MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Why now? Why not sooner?

Perhaps you have been scratching your head and asking the same questions.

Yes, Stanford is really here at the Sweet 16. Yes, the men's team. Witnessed it Wednesday.

The Cardinal players held their public practice session at the FedEx Forum. They looked confident. They looked strong. They looked prepared for Thursday's game against Dayton.

Stanford's success in this month's NCAA tournament has been justifiable grounds for joy. But it is also grounds for puzzlement.

Many of these players are the same ones from last year's team. Some are from the 2011-12 team that won the NIT title. Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis are seniors who were part of a ballyhooed recruiting class as freshmen.

Yet this is the team's first NCAA appearance in six seasons under coach Johnny Dawkins, let alone the first Sweet 16 trip since 2008. So why didn't this group get here before 2014?

Stefan Nastic, the junior redshirt center, admits he pondered that last spring, when he sat on his couch at his apartment and, because many teammates left campus during spring break, would watch NCAA games on television alone, frustrated. He finally decided that it was just a matter of not being quite good enough. He used that to fuel an offseason of extra training and skill sessions on footwork and shooting and strength.

"It's been a process," Nastic said. "It happens quicker for some teams."

Huestis opened up Wednesday about his own way of dealing with that process.


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"When the season ends the past three years the way it has for us, and you haven't made the NCAA tournament, you think about all the things that kept you out of it," Huestis said. "The biggest difference for us this time is just the experience we've gained over those past three years. We've got a lot of guys that have played in so many games and been in so many different situations that now, we've been able to close out certain games and situations that we weren't able to in the past."

Is it that simple? It could be that simple. Go figure. Even at Stanford young men who are 19 and 20 years old can shockingly make the mistake of being 19 and 20 years old.

"I just think that we weren't ready, you know, those years before," Huestis said. "We weren't ready to make this step into the NCAA tournament. It happened now. And better late than never for us."

A chunk of the team's followers wonder, though, if Dawkins was also not ready to take the step because he, too, was learning on the job. Wednesday, in refreshingly candid remarks, Dawkins more or less confirmed that perception. His years as a Duke assistant, understandably, convinced him that the Duke hoops template was the preferred template.

"When I first came to Stanford," Dawkins said, "I had an idea in my mind of how I wanted to play and how we wanted to compete. I was coming in with some preconceived notions of, 'We're going to pick up full court, we're going to pressure everyone and get after these guys, and we're going to play a certain system offensively.' "

And?

"I found that not to be the right system for this group," Dawkins said. "I had to readjust as a coach, and I had to grow. My growth was being able to listen and look at new things and say, 'OK, how do you devise a system that's going to maximize who these guys are?' And we started making those adjustments."

The adjustments were both subtle and major. Dawkins isn't going to open up his playbook and explain them all, especially on the cusp of reaching the Elite Eight. But a phone call was placed to Dick Davey, the former Santa Clara coach who served as Dawkins' top assistant before retiring two years ago. Davey has been watching every Stanford game and was happy to talk about some strategic elements of Stanford's progress.

Among those elements: More comfort and eagerness to play zone defenses. A familiarity of the triangle offense. The way Chasson Randle has embraced point guard duties.

When Davey sees the television close-ups of the players, though, he observes a more visceral change.

"What strikes me is how they've been coming with a tougher mental attitude toward how to play to win games," Davey said. "The fact they hadn't made it to the NCAA tournament gave them determination," Davey said. "I think that frustrated some of the guys, gave the team something to prove."

In other words, both they and Dawkins had to mature. That simple.

"It's nice to see him smile after the game," Davey said of his old boss.

Why now? Why not sooner? Should we dwell on that at this point, if proper lessons have been learned? Or should we just enjoy the smile?

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

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INSIDE
  • Dayton getting far more bench production, but will it play a factor? PAGE 4
  • A preview of Thursday's games.
    PAGE 5