At halftime of every Stanford game, the Cardinal coaching staff
gathers with a yellow legal pad to jot down the areas in which
the team needs to improve in the second half. When the coaches
entered the locker room at intermission of their game at Arizona
on Jan. 10, they had just watched their squad hold the then No. 3
Wildcats, the sixth-highest-scoring team in the nation, to six
field goals on 19% shooting. It was almost enough to make them
put their pens back in their pockets. "We eventually came up with
a couple of things to write down," says assistant Eric Reveno.
"But there wasn't much we could really hope to do better, at
least defensively. Essentially, the message was, Keep doing
what you're doing."
That could be Stanford's mantra for the rest of the season. That
night the Cardinal finished off Arizona 82-72. Then, last
Saturday at Maples Pavilion, Stanford knocked off hated Cal
(every Cardinal team's favorite activity) 68-61 to improve to 5-0
in the Pac-10 and a surprising 14-0 overall. If Stanford keeps
this up, the league title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament,
even--and whisper this if you're within earshot of Cardinal coach
Mike Montgomery--an undefeated regular season are well within
reach. "They defend well, they play with great poise, and they
have a real aggressiveness," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose
team has a rematch at Maples on Feb. 7. "There are not going to
be many teams capable of beating them."
The perfect start has propelled Stanford, ranked No. 19 in the
preseason, to No. 2 in the AP poll. Being highly ranked is
nothing new to the Cardinal, which has had nine straight seasons
of at least 20 victories. But with neutral-court wins over Kansas
and Gonzaga as well as the road victory over Arizona, this year's
team may be the best of Montgomery's 18-year tenure, including
the 1998 Final Four team and the 2000 squad that featured four
future NBA players (Casey Jacobsen of the Phoenix Suns, Mark
Madsen of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Collins twins,
Jarron of the Utah Jazz and Jason of the New Jersey Nets). The
current edition has the usual Stanford traits--depth, experience
and intelligence--along with a couple of qualities not as often
associated with the program: athleticism and toughness.
"When people think of Stanford, they have this vision of really
nice, smart guys who are going to be cordial and polite all the
time," says 6'9" senior forward Justin Davis, who had 13 points,
seven boards and four steals in last Saturday's win over the
Golden Bears. "Off the court that's probably pretty accurate, but
on the court we have some guys who will scratch and claw and get
right up in your face. Ask the teams who've played us how
pleasant we are."
The need for a harder edge was clear to the Cardinal players
after Connecticut manhandled them in the second half of
Stanford's 85-74 second-round loss in the NCAA tournament last
March--its fourth second-round defeat in the last five years.
"They didn't just beat us, they beat us up," says junior center
Rob Little. "It was embarrassing to see that they were just
physically superior to us, stronger and more aggressive. By the
time we got back to campus after that game we had decided as a
team that the off-season was going to be all about conditioning
and getting stronger. We wanted to make sure that when we get
back to the tournament, we're not going to be weak or worn down,
we're going to be ready to bang with people."
The 6'10" Little made the most visible change, dropping 35 pounds
to return at a leaner, more muscular 260. His new-found might was
on display last Saturday when he delivered two thunderous
second-half dunks, one a one-hander over Cal's promising freshman
forward Leon Powe. The Cardinal's more slender big men, Davis and
6'10" Matt Haryasz, bulked up enough to give the team a
formidable frontline rotation that also includes 6'10" fifth-year
senior Joe Kirchofer, an energetic overachiever. It's no
coincidence that Stanford hasn't been outrebounded all season,
and at week's end its rebounding margin of +9.4 a game was the
fourth best in the nation (chart, below).
But it's two feisty guards who put the fight in the Cardinal,
sometimes literally. Sophomore point man Chris Hernandez and his
running mate, senior Matt Lottich, may not be the best backcourt
in the country, but don't tell them that. "Chris just refuses to
acknowledge that a guy might be a little quicker than he is or
that he's at a disadvantage in any way," says Reveno of the 6'2"
Hernandez, who hails from Fresno. "It might not always be pretty,
but he'll get the job done because he just won't accept anything
else." Hernandez missed virtually all last season with a stress
fracture in his left foot, and although the team went 24-9,
Stanford dearly missed his savvy, not to mention his strength.
He's a weight-room devotee who bench-presses 315 pounds (he
weighs 190), and when he steps through a double team with his
powerful shoulders, he looks like a fullback hitting the hole.
The 6'4" Lottich, a square-jawed marksman from Winnetka, Ill.,
with a sweet stroke and a sour expression, might be even more
intense. "When I think of the few near altercations we've had the
last few years, Lotty was almost always in the middle of them,"
says Montgomery admiringly. "One of the only times we've had a
flare-up in practice was a couple of years ago, and it was Lotty
taking on Teyo Johnson [now an Oakland Raiders tight end], which
tells you he doesn't have a lot of fear in him."
Last Saturday, Lottich, the Cardinal's leading scorer, had his
usual efficient game: 4 for 8 from the field (including 2 for 5
from beyond the arc) and 5 for 6 from the line for 15 points, one
above his average. Against Arizona, however, he was so hyper at
the start that his first two jumpers were air balls. He calmed
down and didn't miss again, draining six shots and showing off
his specialty--drilling jumpers that take the steam out of
opponents' rallies, then snarling on his way back down the court.
