As more and more despondent Stanford fans make one last journey to the top of Hoover Tower and then hurl themselves to "a better place" in the wake of Saturday's second round NCAA loss to Alabama, we hear all manner of mutterings about the wreckage wrought by this stunning defeat. Apparently, this was the best chance Stanford will ever have in the forseeable future to get back to the Final Four and win a National Championship. Apparently a few minutes in one afternoon of a 32-game season disproved the winning formula of Mike Montgomery, as well as the talent and toughness of his team. Players lauded as heros have become zeros. Next year is a bubble year for the Cardinal, because we surely know that Josh Childress is gone... and with him the last great superstar athlete of a brief era gone by.
But the moaning and despair does not end there. The critical 2005 recruiting class is now apparently doomed. Its success was logically predicated upon a San Antonio appearance by the boys in cardinal and white, which would send out a strong enough statement to the nationwide cadre of recruits still scrutinizing the Stanford program.
The thinking goes a little bit like this: the great 1999 recruiting class of Casey Jacobsen, Curtis Borchardt, Julius Barnes, Justin Davis and Joe Kirchofer came as those high schoolers watched Stanford surge triumphantly to the school's first Final Four in more than half a century. That mad March run to the Alamodome in the spring of 1998, which strengthened the early impressions made by the team's unprecedented 18-0 season-starting streak, fell precisely during the most impressionable time for that quintet. They were in their junior year of high school, when schools can make their most earnest advances in recruiting toward a prospective student-athlete.
Never since that class has Stanford needed to fill the NCAA maximum of five scholarships - until now. Admissions restrictions, as well as some bad fortune and failed wooings, have kept the last two recruiting classes below the numbers Mike Montgomery had to offer. The 2003 class of Tim Morris and Fred Washington has setup Stanford with an exciting macroevolution in wing talent and athleticism, but the Cardinal struck out in their efforts to land any post players. The 2004 class just signed this past November brings a pair of fine frontcourt players in Peter Prowitt and Taj Finger, but all the best backcourt recruiting forays ended badly and leave this class absent the point guard and shooter that the Cardinal craved.
If you are such a firm believer in the effects of a season on the next year's recruiting class, extending that Final-Four-begat-the-fab-five-class theory, then you might even look at the disappointing 2001-02 season and give it some blame for the subsequent recruiting shortfalls. The Card had a couple nice wins that year, but after a three-peat of Pac-10 titles and a 2000-01 season that saw #1 national rankings, the 23-point pummeling by Kansas in the second round was a like an Arctic skinny dipping. Stanford racked up double-digit losses on the year for the first time since the 1993-94 season, and they did so with two clear first round NBA talents starting and starring. When Jacobsen and Borchardt both bolted for the Association that spring, the "definitive decline" was clear to all who cared for the Cardinal hoopsters. Perhaps recruits caught a whiff of those toxic fumes emanating from Maples Pavilion, and enough steered clear to contribute to the undersized recruiting hauls.
This year was the chance to reverse all that. A veteran-led team that exemplified all that was delicious to recruits, this squad got out and ran with great success, while still executing and winning in the fundamentals of a halfcourt team game. Upperclassmen occupy four of the five starting spots, as well as two of the most key reserves off the bench. The tasty low-hanging fruit for recruits to reach was not just ripe, it was bursting with vibrant color and flavor. The #1 team in the nation who does everything right, has unmatched team chemistry and perhaps most importantly would have big playing time opportunities for 2005 freshmen. Just take that 29-1 regular season and push it into April to seal the deal.
Instead, our favorite boys flamed out with a sickening late-game collapse that turned a 13-point lead into defeat. A frankly mediocre SEC squad took it to the top team in the nation with a 15-0 scoring run that turned the Tide. Fans have already stamped this as the overriding memory for the 2003-04 season - forever known as a mirage. The 26 wins to start the season were all smoke and mirrors, hiding deep-seated flaws and failings which could only be exposed once the Cardinal escaped the mediocre manor that is the Pac-10 Conference.
Everything is broken. There is only darkness at the end of the tunnel. And it must be as clear to recruits as it is to these omniscient fans.
This they mutter as they step into the elevator at the base of Hoover Tower, choking back tears of anguish. Turn out the lights; the party's over.
Recruiting reporting is half my job here, and this is one area of the future where I can immediately gather meaningful data for forecasts. We honestly don't know what the next year(s) will hold for Stanford Basketball, if for no other reason than we cannot predict the complexity of innumerable human factors. Some players will improve while others may plateau. Chemistry is difficult to prognosticate. Coaching philosophies are yet to be formulated inside the somewhat private head of Mike Montgomery.
But recruits can answer the question right here, right now. Does this NCAA second round flame-out by the vaunted Cardinal curb their enthusiasm for Stanford Basketball? Do they have second thoughts about the present validity and future strength of this Palo Alto program after watching the curtain come down so fast in the all-important postseason?
Though Mike Montgomery may smack me upside the head the next time I bump into him, I posed these questions Sunday and Monday to several top 2005 Stanford recruits, fresh off the season-ending Alabama loss.
So to get things started, let's start at the point. 6'3" Chicago point guard Bobby Frasor is rated a Top 40 national player in this class, with regional offers from the likes of DePaul, Marquette and Notre Dame, but also an exciting full ride from Paul Hewitt and the hot Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech. He too saw his season end this month, and he was just getting settled in to watch a full slate of NCAA Tournament postseason action when he was shocked by the quick exit by the Cardinal.
"I was kind of disappointed," he comments on the Stanford loss. "I really thought they had it on the last play, but it didn't go down."
