CJ's Corner: The Perfect Storm

While most Cardinalmaniacs are stressing about how deep Stanford can take this undefeated record and #1 ranking, CJ has a bigger picture look at what this fantastic voyage means to the program. He sees other factors at play that make this run critical to future success, and the timing could not be better. Unfortunately, external forces beyond Mike Montgomery's control are problematic...

These are strange times for Stanford basketball fans.  Perhaps at no time in the past decade has there been such a divergence between the current state of the team and the leading indicator of future results - recruiting. 

The good news is that Stanford is undefeated, ranked #1 in the country, has clinched the outright Pac-10 regular season championship, and has a near-lock on the #1 seed in the West regional.  At the same time that Stanford basketball has ascended to these heights, the program recently received some disappointing, though not entirely unexpected news.  Mike Montgomery and his staff have wrapped up their recruiting efforts with respect to the current high school senior class and have managed to fill only two of the four scholarships available to the class.  (Of course, if a player with remaining eligibility does not return to school next year, the Card will have five rides available for next season.)  This comes on the heels of the recruiting class of 2003 which also consisted of two recruits, despite three scholarships being available. 

One would have to go back to the early to mid-90's to find a three year stretch in which Stanford only landed two consensus top 100 recruits.  Perhaps more ominously, during the Montgomery era Stanford had previously never gone consecutive years leaving scholarships unfilled. 

An attitude that is not uncommon among Stanford fans is that recruiting is not terribly important and that Mike Montgomery and his staff are so good at teaching the game and developing players that the level of raw talent coming into the program doesn't matter much.  While I agree that the Stanford coaches are as good as any in the nation at teaching the game, and John Murray is phenomenal at helping our players develop physically, I think the level of talent coming into the program is a critical determinant of the team's success.  Yes, Stanford did some good things in the mid-90's with a relatively unheralded group of players, but Brevin Knight was a phenomenal talent who was surrounded by perfectly complimentary role players.  (It's not often that talented players as Knight are so underrated by the scouts and recruiting services, especially now in the age of the internet and media saturation.)  For the most part, however, Stanford's success in basketball has been closely related to the level of talent in the program, and recruiting rankings, while imperfect, are a useful measuring stick.  One could make the case that the two best Stanford teams in the Montgomery era have been the 2000-01 and 2003-04 teams, and in any case, it is undeniable that those teams have at least been among the best.  Interestingly, the '00-'01 squad was the only Stanford team with three starters that were McDonald's All-Americans, while the current squad is the only one to feature consensus top 100 players at every starting position (assuming you count Josh Childress and Justin Davis as the starting forwards).  While there are some who would argue that there is an incredibly strong correlation between recruiting results and future team success, others dismiss recruiting rankings out of hand.  I think the better approach lies somewhere in between.  Diamonds in the rough like Brevin Knight sometimes emerge and highly rated recruits sometimes turn out to be busts, but recruiting results as measured by recruiting rankings have had a correlative relationship with Stanford's success on the hardwood.  Viewing the recruiting results of the past 2-3 years as a leading indicator, there is reason to believe that the class of 2005 is critical to the future of Stanford's basketball program.

Stanford has experienced ups and downs in recruiting before.  The number of elite recruits with grades, especially those in the West, along with the success of the Stanford basketball team in a given year, tend to be the biggest factors in the Cardinal's success on the recruiting trail.  Those factors bode extremely well for Stanford this year.  There are an unusual number of elite recruits with academic credentials that make them strong possibilities to make it through Old Union.  Several are located here in the West, including Anthony Goods, Lawrence Hill, Jordan Wilkes, Mitchell Johnson, Artem Wallace, Jon Brockman and others.  However, the Stanford coaching staff has cast a wide net for 2005 recruits.  As a result, a key determinant of Stanford's success is likely to be how well the program is able to get its story across to recruits outside of California and the rest of Pac-10 country.  With high profile targets such as Luke Zeller, Bobby Frasor, Wes Matthews and Bryan Mullins located in the Midwest, Fendi Onobun in Texas, RouSean Cromwell in Tennessee and Ryan Ayers and Brian Grimes in Pennsylvania, the national pub generated by Stanford's top ranking and undefeated season is helpful.  When the Cardinal plays, it is often the lead story on Sportscenter ("Tonight, we start with perfection . . .") and other sports news programs. 

Highlights aside, the Pac-10's abysmal television package ensures that most of the nation will see very few of Stanford's games.  The Cardinal appears on the various Fox Sports channels only occasionally (especially on Thursday nights), and the few network television appearances Stanford has made have been regional broadcasts not seen by the entire nation.  The fact that Fox decides months before the season which games will be telecast has prevented it from adjusting its schedule to cover the #1 team in the country and instead has given us a seemingly continuous loop of footage of the Oregon Ducks' compelling march toward the NIT.  Thursday nights have become Mustn't See TV, as viewers are typically forced to choose between a matchup between a couple of 11-12 Pac-10 teams with RPI's in the eight hundreds and the latest reality TV slutfest (although CJ's Corner has to admit Meredith of The Bachelorette is undeniably hot).  That reminds me, when the Beavers come to town on Thursday, the only people who will be able to watch it will be the fans in attendance at Maples.  The Stanford-Oregon State game could have been broadcast in the Bay Area by KRON, since Fox Sports offered the local station the rights to the game.  Instead, KRON has decided not to preempt its regularly scheduled program and bring us episode #4,736 of Dr. Phil.  (Memo to KRON: Dr. Phil is way too creepy, what with that nervous blinking tick, to be dispensing psychological advice to millions of television viewers.)  Even if the Pac-10 is locked into its current relationship with Fox, surely there must be a way to improve the current situation and allow for revising the broadcast schedule as the season progresses.  Even viewers outside of the Bay Area must be more interested in watching the #1 and undefeated Cardinal instead of the middling Ducks, who have been featured far too often by Fox on Thursday nights.

