The Cardinal return their top four scorers from last year's team that won 19 games and reached the NIT. They also have one of the best power forward/center combinations in college basketball with Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell.
But the biggest difference between this squad now versus a season ago is the health of veteran wing Anthony Brown. An effective two-way player as a freshman and sophomore, Brown only played four games last season due to a hip injury.
His return will take immediate defensive pressure off junior guard Chasson Randle, and also give Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins the type of bounce this team lacked last season on the perimeter.
"It's been huge having him back," Dawkins said of the 6-6 Brown, who averaged 8.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game two seasons ago. "He gives us another scorer at the guard spot and is our best perimeter defender. He was a difficult player to replace and now with him along with Marcus and Malcolm Allen, we have more athleticism than we've had on the perimeter."
Without Brown, Randle regularly guarded the opponent's top back court scorer and it affected his offense. After shooting 43.9% from three-point range as a freshman, Randle dropped to 35.9% from deep last season as a sophomore. His back court mate Aaron Bright also struggled shooting the ball, dropping to 32.1% after an impressive showing in 2011-12 when he shot 43.6% from behind the arc.
"We need to make sure we get those two quality shots on a regular basis," Dawkins said of Randle and Bright, who averaged a combined 22.9 points per game last season. "They both had tough years. Aaron was coming off a shoulder surgery and Chasson was banged up last year in the preseason. His numbers were better in Pac-12 play than they were early on during the season. He didn't have the type of sophomore year we expected him to but a lot fell on him because we didn't have Anthony Brown. Hopefully having him back will make it easier for Chasson."
If Randle and Bright regain the form they showed two years ago, the Cardinal should be an NCAA team. Huestis is a walking double-double (10.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg), and Powell has a chance to be one of the better big men in the country after breaking out last season (14.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg).
"We feel that Dwight has a chance to be Pac-12 player of the year and an All-American," Dawkins said of Powell. "And it's been phenomenal watching Josh's development. He's a tireless worker."
Dawkins is also high on 6-11 junior Stefan Nastic, a reserve post player who should spell both frontcourt spots. Sharpshooter John Gage is the Pac-12's leading returning three-point shooter (44.6% last season), and sophomore forward Rosco Allen should be a factor once he returns from a shin injury.
Stanford certainly looks the part but they've still got to prove that they belong among the elite teams in the Pac-12. The Cardinal have advanced to back-to-back NIT's under Dawkins' watch and won the event in 2012, but a berth in any postseason tournament other than the NCAA's won't be acceptable with this group.
Dawkins has aggressively scheduled early season games that will showcase his program, which has won 93 games in his five seasons on the job but has not reached the NCAA tournament since Trent Johnson took it to the Sweet 16 in 2008.
The Cardinal host BYU and Northwestern, travel to UConn, and play Michigan in a neutral site game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in December. Stanford will also be in Brooklyn to take part in the Legends Classic in late November, where they'll open against Houston and then face either Pitt or Texas Tech.
Those games should be a good barometer of where the Cardinal stand before they begin conference play in what should be a banner year for the Pac-12.
"We have a hungry group that wants to leave their legacy," Dawkins said. "We've got good depth and should be very competitive. Everything is finally pulling in the same direction."