Stanford came into the season ranked number 21 in the USA Today/ESPN Poll. With a relatively young team, Stanford was hoping to build on last year’s experience and make a run at the Pac-10 Championship this year. But by the end of fall quarter, Stanford basketball was looking like it was missing something. With the suspension of Brook Lopez due to academic reasons and the loss to the less than perennially dominating Sienna squad, Stanford had fallen out of the rankings. As last year’s 20-point beating by Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament stuck in the minds of anxious students, one had to wonder whether this team was going to live up to its lofty expectations.
Fortunately, the team recovered quickly. This year will prove to be the most successful season during the four-year-old Trent Johnson era. Once the fall quarter suspension of Brook Lopez was lifted, the team began to exceed all expectations. Its nearly-perfect home record has been boosted by loyal 6th Man support. The inside post game has been dominating as Brook and Robin Lopez with Lawrence Hill have served as anchors in the paint while out-rebounding opponents. Now ranked #8 in the Nation in the AP and USA Today Poll, the accomplishments this year include a sweep of Cal, Arizona, and a victory at then #9 ranked Washington State on February 2. The Stanford basketball team is tallying up the most wins in a season since the monumental 29-1 effort in 2003-2004 that marked former Coach Mike Montgomery’s final season with the Cardinal. To put it bluntly, those students who have their basketball alarm clocks set for March should probably wake up around now.
Winning the PAC-10 tournament next week would be a breakthrough accomplishment in itself. Given that the tournament is in Los Angeles (the world’s capital of fair weather and fairer-weather fans), it will likely have to confront a hostile crowd if it faces #4 ranked UCLA.
Thinking further ahead, with 22 wins after the Cal game Stanford has already secured its spot in the NCAA Tournament. If they manage to play well and win the PAC-10 tournament, they could potentially gain a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAAs. If that happens, Stanford will almost surely face a team it will beat in the first round: #2 seeded teams almost never lose in the first round, while a #1 seeded team has never lost to a #16 seeded team.
The Ghosts of Y2K Teams
This Stanford team can now be fairly compared to some of Mike Montgomery’s most impressive teams. While Montgomery succeeded in making the Final Four in 1998, many of his later teams were criticized for not being able to build upon regular season success once they reached the NCAA tournament. Those who say that Stanford cannot advance in the NCAA Tournament due to a lack of a strong point guard might be surprised to know that Mitch Johnson is actually averaging very slightly more assists per game (4.7) than the 1998 point guard Arthur Lee (4.6) who led the Cardinal to the Final Four.
Where Stanford has historically run into trouble is in the second round. In 1999, #2 seeded Stanford was defeated by the infamously shocking Gonzaga squad. In 2000, Stanford lost in the second round once again despite being ranked #1. The late 1990s and early 2000s teams were much like today in that Stanford had dominate teams based on the inside post game brought by the Jarron and Jason Collins. At 6’10’’ and 7’0’’ respectively, the Collins twins brought the Cardinal an advantage that the Lopez twins echo today. But without a dominating point guard, Stanford struggled to create plays once it got passed the first round.
This Stanford team has faced very impressive Pac-10 conference opposition this year. Still, its schedule outside the conference was relatively weak this year. Without playing any ranked opponents outside of PAC-10 play, Stanford might be ill-prepared to face out-of conference powerhouses in the NCAA Tournament that utilize different styles of play. The same criticism was made during the Montgomery years regarding Stanford’s unwillingness to play tough teams outside of the PAC-10. While not completely fair now or then, it may have helped the Cardinal this year had they played in a pre-season tournament against some top quality teams. Still, it would be hard to blame the athletic department as it was difficult to predict in advance that the team would perform as well as it had this year to the point where preparing for NCAA tournament play would become such a priority.
Either way, the fact that this Stanford team is being compared to some of the negative aspects of the Montgomery era reflects its accomplishments this year. Furthermore, with nearly an all Junior and Sophomore lineup, this team should be poised for another impressive season next year. It would further help next year’s chances if Brook Lopez decides to return for his Junior year.
But as the old saying goes for winning teams, “next year is now.” With the PAC-10 Tournament next week, Stanford has the ability to re-establish itself as one of the nation’s elite college basketball programs. Given its season-long success, the Cardinal will be exempt from the first round. Furthermore, as the top two seeded teams in the PAC-10 tournament, Stanford and UCLA will not have to meet until the championship game. Hopefully UCLA will stumble out of this single elimination tournament- leaving the Cardinal with a path of less resistance toward the title. After that, hopefully Stanford can last long enough in the NCAA Tournament to March Madness into “April Madness.”