NIT 2012 Scores: Dawkins Solidifies Head Coaching Credibility with Championship

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NIT 2012 Scores: Dawkins Solidifies Head Coaching Credibility with Championship
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Since Johnny Dawkins left his job as an assistant at Duke to take the reins at Stanford, it's been unclear whether he had the chops to succeed as a college basketball head coach.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis helped Johnny Dawkins pump up the Cardinal with a rousing pregame pep talk.

But Thursday's 75-51 win over Minnesota in the NIT championship game cleared up any misconceptions.

Dawkins, who was an All-American at Duke, played professionally for nine seasons before joining the Blue Devils in 1996 as an administrative intern in the athletic department and an on-air analyst during home games. He joined Mike Krzyzewski's coaching staff in 1998 and was promoted to associate head coach in 1999.

Then, in 2008, he took the leap and accepted a job as head coach at Stanford.

Dawkins' four years with the Cardinal haven't been smooth sailing. Tasked with rebuilding the team in the wake of Trent Johnson's departure, he went 20-14, 14-18 and 15-16 during his first three seasons, and even before this postseason began, the 2011-12 season was a disappointment.

In a weak year for the Pac-12, the Cardinal finished in seventh place with a 10-8 league record. Despite starting off the year 15-3 and 5-1 in conference play, Stanford stumbled mid-January and never fully recovered.

Until now.

It's hard to keep a young team motivated when it starts losing, particularly after it has achieved some success. But even after a January streak in which the Cardinal went 1-5, Dawkins coached his team to five wins in its final eight games en route to the NIT.

And most importantly, he refused to allow his players to buy into the hype that winning the NIT doesn't matter.

Stanford, which faced Syracuse in the NIT preseason tournament championship and fell 69-63, used its disappointment over that early-season loss to fuel its postseason championship run. Dawkins told the Associated Press:

We talked about this experience and how much we have grown: You know, to show we have grown, we'd have to win this tournament. And our kids, I think they rallied around that.

In some ways, coaching a team to a victory in the NIT is just as hard as coaching a team in the NCAA tournament. It's harder to keep the team focused because often, the players are bitter about being left out of the Big Dance, and it shows in their performances. Some of them would rather play in no tournament than play in the "Nobody's Interested Tournament."

It's the coach's job to keep the team motivated, despite the disappointment over playing in a second-tier tournament. Despite the fact that it means you're not quite good enough to be one of the best. It's a challenging job, and Dawkins succeeded.

He told the News & Observer's Caulton Tudor:

Having gained this experience throughout this tournament, I think will bode well going into the future. I think this will help us understand how to win games in this type of atmosphere, which will make us a better team in the future.

As he said, his team proved how much it has grown, and Dawkins proved how much he has grown, too. He's not just a Duke assistant anymore.

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