Coaxing 14 wins out of a talent-starved roster may not have won Stanford's Johnny Dawkins any coach of the year awards last year, but he probably deserved more credit considering everything the Cardinal endured.
Their roster featured only six healthy players who began their careers on scholarship. Their frontcourt consisted of three former walk-ons and a Santa Clara transfer. At one point they plucked the backup quarterback off the football team to provide guard depth and a practice body even though he hadn't played organized basketball in four years.
Expectations will be a little higher in the future at Stanford thanks to the arrival of a six-man recruiting class that some consider the best in the Pac-10. Six-foot-6 wing Anthony Brown, one of the jewels of that class, recently joined me to discuss how he chose Stanford, what impact he thinks the freshmen can make on the program and why he feels the Cardinal are being overlooked entering the new season:
JE: Stanford needed an infusion of talent after Landry Fields graduated and all of the depth issues on last year's team. How much optimism is there around the program with the arrival of this freshman class?
AB: I think there's a lot of optimism and a lot of excitement. The coaching staff is really looking forward to working with us, but they always stress we have a great class on paper but until we put it on the floor, it means nothing. But I think we have all the pieces we need to make a run at the NCAA tournament and the Pac-10 championship.
More from The Dagger's Pac-10 Preview
• MONDAY: Arizona point guard MoMo Jones emerging as a leader
• TUESDAY: Pac-10 projections, five storylines to watch
• WEDNESDAY: 15 must-see Pac-10 games
• THURSDAY: Q&A with Stanford freshman Anthony Brown
• FRIDAY: Ex-Pac-10 player forecasts the league
JE: Do you guys feel you're a little overlooked heading into the season?
AB: I feel we're very overlooked. Not many people know about Josh Owens because he didn't play last season. They didn't really have a lot of bodies last year, so this year because we have so many guys and so many good prospects, we're only going to be better. As soon as we get some experience under our belt, we're going to be a well-oiled machine.We're all healthy and we're all hungry.
JE: What were you focused on improving this summer to get ready for the season?
AB: My main focus for the summer was to put on the pounds and the functional strength to get through the physical grind of the Pac-10. That was a big focus for all of the freshman. Every freshman who comes in is not at a college level strength-wise.
JE: Take me back to your recruiting process. What did you like about Coach Dawkins?
AB: What I liked about coach Dawkins was that he was so persistent. There was a stretch during my junior year that I had a bunch of single-digit scoring games. Some of the other colleges were like 'We're not really sure of him,' but Dawkins was always sure. He could always see my potential. He knew it wasn't always about scoring. It's about making plays and being aggressive. And then him coming from Duke and USA basketball was a big plus.
JE: How important was it that Stanford had consistently recruited you for a couple years whereas other schools came in later?
AB: That was a really big difference maker. Midway through the process, I decided I wanted to stay on the West Coast. Stanford had always been in the picture since my sophomore year. UCLA and Cal tried to get in there late. It was a really tough decision, but looking back I think I made the right choice.
JE: How do you see your role this season and do you see a chance at a starting job right away?
AB: I do see a chance at the starting spot. I see my role as doing some of the stuff that Landry did, although obviously not to the level he did as a senior. Rebounding, defending, hitting open shots, always playing hard and still being aggressive. I'm not going to be passive just because I'm a freshman. I'm going to be aggressive because it should open up space for everyone else on the floor.
JE: Not that you're going to put up 20 a game like Landry did last year, but do you see his career as a model for what you can do at Stanford?
AB: I do see that. Seeing him transform from his freshman year to his senior year, he got so much better, so much stronger and he learned so much. He told me that Dawkins helped him so much in only the two years that he was there. Obviously, he's in the league now and he's succeeding, so I'd like to emulate what he's done.
JE: When you have as many newcomers as you guys do, how do you build team chemistry over the summer so you're meshing by the start of the season?
AB: That's really key. We don't want to just have chemistry between the freshmen, so when we played pick-up games, we never played with freshmen against upperclassmen. We'd mix it up because we wanted to develop chemistry between all the players. We're learning every day where the upperclassmen like the ball and what they do, so our chemistry is getting there. I can say that.
JE: How has Josh Owens looked coming off sitting out last season? Has there been any rust?
AB: I don't think he's looked rusty at all. I think he's added a few more dimensions to his game. Jump hooks. 17-foot jump shots. He's going to be a real big surprise to the Pac-10.
JE: The national perception of you guys is that you're probably a year away from making the NCAA tournament and contending in the conference. Is that something you guys think you can do sooner rather than later?
AB: Oh yeah, the goal is to make the tournament and I think we will make the tournament and we should make the tournament. I don't think that age is that big of a thing in college basketball. I know there are a lot of freshman who make an impact. We have a lot of pieces. We have athleticism, we have shooting, we have slashing ability. We're working on our defense. The Pac-10 is wide open now. If we go in with an open mind and do well in the preseason, who knows what will happen?