The more recruits are able to watch Stanford play, the better off the Card will be in terms of generating interest and enthusiasm for the program.  The chemistry of this year's squad is obvious, and everything from the sheer hustle to the unselfish ball movement makes it obvious to anyone with a high basketball IQ that this is an exceptionally well-coached and tight-knit team.  Unfortunately, if recruits don't have the opportunity to watch the Cardinal in action, they may never gain an appreciation for such things.  It was telling that Fendi Onobun, one of the staff's biggest targets, made a big point of his watching the Stanford-Arizona game on TV earlier this month.  Most elite programs have so much exposure that a kid like Onobun would already be intimately familiar with the program's style of play.  By contrast, Onobun had to tune into the Stanford-Arizona game to learn about how Mike Montgomery and Lute Olson utilize their small forwards. 

Of course, one way Stanford can gain more national exposure and help its cause in recruiting is by making it into the later rounds of the NCAA tournament.  Early round games are televised on a regional basis, but late round games are televised nationally, putting teams that make it to the Elite Eight on center stage.  If recruits such as Frasor, Zeller, Ayers, Cromwell and others East of the Mississippi are to watch and appreciate this special group of Stanford student-athletes, it make take a run past the Sweet Sixteen to do it.

The bottom line for recruiting this year is that Stanford has never been in a stronger position to land an elite recruiting class -- and hasn't been in greater need of one in many years.  A perfect storm of sorts has been created by the Card's to-date undefeated season, it's #1 ranking and the unusually large pool of blue chip players with Stanford caliber academic credentials.  With a deep run in the tournament and the additional exposure that comes with it, Stanford should be in a position to keep this juggernaut going by landing an exceptional recruiting class.

Notes on the RPI and Strength of Schedule Ratings

There are few statistics in the sports world that are more misunderstood and misinterpreted than the Ratings Percentage Index or RPI.  The "unadjusted" RPI for a given team is based upon three numbers: its winning percentage (25%), its opponents' winning percentage (50%) and its opponents' opponents winning percentage (25%).  A teams strength of schedule or "SOS" is determined by the latter two numbers.  Many serious college basketball fans are familiar with these formulae.  What fewer know and appreciate is that the committee utilizes an "adjusted" version of the RPI in its selection and seeding deliberations.  Although the formula used by the NCAA for calculating the adjusted RPI is a closely guarded secret, it is generally accepted that the adjusted RPI effectively awards bonus points to teams for quality wins (e.g. against opponents ranked in the top 25 or 50 of the RPI) and penalizes teams for scheduling too many games against weak opponents (and for losing such games).  The upshot of the adjustments is that a team like Stanford, which has a relatively weak SOS, can nevertheless get a bump in the adjusted RPI by virtue of having several quality wins, including its wins over Kansas (neutral site) Gonzaga (neutral site) and Arizona (one road, one home).  By contrast, St. Joseph's, which has a higher unadjusted RPI (and SOS) than does Stanford, will not benefit to the extent Stanford will from the RPI adjustments, because the Hawks don't have the quality wins that Stanford does.  While some fans are fond of pointing to St. Joe's significantly higher SOS rating as evidence that the Hawks have played a tougher schedule than has Stanford, the fact that Stanford has more quality wins suggests that there is much more to the story than the raw SOS numbers would indicate. 

Cardinalmaniacs™ would be well advised not to ascribe too much importance to the unadjusted RPI and SOS numbers published in the media and to consider the impact that the NCAA's adjustments may have on those raw numbers.  For starters, the RPI is just one of many objective and subjective factors considered by the selection committee.  Other objective factors include such things as the Sagarin ratings, record over last 10 games, conference standing, etc.  Subjective factors include anything and everything the committee feels like taking into account, including, among other things, injuries.  To the extent that the committee utilizes the RPI and SOS numbers, the NCAA's "adjustments" are critical and, along with the other factors considered by the committee, often help to explain why certain teams are seeded lower or higher than their raw RPI and SOS would otherwise suggest. 

Postseason Projections

NCAA Tournament

1. Stanford.  The Mighty Card will be the #1 seed in the West.

2. Arizona.  Despite their poll rankings, the Cats are looking at a #7 seed.  One of the #2 seeds could be in for a rude second round surprise.

NCAA Tournament Bubble

None.

NIT Possibilities

Everyone else except Arizona StateWashington and Oregon are near locks for the NIT, and the Huskies still have an outside shot at getting on the NCAA tournament bubble in the extremely unlikely event that they run the regular season table AND make it to the finals of the Pac-10 tournament.

No Chance

1. Arizona State.  The bet here is that Ike Diogu, discouraged by the Devils' miserable season, takes his talents to the NBA.


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