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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Stanford will be battling history Stanford will be battling history (March 03, 2004)

Top-ranked Cardinal men (25-0) have chance to become the first Pac-10 hoop team to finish conference 18-0 with sweep of WSU, Washington

by Nathan Kurz

On its road to perfection, the Stanford men's basketball team has had to defy history more than once.

First, the Cardinal spurned their not-so-lofty record against top-ranked teams (3-25 all-time) to shock then-No. 1 Kansas at the Wooden Classic. Then, Stanford shirked its well-documented struggles against Oregon in Eugene and Arizona in Palo Alto and displayed cool in the clutch in pulling out two thrilling victories.

Now after thumping the Oregon (76-55) and Oregon State (73-47) over the weekend, the Cardinal will have to confront another piece of distressing history in trying to keep their unblemished record intact.

See, Stanford (16-0, 25-0) is the third team in Pac-10 history to enter the final week of conference play with an undefeated league record.

What does history tell us? Both Oregon State (1980-81) and Arizona (1997-1998) found themselves in the same scenario, and lost during the final weekend. The loss so derailed the Beavers' season that they flamed-out in the first-round of the NCAA tournament that year.

Stanford, beware. This weekend most definitely has the potential to end in the same sort of heartbreak.

The Cardinal leaves the comforts of Palo Alto for what could amount to an off-and-on month-long road trip this week. First the state of Washington, then the Pac-10 Tournament in Los Angeles, then likely back to Seattle for the first round of NCAA action.

What we know is that Stanford will be in Pullman on Thursday to face much-improved Washington State (6-10, 12-14), now under the tutelage of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. Then comes the real test Saturday, when Stanford faces red-hot Washington (10-6, 15-10) in Seattle in a nationally-televised game at 3 p.m. on ABC.

After sweeping the Arizona schools on the road for the first time in 20 years, the Huskies now find themselves in second-place in the Pac-10 and with an outside shot at making the NCAA tournament.

That's why they represent a real stumbling block in Stanford's pursuit of a flawless season.

After starting the conference schedule 0-5, Washington has surely made quite an impression on the tournament selection committee, blitzing through the last half of its schedule by winning 10 of 12 games-losing only at UCLA and North Carolina State. Assuming the Huskies can beat Cal tomorrow, they will have the magic 11 in-conference wins-historically the selection committee's threshold for inclusion of Pac-10 teams in the Dance.

The glaring hole in Washington's profile? Its RPI number, which before the sweep of the Arizona schools was a mere 101. It's now 95. Beating Stanford would undoubtedly bump up that number significantly and give the Huskies a real quality win to flaunt in front of the selection committee come Bracketology time.

Like they're lacking in motivation, Stanford can look no further than last year's 73-68 loss in the Emerald City to know how tough it can be to play on Washington's home court.

"They're really good at disrupting people and taking them out of what they like to do," senior center Joe Kirchofer said.

Hmm. The Cardinal excel in that part of the game too, don't they?

The story of the weekend was undoubtedly the Cardinal's defense; Stanford held both Oregon and Oregon State to season-low outputs in points as they bottled up the Beavers' David Lucas and the Ducks' Luke Jackson. Both teams shot only 32 percent from the floor against Stanford's tightfisted man-to-man defense.

"When we've been good, it's because of our defensive energy," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "It allows us to be more aggressive offensively."

Saturday, there was some concern Stanford was going to be too aggressive early on. And why not? With the hoopla of senior day, the closing of Maples Pavilion for the next 10 months and the planned post-game celebration of another Pac-10 title, there was plenty of reason to expect Stanford to lose focus early.

For those of you who missed the games' first 16 minutes because ABC broadcast of golf's Accenture Match Play semifinals in its entirety, you didn't miss much. By the time the cameras cut back to Maples Pavilion, Stanford had already pulled ahead for good behind a stellar performance from junior swingman Josh Childress.

Childress was gliding into the lane for layups, nailing the usual open three-pointers and putting the clamps on Jackson, who had only seven first-half points before moving to power forward in the second half to free himself of the pesky defender-long arms and all.

All in all, Childress had 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in one of his most complete games of the season. The preseason All-American candidate seems to be finally living up to his billing, an observation which of course elicited the inevitable questions about his NBA future.

"I don't want to lose focus on what we're doing right now," Childress said in response to said questioning. "And me thinking about that is us losing focus."

The other standout from the Oregon shellacking hasn't been in the spotlight much of his career but has arguably become an important role player for the Cardinal this season. That's right, Joe Kirchofer started for only the second time in his career, and posted his first double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds).

No, Rob Little didn't get injured, too. Kirchofer started as a ceremonial gesture by Montgomery-and things worked out better than the coach could even have imagined.

Especially when he was wrestling whether he'd let Kirchofer start at all.

Early in the week, Montgomery was concerned about sending Kirchofer the wrong message by letting him start and believing that his role off the bench wasn't important. Little, however, called his coach Friday and told him that Joe should start.

Later that day, Kirchofer, completely unaware of Little's phone call, approached Montgomery and told him that he'd be ready to do whatever was best for the team and encouraged Monty to start Little. That convinced the Stanford coach of his decision-and informed Kirchofer of the decision at Saturdays' pre-game shootaround.

"That speaks volumes about our basketball team and what's important," Montgomery explained.

Stanford has been extremely cautious and guarded with its collective emotions throughout the winning streak but finally found some time to celebrate after the last home game of the season.

First, the players donned hats and T-shirts commemorating Stanford's fourth Pac-10 title in six years. Then the spontaneous celebration broke out.

The players dashed over to the Sixth Man Club-Stanford's student section-to give a few high fives and shake some hands. Childress was the first to stand on the courtside chairs to thank the students and seemed ready to crowd-surf before joining the rest of his teammates in running to the other side of the section for some more celebration.

"I'm going to miss the Sixth Man Club a lot," the senior Kirchofer said. "I don't envision any other time in my life where people will be sleeping out to come see me do something."

The student section chanted senior forward Justin Davis' name towards the end of the game in his honor, since, after all, Kirchofer and Matt Lottich, the other two seniors, actually got to play in their last game at Maples.

Thursday, the environment-and Stanford itself-was a little bit less spectacular. Chris Hernandez led Stanford with 13 points while Childress had 12 and freshman Fred Washington had a career-high 11 off the bench. Childress played the most minutes of any Cardinal player (25) as Montgomery played his reserves for most of the second half.

"It was good to get everyone minutes," Montgomery said. "This stage of the season, the last thing you want to do is run your guys into the ground. We've got a good 10-man rotation going now. It's healthy for the locker room. Everyone gets a chance to play some meaningful minutes."

The goal for Stanford now is to keep the games meaningful for themselves, or else they could awake Monday morning victims of history.

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