But Frasor qualifies what kind of disappointment he felt. "I was disappointed as a fan; I like them as a team," he continues. "I was rooting for them, and it was tough to see them lose. But that doesn't change what I think of them as a program."
The silver lining might be that the local suitors for Frasor have no leg up in the NCAAs. Marquette and Notre Dame both had down years and missed the Tournament altogether, while DePaul played but did not advance past the first weekend. The only offer school still playing in the Big Dance are the Jackets, so does that give them a boost above the others?
"Maybe a national championship would be intriguing," the recruit opines. "But not the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. That's not a difference-maker with what I am looking at."
In that same necks of the woods is 6'11" center/forward Luke Zeller, a Top 20 national player oozing with talent but also buried with schools and recruiting attention. He has more offers than he can count, and this is a smart kid with a good memory. The schools to fear in his recruitment have been along the lines of an Indiana or Notre Dame - close to home, hot and heavy in their recruiting presence. But neither made the Big Dance, so Stanford had a chance to widen the basketball gap between itself and some of his more familiar options. Zeller has been open about how excited he and his family have been about this incredible Stanford season, so did his love affair take a nose dive when the Card went south in the second round?
"I really can't say a whole lot because we lost in the sectional [finals]," the Indiana star sheepishly admits. "We were supposed to win, too. It doesn't really affect me too much. I was surprised that they lost - really surprised. But it doesn't change what I know and like about them."
Zeller's opinion is echoed by others, as well. They are still stinging from their own losses in their playoff runs, and can empathize with the Cardinal's plight. Take 6'4" Wisconsin wing Wes Matthews, whose Memorial High School team went through the entire season undefeated before they dropped Saturday night in the state finals.
"Hey, it's March Madness," the four-star recruit says of Stanford's loss. "I thought they would go farther, but I'm sure the players and coaching staff put forth a lot of effort into this season all year. Sometimes you lose a game, and sometimes it comes at the end. The team losing has no effect on how I look at Stanford as a program."
Top 100 shooting guard Harvey Hale, Jr. from New Mexico has become a bigger and bigger fan of Stanford this winter, in no small part due to their winning ways. The 6'4" gunner has seen the Cardinal on TV and sat down with his father recently to decide who would best fit his style and his needs. Stanford still stands in his shrinking list of schools, and that did not change last weekend.
"It doesn't matter at all to me if a school wins or not in the NCAA Tournament," Hale professes. "We've talked about what is good about these programs, and a game isn't going to change that."
That theme is echoed by another Southwest junior talent in 6'8" Arizona forward Lawrence Hill. He in fact had the chance to talk with Mike Montgomery earlier this month right after the Washington State scare in Pullman. The team was still undefeated, but Hill was less interested in the poor play of that game than he was the interaction between the coach and players in the wake of what should have been a loss.
"What do you say to a team who plays bad for a whole game and then wins? He told me he let them have their moment, but made sure they all remembered that through 39 minutes of the game, Washington State was the better team," Hill reports. "I know games will be lost, but what matters for a team through a season is how your coach reacts. I'm looking at the coach and the players, not individual moments for the program. Their losing in the second round only has to do with how they played in their last game. That's not the season they had, and that is not the program they have."
Fans will forever remember this loss, but these quotes from prominent recruits continue to reinforce that it is but a small blip in the big picture view they have taken of the Stanford program. You have to keep in mind the relentless media attention that was given to the Cardinal throughout the year, as they chased undefeated greatness and claimed #1 rankings. Fab finishes and chest-thumping wins gripped their hearts and their minds. Whenever they had the chance to watch Stanford on TV or in person, they were forcibly engaged by a style and proficiency that appeals to a wide range of recruits. No number of press clippings or handwritten letters the Cardinal coaches could have sent to kids this year could have done half as much as this season did for Stanford's reputation. The hoopla was ubiquitous, and it made a big dent with recruits.
"You can't judge a player or a team by just one game," says 6'3" Los Angeles combo guard Anthony Goods, who is projected to be one of the top two points on the West Coast in this junior class. "They put in a lot of work all season. They had a great season. 26-and-oh. It was magical."
But do recruits take a loss like this to be the end of an era, like so many melodramatic fans seem to proclaim today? Hardly. They understand that this program can win and win with a ridiculous frequency. Moreover, they view any future of this program as resting in their hands. Recruits recognize that something groovy is going on in Palo Alto these days, and there are open opportunities to push it even further forward if they come.
This month allows college coaches to make one phone call to any given recruit on their junior list, and many of those calls will come this week for Stanford now that they are home and finished with the season. You can bet that Mike Montgomery will tell these kids that the goal is to win a National Championship, and frankly it is a wholly believable statement to say so. The perception is that Stanford is very close. One player could make the difference. Johnny Junior could make the difference. It's very engaging. It's very exciting.
"Stanford has always had tradition in basketball and will always be in the Tournament," Goods declares. "They are still my top choice, and Saturday didn't change that a bit. You can't get any better than Stanford Basketball. I mean, get serious."
It is folly to think that Stanford did not lose a golden opportunity this postseason. A National Championship would have just about written Montgomery's meal ticket in this recruiting class, but do not overlook how much "street cred" Stanford accumulated this year. After two years of rebuilding and reloading, they returned again to the #1 ranking and enjoyed an (almost) embarrassing array of publicity in every outlet of the national media. Fans can stew about this loss, as is their right, but recruits appear as excited now about the Cardinal as they were a week ago. That sets the table for a pretty exciting 2005 Stanford class, and we will be there each step of the way reporting on its progress to you.
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