Losing the Battle, Winning Respect

AP Photo/John Bazemore

As shocks go, nothing could top the loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. It brought an abrupt end to a promising Stanford men's basketball season. But the 60-53 second-round upset wasn't the last surprise from the Tar Heels. "Stanford is a great team," Coach Bill Guthridge said at the postgame news conference. "To defeat them is a great step for our program."

Chuckles from press row. Guthridge coaches one of the most revered men's hoops dynasties in the country. A win over Stanford big for his program? Unlikely.

Except that two weeks earlier, Steve Lavin, who coaches the nation's most storied program, UCLA, sat in the Maples Pavilion press room after edging the Cardinal in overtime and said the same thing. Big win for our program, beating Stanford.

This is the good news for Cardinal hoops fans. In the past five years, Stanford has gone from upstart to elite in the men's college basketball world. Head coach Mike Montgomery's troops finished the 1999-2000 season with a 27-4 record (second-best in school history), a share of the Pac-10 title and an NCAA-leading average victory margin of 20.2.

It's the bad news, too. Because while the team's success has meant hotter recruits, season-ticket sellouts and consecutive conference championships, it has also brought a permanent "favorite" tag and back-to-back early exits in the NCAA tournament. This year's tourney loss blindsided the Cardinal, the South Region's top seed, and drove home a point first made by Gonzaga last year. Underachieving and up-and-coming teams throughout the Pac-10 and the nation have hung a Cardinal-red target on the team's back. A win over Stanford -- like beating Duke or Kentucky or Kansas -- can put you on the map.

Two things distinguish perennial powerhouses from teams that enjoy a good season or two: they don't lose to second-rate teams, and they win most of their big games. Stanford, unused to the Goliath role, couldn't do either a year ago, losing to Oregon State and USC and falling out of the NCAAs before the Sweet Sixteen. This year, only three teams managed to knock off the Cardinal. But those were all big games. Stanford dropped two conference showdowns with Arizona, blew a chance to clinch the Pac-10 title against UCLA, and finally rolled over in the second-round slugfest vs. North Carolina. It was a strange record for a team driven by two senior co-captains (Mark Madsen and David Moseley) who had been to the Final Four and proved they could win in the clutch. "We had higher expectations of ourselves," Moseley said after the final game in Birmingham. "It hurts when you look into the eyes of your teammates and they're all teary-eyed."

On paper, next year's Cardinal team should be able to replace Madsen, the defensive workhorse, and Moseley, the guard who emerged this year as the team's most consistent player. Seven-foot center Jason Collins and sharpshooting Ryan Mendez ought to slide easily into their starting roles.

Next year's team will be deeper and more athletic. Look for freshmen Curtis Borchardt (a wiry post player who had the Pac-10 buzzing before breaking a foot in February) and Julius Barnes (a razzle-dazzle reserve point guard) to shine. And remember this name: Justin Davis. The 6-foot-8 redshirt is already drawing Madsen-like raves. "Justin basically has all the attributes that Mark has," Barnes says. "He'll fight for every ball. He's dunked on every post player on this team. He may even be more athletic than Mark."

When it comes to making that final transition from upstart to powerhouse, though, Stanford may miss its departing seniors dearly. A leadership void looms over next season. Several players -- including Mendez, point guard Mike McDonald and Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year Casey Jacobsen -- say they are ready to take the reins. Whoever steps up, count on this: Stanford will open the 2000-01 ranked in the top 10, it will contend for the Pac-10 crown, and every team that comes to Maples Pavilion will bring its A game. Beating Stanford, they know, would be a huge step for their programs.


-- Jim Tankersley, '00