On a late-February night in 1999, following the 98-83 demolition of Arizona, Maples Pavilion was the scene of an unprecedented love-fest, the celebration of Stanford's first ever Pac-10 Conference basketball championship. As the efforts of seniors Kris Weems, Art Lee, Tim Young, Pete Sauer and Mark Seaton were honored, the heartiest of Cardinal faithful in attendance were certainly aware of another pioneering senior class. After all, without the likes of Todd Lichti, Howard Wright, Scott Meinert, Terry Taylor, Eric Reveno and Bryan McSweeney, Stanford hoops wouldn't be nearly as decorated and highly regarded as it is today.
After being mired in a decades-long funk, Stanford basketball was making unprecedented strides by the end of the 1980s. A nucleus of six seniors had collectively put the program back on the national map by the 1988-1989 season, a year that remains one of the most successful in the program's history. Stanford was ranked #13 in the final AP poll with a 26-6 overall record and 15-3 Pac-10 mark (it's best ever league finish at the time). The Cardinal set or tied over 20 school, conference, and Maples Pavilion records. A third seed in the southeast region, the team was poised for a run in the NCAA tournament.
An 80-78 loss to Siena in the first round put an abrupt end to an otherwise landmark season. The seniors, who were a part of some seriously lean times (including a 2-12 record against Cal from 1981 to 1987), turned Stanford from a college basketball backwater into a major national player. And, they made sure they enjoyed the journey along the way.
"It was the culmination of an incredible four years so we couldn't help but be proud," said Wright, a center/forward who led Stanford in rebounding in each of his four seasons. "Honestly, I can say it was something we really did savor as the season went on," added McSweeney, a four-year letterman at guard.
Two members of the '89 senior class arrived on campus for the 1984-1985 season. Menlo School's Reveno, now a Cardinal assistant coach, went on to become a bruising post player and the team's toughest competitor who spent a summer in Jerry Rice's grueling workout sessions. The other freshman was Meinert of Salem, Oregon, who still holds the Stanford single season record for three-point shooting percentage. That season, just one year after Stanford earned only its second winning record (19-12) since 1966, the Cardinal plummeted to a 3-15 conference campaign. Surprisingly, that record included a sweep of then Pac-10 co-champion USC. "That was the starting point for everything," Meinert declared. "In just a couple years, the bar went way up."
The following 1985-1986 season would mark the swan song of Tom Davis, a coach who publicly proclaimed his frustration with Stanford's high academic standards for athletes before becoming head coach at Iowa. But his final recruiting class was a landmark one. McSweeney and three-year starter at point guard, Taylor, were both Cardinal material. Then, there were also the two gems. Over the years, top national recruits played for Stanford, but never at the same time. This class included the 6-foot, 8-inch Wright, and Concord's Lichti. Reveno recalled, "Lichti was a pure scorer. He could do everything. Pass, shoot from anywhere, make free throws. And you had Howard. There wasn't a big man with his athleticism at Stanford until the Collins twins."
Wright spurned the hustling of Larry Brown, who would go on to bring a national title and NCAA sanctions to Kansas. "Stanford wasn't my first choice," explained Wright, who averaged 14.5 points per game in 1988-89 and is now working for Qualcomm Corp. in San Diego. "But having experienced what I did there, I couldn't imagine making any other decision. I could have gone to Kansas, rode the bench, and ended my career on probation."
Forever the franchise player, Lichti remains Stanford's all-time leading scorer. The ambidextrous off-guard became the first player in conference history to be named First Team All-Pac-10 four times. "He was the ultimate gym rat," proclaimed Meinert, now an attorney working for the Office of the Fresno County Counsel. "Practicing free throws at midnight, anything. Todd lived it. After a bad shooting night, which for him would be like 43 percent, he'd be back in Maples shooting jump shots at 7 a.m." The effort paid off as Lichti started out averaging over 17 points per game, and the Card finished the 1985-1986 season a respectable 8-10 in conference play.
An overtime triumph against Arizona State in the final regular season game of 1986-1987 ensured that Mike Montgomery's inaugural year (15-13, 9-9) was a winner. Montgomery's philosophy stressed defense over Davis' fast-break style. But it was also the first year of the three-point shot in college, and Taylor led the Pac-10 in that category. The following year marked the arrival of Andrew Vlahov, a three-time Australian Olympian who became one of the best passing big men ever to play for Stanford basketball. Clearly, things were coming together.
"Milestone" best describes the defeat of top-ranked Arizona in February 1988. The Wildcats would go on to the Final Four that year and three Wildcat starters would later enjoy significant NBA careers. But four years after Stanford students actually chanted, "N-I-T, N-I-T," in celebration after a win over UCLA, ESPN's telecast showed them joyously rushing the floor after the Cardinal's 82-74 win, the school's first ever victory over a #1-ranked opponent. A snub from the NCAA selection committee aside (Stanford finished the regular season 19-11 overall and 11-7 in conference play before accepting an NIT bid), Stanford now had to be taken seriously.
In the fall of 1988, Lichti, along with Arizona's Sean Elliott, graced the cover of The Sporting News' college basketball preview and a skinny 6-foot, 9-inch blue-chip recruit named Adam Keefe opted for the Farm, spurning an offer from North Carolina.. Maples Pavilion, where students in previous years were known to study in the stands during games, was now a quirky college basketball Mecca in its own right. "Nobody wanted to come in there and play us," said Taylor, who's now in commercial real estate in San Diego. But all the attention didn't quite materialize into victories, at least at the start of the season.
Playing at Indiana in the Preseason NIT, the Cardinal fell victim to the Bobby Knight-led Hoosiers, 84-73. McSweeney remembered, "We really had Knight pissed off. He was swearing at the refs, calling them every name in the book, and nothing happens. Then the second half comes around, and things aren't going our way. Montgomery gets one word in, and he gets a technical. That's Bloomington (Ind.) for you."
Then, a close loss at North Carolina was hard to digest, but it ignited Stanford to the tune of 11 wins in their next 12 games. In the middle of that stretch, the Arizona game was once again the highlight of season.
Even without Steve Kerr, the Wildcats were still the elite team of the conference. Elliott, the future San Antonio Spur playoff hero, played a key part in opening with a 21-4 lead, but he and the rest of Lute Olsen's crew couldn't hold on. Lichti poured in a career-high 35 points, and Stanford's 83-78 win was its fifth in a row over Arizona at Maples Pavilion. Not a feat to be taken lightly, as U. of A. has left Palo Alto smiling in 10 of 13 meetings since (including last-second wins in ‘91, ‘92, and ‘01).
Stanford traveled to Orlando, Florida in the middle of the conference season, handily beating the Florida Gators in a made-for-CBS event. Ideally, this would have prepared the Cardinal for its NCAA tournament experience, but it didn't. Playing in the cavernous Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, the Saints' Mark Brown scored 36 points, and Siena forever etched its name in Stanford sports infamy. "We tried to mentally prepare for what we were going to expect," said Reveno, "But you never really know until you get there." McSweeney, who admitted he and Meinert were all-too frequent patrons of Menlo Park's Dutch Goose tavern, was less diplomatic: "They went off, and we went flat."
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