can step outside and knock down a perimeter shot and can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket,” Dawkins said. “He’s a long defender, too.”
Stanford is also expecting big things from Nastic, who spent his summer logging significant minutes for Team Serbia at the Under-20 European Championships. Nastic is averaging only 2.2 points per game in two seasons with the Cardinal, but Dawkins thinks his experience over the summer will make him a more confident player.
“He had to really earn making that team,” Dawkins said. “But by the time the tournament was over, he was playing some pretty good minutes.”
UCLA coach Ben Howland said Huestis could be the conference’s breakout player this season. The 6-foot-7 forward is a “Charlie Hustle type” who changes the dynamic on the floor as soon as he steps into the game.
“I think he could be one of the better defenders in our conference as well as the nation,” Dawkins said.
The Cardinal will play a rigorous schedule this year, taking on 15 teams that qualified for postseason action last season. But Dawkins said it should make them a better squad in March.
“I believe in my kids. I think we can compete,” Dawkins said.