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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 9, 2012

Expectations on the rise for Stanford

by Rick Eymer

This is Johnny Dawkins' team now. These are his players and his system. After winning the Postseason NIT title last year, this could also be the year the Stanford men's basketball team makes a return visit to the NCAA tournament.

The Cardinal, picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 by a vote of the conference coaches, opens its season Friday at Oakland's Oracle Arena against USF at 8 p.m.

Junior guard Aaron Bright (5-11, 178) and sophomore guard Chasson Randle (6-1, 180), who were named team captains, are the top returning players. Randle was the team's leading scorer and Bright was right behind him.

The two are virtually interchangeable at either the point or shooting guard positions. Both are speedy sharpshooters who can also penetrate. Most importantly, both displayed leadership qualities and poise under pressure during the run to the NIT championship.

They'll have plenty of help from the rest of the team, which brings back five of the top six scorers from last season.

The Cardinal will miss the graduated Josh Owens, though Josh Huestis (6-7, 230), John Gage (6-10, 235) and Dwight Powell (6-10, 235) will all likely see their roles expanded.

Of the 16 players on the roster, 12 have seen action for Stanford. In addition to players mentioned, the top returners include senior guard Gabe Harris (6-2, 190) and swing Anthony Brown (6-6, 215), who averaged just over eight points a game last year.

Other returning players include redshirt sophomore Stefan Nastic (6-1, 245), junior guard Robbie Lemons (6-3, 205), fifth-year senior Andy Brown (6-7, 215), sophomore swing Jack Ryan (6-8, 215), and sophomore guard Wade Morgan (6-1, 168).

The incoming class includes junior Elliott Bullock (6-11, 245) and freshmen Christian Sanders (G, 6-4, 185), Rosco Allen (F, 6-9, 215) and Grant Verhoeven (C, 6-9, 240).

Dawkins also added Stanford grad Mark Madsen to the coaching staff, replacing the retired Dick Davey.

This is no small addition. Madsen was an inspirational leader for the Cardinal when he arrived on campus following a two-year Mormon mission in the late 90s. He played the game hard, earning the nickname "Mad Dog."

Madsen helped Stanford reach its first Sweet Sixteen, in 1997, since the 1942 NCAA title team. The Cardinal beat Tim Duncan and Wake Forest in a memorable game in Tucson. A year later, Madsen and company reached the Final Four, and in 1999 Stanford won the conference title.

"I thought we gained a lot of momentum last year," Dawkins said. "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."

And why not? Bright and Randle each averaged in double figures in scoring and the trio of Huestis, Powell and Anthony Brown give the Cardinal a solid presence inside.

"I definitely think the momentum will carry over this year," Bright said. "Towards the end of last year, we just knew our roles, and we wanted to keep playing in the postseason. 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."

The key to the season will be how the post players develop, especially Huestis. Powell struggled with injuries most of last season and could be ready to breakout this time out. Huestis has so much talent that all he needs to do is harness it and work within Dawkins' system.

Brown, Powell and Huestis were all playing well at the end of last season, which could translate into a consistently solid season.

"Dwight is playing a lot more confident right now," Bright said. "I think he knows who he is as a player. He's starting to hit his mid-range jump shot very consistently and you can just see the confidence."

Nastic and Harris are solid role players who can be depended upon for valuable minutes. The freshmen can add to the depth and see significant playing time as Dawkins works his rotation.

"We have seven or eight kids that we need to all view themselves as starters," Dawkins said. "In doing so, we're able to play any of those young men on any given night."

Verhoeven will likely be the top freshman as he can help inside.

"He's going to find his way on to the floor," Dawkins said. "He's physical, he's rugged, and he has a good understanding of the game."

Allen could see playing time because of his versatility.

"I see him playing a versatile role for us," Dawkins said. "He's a young man that can go inside and also go outside. He can step out and shoot the 3, but he also can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. He's still growing and he needs to get a little stronger."

Stanford plays its home opener Monday night at 8:30 p.m., when Cal State Fullerton visits. The Cardinal also hosts Alcorn State on Thursday at 6 p.m.

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