Stanford's Sweet 16 run is the result of many factors, a veteran laden team playing stingy defense and clicking at the right time. But not to be overlooked is the evolution of its head coach, who has grown in his role along with many of his players.
"(During my time at Stanford) I learned that personnel is very important from the standpoint of who you have and what they're capable of doing," Dawkins said. "You have to really be focused on that because a lot of times you may want to do things as a coach with your team but your team is not built for that. And so you have to understand how they can be successful. That was the thing that was something I had to learn over a couple of years, how to maximize who they are. And that's what I think we're fortunate to be able to do with the group that we have."
Perhaps no Stanford player has benefited more from that philosophy than Stefan Nastic, who has flourished in the Cardinal's triangle offense. The redshirt junior center has keyed Stanford's tournament run with his efficient play in the post - Nastic is 9-11 from the field in the NCAA's.
"We saw it in him last year," Dawkins said. "It was just unfortunate that it didn't fully develop. He started for us at the beginning of last season because we believed in him and we saw his potential. And he just struggled early on to really be successful in our offense. Part of I think his success is, one, we went back to him and we told him he needed to continue to improve, which he did this offseason. And, two, we changed our offense. We kind of restructured what we do. He's really been one of the main beneficiaries of that."
Nastic managed to put the struggles of past seasons behind him to have a career year.
"He was of course disappointed," Dawkins said. "He didn't play much most of the season (last year) after starting. So like any young man, you have two roads to travel. You have the road of, 'I feel sorry for myself and this isn't fair or right' and you don't improve. Or you take the other path where you go you know what, there's reason why I wasn't playing. I'm going to take full responsibility for that and I'm going to go out there and attack the problem and I'm going to get better."
After Dwight Powell's strong junior season, Stanford received an evaluation that would have roughly projected where the forward would have been selected in the NBA Draft. But when one of the Cardinal's assistant coaches approached Powell offering to share the information, he declined.
"He said, 'Coach I don't even want to see it,'" Dawkins recalled. "I'm not going anywhere."
As a result, Powell will obtain his Stanford degree before embarking on a professional career.
"He came here to get a Stanford degree and that's what he's going to do," Dawkins said. "Like I said, I couldn't be any more prod of him for that. For that young man who lost his mom last year, that was one of her wishes. We want to make sure we see that through."
Powell accomplished another one of his goals by staying for his senior season: experiencing March Madness.
"There are a lot of reasons I wanted to stay," Powell said. "One was to get my degree. That was definitely one of my goals coming to this school. There's a great value in education and this school provides a great one, so to not leave here with a degree would be a shame. Also, I wanted to make it to the tournament. That was a major goal coming here being in the Pac-12, a great conference, and at that time going three years and not making it to the tournament was painful. That was definitely a reason I wanted to come back to have this experience we're having now.
"We've been working for this since we got to the school, the freshmen since the day they stepped foot on campus this year and us for a long time now. We've put a lot of hours into preparing for the experience we're having right now and the games we played and the games we have coming up."
The No. 11 seed in the South region, Dayton's Sweet 16 run has been just as unexpected as Stanford's, if not more so. The Flyers used a solid defense and balanced scoring to upset Ohio State and Syracuse in the first two rounds of the tournament.
"They're a very good basketball team," Dawkins said. "They have a lot of depth. From what I could see from watching the games that I saw recently, (they're) a very tough team. Really physical. They get after you. Offensively, they're a transition (team), they like to run when they have the opportunity. But when they do set up offensively they execute well. They're a good basketball team. They have good players, almost two players at every position. They're a deep team. They have real balanced scoring. But they have some seniors that are very good that have led them and they've won some big games."
Stopping Dayton's up-tempo attack will be key for the Cardinal.
"They really like to push the ball up the floor so transition defense for us is going to be key and rebounding and matching their physicality as well," Chasson Randle said.
The Cardinal has defended at a high level thus far in the postseason. A large portion of Stanford's defensive success against Kansas in particular was attributable to the Cardinal's effective use of the zone. First-year Stanford assistant Tim O'Toole deserves much of the credit for implementing it.
"(Coach O'Toole) has been a big influence in that because I'm a man-to-man (coach)," Dawkins said. "With him coming from Syracuse having played 2-3 zone and having worked there several years and that's what they play, it was good. I'm not a big believer in teaching things you don't know very well. Having a guy on your staff who knows that type of zone inside and out, that way our staff can learn it. So we can learn it together and then we can teach it to our players. And so that's what he's been able to do for us. (He's been) able to come in and give us the insights of why they do it, what they're looking for. Then we're able to go out and articulate that to our kids with confidence. When you show confidence the kids will show confidence in what you're doing. Tim O'Toole has been a great resource for us. I couldn't be any more happy to have him on our staff."
Stanford's Sweet 16 matchup with Dayton isn't just the biggest game of Johnny Dawkins' head coaching career. There's also a strong personal connection between Dawkins and the Flyers' coaching staff.
Dawkins' son, Aubrey, was recently offered a scholarship by Dayton.
"They're recruiting my son," Dawkins said. "He hasn't had an official visit yet but he's been in contact with them quite a bit."
"It is a neat thing that he's being recruited by them and the success they're having," Dawkins said. "He really likes them. I'm just really happy for Archie (Miller) and his program because I know how hard he's worked to get this opportunity and I'm glad he's made the most out of it."
The plan is for Aubrey to be in attendance for the Sweet 16 matchup.