STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — For nearly a year, speculation surrounded Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins and his future at the school if the Cardinal didn't reach the NCAA tournament.
Not that Dawkins let it become pressure or affect his daily preparations — and that unfazed attitude rubbed off on the players, who are now headed to the NCAAs as they planned for all along.
"Coach always tells us never pay attention to what's being said," senior forward Josh Huestis said. "One thing I've really learned about Coach Dawkins is he can stay very focused despite the chaos around him. He doesn't let outside things affect him."
Sure, Dawkins acknowledged his team needed to take the next step after enduring devastating injuries, inconsistent play and its share of late-game collapses that kept the Cardinal from the NCAAs during his first five seasons. Athletic director Bernard Muir made it clear he expected an NCAA tournament berth to measure the progress of Dawkins and his program.
No. 10 seed Stanford (21-12) earned an at-large bid Sunday to face seventh-seeded New Mexico (27-6) on Friday in the South Regional at St. Louis in the program's return to the tournament for the first time since 2008. The berth comes two years after Dawkins led the Cardinal to the NIT championship, but everybody knew the expectations were far bigger than college basketball's second-tier tournament at a school with a rich basketball tradition on the men's and women's side.
"It's been a long time coming for us. I thought our kids really responded, especially our senior class, we talked about leaving our legacy and we wanted to be the team that got us back to the tournament," Dawkins said. "I've been very fortunate in this game, so my approach may be a little different. I wanted our kids to enjoy the experience. I didn't want the weight of the world or expectations to define who we were. I've never let expectations define me."
Players, coaches and families held a private viewing party at Jimmy V's Sports Cafe in the athletic department's Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Sunday. Dawkins and his ecstatic players — who threw arms into the air at the announcement — received high-fives and hugs of congratulations from those in attendance.
That 84-59 loss to conference tournament champion UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals on Friday night can now be forgotten.
And the questions about Dawkins' future, too. At least for now.
"We are indeed excited for Johnny, his staff and most importantly, our student-athletes," Muir said via email Sunday. "They have all worked so very hard to participate in the Madness. It should be a most memorable week ahead."
The pressure has been on the 50-year-old Dawkins from the day he arrived as a top protege of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who leaned on Dawkins as his top assistant for most of the Stanford coach's 11 years on staff at his alma mater.
All along, Dawkins knew he had a rebuilding project that could take a few years. It just took longer than he had hoped, and the athletic director who hired him — Bob Bowlsby — departed in May 2012 to become the Big 12 commissioner.
"Definitely not vindicated, relieved, excited to still be playing," Dawkins said. "I'm more excited about how we got there."
The first thing Dawkins did to reach this point was schedule a tough preseason featuring consecutive games in December at Connecticut, then Michigan three days later in New York. The Cardinal returned experience with its top scorers and all but two players from last season's team that reached the second round of the NIT.
The Cardinal understood the expectations to reach the tournament.
"We definitely felt there was pressure on the future of everyone," said senior Dwight Powell, who returned for his final college season rather than entering the NBA draft last year. "What our team did really well this year was keep the blinders on and stay focused. ... Making it to the tournament and having a successful year, especially as seniors, is something very important and something you'll remember for the rest of your lives."