"Matt's fierce," says Davis. "He'll stick a jumper in your face
and slap you on your butt to let you know about it. Other teams
are like, Where's this Stanford kid getting all this 'street'?
Matt will tell them, 'I'm from Chicago, baby.'"
The victory at Arizona, the Cardinal's fourth straight at McKale
Center, where the Wildcats are 73-10 in the last six seasons, had
more significance than just giving Stanford a leg up in the
Pac-10 race. Montgomery disputes the notion that previous
Cardinal teams have been a little too slow or a little too
earthbound, but Stanford is clearly better equipped to match up
with athletic teams like Arizona than it has been in recent
years. The 6'9" Davis is a leaper who also routinely beats his
man down the court, and 6'6" junior Nick Robinson is the
Cardinal's Swiss Army Knife, a versatile athlete who has filled
in everywhere from power forward to point guard.
Stanford has had so many players perform so well that the team's
best athlete, willowy 6'8" junior small forward Josh Childress,
has been almost an afterthought. Childress, a graceful slasher
who unleashes sudden, ferocious dunks, missed the first nine
games of the season with a stress reaction in his left foot and
has been gradually sharpening his game. Last Saturday he was in
midseason form on the defensive end, snaring 10 rebounds and
blocking two shots. When Childress wasn't able to play, he did
everything he could to contribute at practice, rebounding for
shooters and volunteering to throw entry passes to the big men in
their low-post drills. "When your star is willing to do those
things, your other players notice and get the message," Reveno
Montgomery is notorious for finding flaws, no matter how small,
to worry about. "You'd like to have another pure shooter or two,"
he says about this year's team. "We're not especially big, you
know. No 7-footers." But he acknowledges that it's hard to find
fault with such a well-constructed squad, the product of a
recruiting approach that has produced results once thought
impossible for a school with such stringent academic
Stanford gets the occasional blue-chip recruit, like Childress,
Jacobsen and the Collins twins, but while other elite programs
chase the McDonald's All-Americans, Montgomery and his staff work
one level below, signing players who have the grades to get
accepted and the drive to get better. One of the less
quantifiable measures of Montgomery's coaching ability is that
the Cardinal has had very few players who hit an early plateau
and stopped improving. "The players who are available to us tend
to be self-motivated kids with high expectations for themselves,"
Montgomery says. "Those are the kind of kids who aren't likely to
be disappointments. They tend to pan out."
Little is one such overachiever. He made visits to Duke and
Stanford when he was at Paul VI Catholic High in Fairfax, Va.,
but while the Cardinal offered a scholarship, the Blue Devils put
him on hold while they waited for a decision from their first
choice, Ousmane Cisse. Little ultimately decided not to wait and
accepted Stanford's offer, while Cisse eventually spurned Duke
and entered the NBA draft. In the beginning it didn't seem like
much of a coup for the Cardinal, as the overweight Little plodded
his way through his freshman year as a backup center. But his
conditioning and low-post game improved noticeably when he was a
sophomore, and this season he has turned into one of the better
big men in the conference, thanks primarily to his weight loss.
"Around here they recruit you not just for the player you are,
but for the player they think you can be," says Little.
Though Montgomery's system is solid, it's also precarious.
Admitting a few players who fail to develop or, worse, going a
year or two without attracting one of the few blue-chippers who
can make the grade at Stanford, could cause the program to slide.
Montgomery, 56, knows he would have a greater margin for error
and a bigger pool of potential recruits at some other schools,
but he has declined opportunities to go elsewhere. (North
Carolina State, Ohio State, Texas and Virginia all made
overtures.) "My family is obviously important to me," he says,
referring to his wife, Sarah; his son, John, a redshirt freshman
guard at Loyola Marymount; and his daughter, Anne, a freshman
volleyball player at USC. "It just never seemed to make sense to
uproot them just so I could have a chance to recruit maybe one
more good player a year." Although he says that Stanford is
likely to be his last college job, coaching in the NBA intrigues
him, even as an assistant. "I could see myself helping someone
out on that level, given the right situation," he says.
But there is no better situation than undefeated. The Cardinal
may not stay that way, but Montgomery and his staff can at least
put away the legal pads. If they need to make a list of
Stanford's weak spots, an index card will be more than enough.
Phil Taylor's Hot Button, Hoop Thoughts by Seth Davis and Grant
Wahl's college basketball Mailbag, at si.com.
Acing Their BOARDS
Thanks to its deep and newly muscular front line, including Rob
Little (42), Stanford hasn't been outrebounded in a game all
season--and the Cardinal's sturdy margin on the glass at week's
end put it among the nation's most physical teams.
TEAM GAMES REBOUNDS/ OPP. MARGIN
1. TEXAS 13 45.4 33.2 12.2
2. CONNECTICUT 16 46.4 34.8 11.6
3. LA. TECH 16 41.3 31.4 9.9
4. STANFORD 14 37.6 28.2 9.4
5. EAST CAROLINA 14 41.4 32.1 9.3