NCAA Basketball Stanford Cardinal

5 Things Stanford Baketball Must Do to Make 2014 NCAA Tournament

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Cardinal Flying High: 5 Things Stanford Must Do to Make the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanford Cardinal are starving.

Absent from the NCAA Tournament since 2008, talk of head coach Johnny Dawkins being on the hot seat have grown from careless whispers to bold statements. The patience of local media and its fanbase has grown thin, but those aren't the only voices he should be concerned about.

After losing 89-88 to Arizona State in the opening game of last season's Pac-12 Tournament, AD Bernard Muir pretty much let it be known that mediocrity would not be accepted during his tenure. Dawkins was surprisingly granted a one-year extension, basically serving as an ultimatum to win or be terminated.

You can't blame the Cardinal faithful for sharing these sentiments, as they witnessed the program reach the NCAA tournament 13 of 14 seasons before the Dawkins regime. A huge sign of encouragement bloomed during the 2011-12 season as they finished 26-11 and won the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The expected next step of progression was a bump up to the Big Dance. However, inconsistency continued to plague them, resulting in a return trip to the NIT and 19-15 finish. This also resulted in drop in home attendance for the fifth straight season.

Outside of a small hiccup in late December/early January in which they lost three of four games, the Cardinal find themselves in probably their best position of attaining a tournament bid in several seasons. They now have five wins over the top 50, highlighted by a non-conference win at Connecticut and Saturday's victory over conference foe UCLA.

With a record of 18-8 and 9-5 in the Pac-12, many experts have them penciled in as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed. They have back-to-back games with the respective Arizona schools upcoming. A split should be enough to get the Cardinal program back to the level they've been accustomed to, but it would behoove them to obtain as many wins as they can before Selection Sunday.

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5. Stay Hot

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After a three-point home loss to then No. 1 Arizona (60-57), the Cardinal are in the middle of playing their best basketball of the season. They've won five of their last six games by an average of 12 points. In fact, the Cardinal have been fairly consistent most of the year, losing two games in a row just once this season.

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4. Hustle and Grind

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

So far, this Cardinal team isn't the one we've seen in recent years. They have five wins over the top 50 in their pocket and own ratings of 41 and 51 in RPI and strength of schedule respectively. Their mid-week clash with Arizona State, which is also trying to march into the tourney, could be an absolute war. It topped the Sun Devils earlier this season, 76-70.

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3. Remember the Incentive

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Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Dawkins knows his future employment rests on receiving a tournament nod. He has a good group of kids now. If he's able to keep his team interested and they have a good showing, that will boost the morale of the entire program. In addition, Dawkins and his staff were able to sign four players from the 2014 Top 100 class. A solid run in the postseason would be a serious swing in momentum for next year.

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2. Rely On Veteran Leadership

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The Cardinal returned over 95 percent of their scoring and rebounding from last season, and that leadership is beginning to show. The decision by Dwight Powell to return for his senior season was a smart one, as the Canadian-born power forward continues to fill out his frame but is extremely quick and mobile for his size. Guard Chasson Randle continues to grow leaps and bounds, perhaps giving everyone a glimpse of the near future with a career-high seven 3-pointers against UCLA. He's also increased his scoring average from 13.6 to 18.8 and is a much improved shooter.

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1. Don't Get Overconfident

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Staying aggressive and playing with purpose are a must. All this weekend, they've probably been receiving congratulations for beating UCLA, but there's still work to do. After back-to-back games with at Arizona State and at Arizona, the Cardinal still have to face Colorado and Utah, two other teams seeking at-large selections. This has been the deepest the conference has been in awhile, where as many as five to six teams (other than Arizona and UCLA) are considered threats to land in the tournament.