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Johnny Dawkins insists he feels no pressure despite mandate to land NCAA bid

Johnny Dawkins
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Johnny Dawkins (USATSI)

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LAS VEGAS --- As his assistant coaches stamped their feet, winced or screamed in frustration whenever Stanford made a miscue Wednedsay night, Johnny Dawkins remained mostly calm.

Not even after forward John Gage mistakenly thought he had a teammate in the corner and swung the ball into the first row of seats did Dawkins allow a hint of a grimace to wash over his face.

Dawkins' composure was remarkable considering what was at stake for him during Stanford's 74-63 Pac-12 tournament victory over Washington State. Questions about Dawkins' job security surely would have arisen with a loss considering his streak of five straight seasons without an NCAA bid, the Cardinal's tenuous position on the bubble and the high bar athletic director Bernard Muir set for the program this season.

Muir told the San Jose Mercury News last March that he wants Stanford "to play well into March on the grand stage of March Madness" and "there's a clear expectation that we can do that next year." Even though a loss to a Washington State team ranked 211th in the RPI might have doomed the Cardinal's NCAA tournament hopes, Dawkins insisted he didn't feel any additional pressure because of Muir's comments.

"I've been in this sport a long time," Dawkins said after Wednesday's game. "I don't feel pressured by things like that. I look at that as an opportunity and a challenge. I believe in what he said and I felt the same way. I'd be very disappointed if we didn't accomplish those things because I believe in my guys. I think he said those things because he believes in them as well. I think we're on the same page with that."

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They certainly were on the same page Wednesday night because Muir responded almost the same way minutes earlier when asked to explain why he set the NCAA tournament as a minimum expectation for this season.

"That was Johnny who set that bar," Muir said. "That's his expectation. Everyone expected me to make a move last spring, and I just reiterated what we think is possible for this program."

An NCAA tournament appearance is still possible for Stanford (20-11) this season because it responded with poise and perseverance after Washington State surged in front by three on a Royce Woolridge 3-pointer with 9:26 to go. The Cardinal regained control of the game with a 10-0 run sparked by a pair of 3-pointers from Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown.  

Stanford's victory keeps their resume free of losses to teams outside the RPI top 100. Most mock brackets had Stanford as one of the last teams in the field thanks to quality wins over UConn, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State, but a loss to Washington State (10-21) could have been season-altering.

"We just locked in and refused to lose tonight," Stanford point guard Chasson Randle said. "We heard some stuff about how important this game was, but we don't want to lose any type of game, especially this type of stage and it being the end of the year. We look at every game as being must-win. 

That Stanford could miss the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight season was a scenario nobody would have thought possible when Dawkins was hired in 2008. Many thought the longtime Duke assistant would enjoy enough success at Stanford to emerge as a potential successor for the Blue Devils whenever Mike Krzyzewski retired someday.

It's easy to criticize Dawkins when Stanford had made the NCAA tournament 13 out of 14 years before his arrival, but the truth is it's not that simple.

Trent Johnson left Dawkins with a handful of quality seniors but very little else, forcing the new coach to start a Santa Clara transfer and a walk-on in the front court in his second season and use a freshman laden rotation in his third year. Not surprisingly, Stanford struggled both seasons, twice finishing below .500.

Dawkins did a good job replenishing the Stanford roster after that, landing a top 20 recruiting class highlighted by forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis and guard Anthony Brown in 2010 and luring Illinois native Chasson Randle away from the Big Ten in 2011. Even with his job security in doubt beyond this year, Dawkins did a remarkable job with Stanford's 2014 class, out-dueling Duke, Gonzaga and Minnesota for McDonald's All-American forward Reid Travis and also signing three other Rivals 150 prospects. The problem for Dawkins has been that talent often hasn't translated into success.

The first Stanford team Dawkins inherited featured three returning starters from a Sweet 16 team, future NBA wing Landry Fields and future all-conference forward Josh Owens, yet Stanford went 6-12 in the Pac-12 and settled for a CBI bid. The core of the Stanford team that won the NIT in 2012 returned the past two years, yet the experience-laden Cardinal settled for an NIT bid again last season and have only managed to play their way onto the bubble this season.

Does Dawkins show any signs of feeling pressure behind the scenes? "Not at all," Randle said.

Is Dawkins always as calm as he appears on the sidelines? "He's actually very energetic in practice," Randle said. "I guess you have to watch a practice to see what he's really like. He's a great guy and a great coach. He's definitely helped me a lot since I've been here."

Some of that emotion and enthusiasm from Dawkins revealed itself just after the postgame handshake line Wednesday night.

As he walked to the tunnel, he hugged Powell and gave an exuberant thumbs up to the section of Stanford fans behind the Cardinal bench.

Both Dawkins and Stanford got the win they desperately needed.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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