About an hour before practice started Monday for your Stanford men's basketball team, the news hit the wires that the Cardinal were the new #1 in the AP poll. ESPN would not release the results of the coaches poll until the team was deep into practice, but there was no secret that Stanford was making an expected ascension to the top spot.
The Card nabbed 64 of 72 first place votes Monday in the AP poll and 26 of 31 in the coaches poll. The other undefeated in the land, St. Joseph's, received almost all of the remainder of the #1 votes, with the exception of one coach who voted Duke. Stanford was ranked second in all five ballots where they were not first in the coaches poll, but one voter in the media poll placed them third.
At the end of the day, Stanford has such a strong hold on the #1 ranking that they should maintain it as long as they keep winning. And winning looks to be the focus of this team, from the players right on up to Mike Montgomery.
"We're undefeated and that's been the story all along," the head coach states. "The players have to handle it. We might as well just go with it."
This is the third season in the last five that Montgomery's crew has been ranked #1 in the nation. They previously were ranked atop the country for five weeks in the 1999-2000 season and seven weeks in the 2000-2001 season. When the program climbed to the top spot in each of those seasons, there was a media frenzy and electric atmosphere around campus for the unprecedented ranking. But it helps this year to have done it before and have four players on the roster who have already enjoyed a #1 ranking. They are not starry-eyed at the achievement, and instead remain as grounded as ever.
"It's quite an honor to be number one," offers senior Matt Lottich. "But we want to be number one in the final rankings."
"We're happy," Montgomery delivers. "The kids deserve it. They earned it. We were number two, which was a great spot. It's not significantly different [to be number one]. It's one spot; it's a number."
The nervous nellies among Stanford's fanbase will chomp on their fingernails a little harder this week as the top-ranked Cardinal travel down to L.A. for matchups against UCLA and USC. Neither team is enjoying any fashion of success this year, and Stanford has had wild success in recent years at these two Los Angeles venues. They have not lost at Pauley Pavilion since 1997, when Brevin Knight was a senior. The Card have won five of the last six at USC.
Still, won't these hungry clubs be fired up just a little bit more to knock off the #1 team in the nation? Maybe a little, but Stanford has had the biggest bull's eye in the country on its chest for the last month with their heralded undefeated record. There is as much cachet to ending the unbeaten streak as there is to the ranking, and the switch of a few voters from #2 to #1 this week does not overwhelm that focus.
"We have a target on our back because of the number attached to us," says Montgomery of the team's stature today. "People are going to look at our game as a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. There aren't many chances left for these people. We're going to get everybody's best."
This is the latest in the season that Stanford has climbed to the top spot in the polls of the three years they have been ranked #1, and perhaps that is a reason there were no high fives around Maples today - no jigs danced and no special celebrations planned. The Cardinal are in the home stretch, battered by injuries and seasoned with experience and success. There is a seriousness and focus that prevents exuberance from running wild, and that is perhaps what makes Mike Montgomery smile more than any news clip on Monday's rankings.
- In each of the two prior seasons that Stanford was ranked #1, they spent two different stretches at the top spot. They were ranked early as undefeateds, dropped a game, and then climbed back up again some weeks later. The longest stretch that the Card have held a top ranking is four weeks.
- This year's ranking should perhaps be the sweetest, for how far they have risen in the polls and how long it took to get there. In each of the other two seasons Stanford was ranked #1, they started the year preseason top 10. In 1999-2000 they started ninth in the AP but jumped to third after taking down Duke and Iowa in the Coaches vs Cancer Tournament in November. They were ranked #1 before Christmas. In 2000-2001 Stanford was fourth preseason in both polls and found themselves #1 the first week of January. But this year, the Card were #19 preseason and waited until mid-February to take their rightful spot atop the throne.
- This also is the only year that Stanford has had to wait for a team to pick up their second loss before climbing to the #1 ranking. In each of the other two years, Stanford sat only behind other undefeated teams when they were undefeated at #2.
- The newly crowned number one team in America will play their first game at their new ranking in an untelevised game. Thursday's affair at USC is not being broadcast by Fox Sports, nor is any local station in L.A. picking it up. The Sports Arena holds more than 16,000 and will not even come close to a sell-out. Get to the game if you can. It will almost feel like a Stanford home game, as USC holds perhaps the most weakly attended home games in the conference and certainly the meekest home court advantage.
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