Can Stanford play spoiler in the Pac-12?

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There was a time when UCLA’s incoming class of freshmen — considered by some to be the best haul in the nation — would have been given a year of seasoning before they were expected to win any titles. Thanks to John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats, instant gratification is the rule of the day.

If the Bruins don’t have what it takes, who takes up the flag for the Pac-12?

Sean Miller’s Arizona team has garnered some buzz, but the addition of Mark Lyons from Xavier could be a boon or a locker room time bomb, by all accounts.  Washington has lost two superb players in Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, and California’s lineup is still a bit of a cypher. So, it’s worth asking, why not Stanford?

Johnny Dawkins might not get headlines for his recruiting, but he’s done a very solid job bringing in smart, capable players who aren’t in a huge hurry to flee for the pro game – quite an oddity in the Pac-12 these days. Seattle Times writer Bud Withers laid out the case for the Cardinal in a recent column:

Johnny Dawkins may finally be figuring it out at Stanford. And, you could say he better, since the Cardinal hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since Trent Johnson left. The Cardinal won the NIT, but as I pointed out in a blog late in March, success the year after being prominent in the NIT is a bit of a myth; of the 24 finalists in the NIT from 2000-11, only five won one or more games in the NCAA tournament the following year.

But Stanford won’t have many excuses. It returns five of its top six scorers, missing only Josh Owens (11.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg). The key seems to be whether forward Dwight Powell fills out his potential and how quickly promising recruit Grant Verhoeven is a factor. The Nos. 1-2 scorers, guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright of Bellevue, shot .438 and .436, respectively, on threes. Cardinal will find out early how good it is, playing over Thanksgiving weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas alongside Duke, Louisville, Memphis, Minnesota and Missouri.

To my mind, Randle is the key. The highly-rated Illinois native bypassed nearby programs to bring his brainy game to Palo Alto, and he’s proven quite capable of running the point and scoring at a decent clip. With another year under his belt, and a strong if possibly underrated supporting cast, don’t be surprised to see Stanford back in the Big Dance this season.