Stanford, St. Joe’s Basketball Teams Surprise Pundits and Dominate FieldBy Brian Chase
Every year before the college basketball season, experts try to predict the dominant teams for the year, the ones that will “rise over all the competition,” “exhibit toughness,” and “play as a team,” yadda yadda yadda. Invariably, they miss someone. Every year, some team no one ranked that high comes out playing inspired basketball and turns all the pre-season predictions on their ear. Last year, it was Syracuse, who rose unheralded from the Big East ranks to beat Kansas in the National Championship game. So which team is the next Syracuse?
Well, as you may have heard, this year it is not a matter of team but teams, as in two of them. Both Stanford’s and St. Joseph’s basketball squads are undefeated with most of the college basketball season already passed, and both look like they have the real possibility of going undefeated for the entire season. When you consider that the last time a team went undefeated in the regular season was 1976 with the Indiana Hoosiers, and that team had three All-Americans headlining the roster, you can understand what an accomplishment it would be for two teams to each be undefeated going into the NCAA tournament. Even more, both teams played last Saturday in two games labeled the toughest left in the season. The result? Stanford beat California, 69-58 to move to 21-0, while St. Joseph’s easily swatted away Rhode Island, 73-59 to become 22-0. Let’s take a look at these two teams and how they got to where they are.
In many ways, St. Joseph’s success is easier to account for because it is very easy to see where St. Joe’s is better than anyone they play: their backcourt and their defense. Led by Jameer Nelson, the Hawks’ star point guard, St. Joseph’s backcourt (i.e. their point guard and shooting guard) rain down points on opponents and direct the tempo of their offense better than anybody else. The Hawks do not have many big players, so they rely on outside shooting and lightning-quick transition basketball to score points on their opponents rather than inside domination. However, the excellent passing skills of their guards help to get some inside points as well, making sure defenders can’t simply close down on the perimeter.
On the opposite end of the court, the Hawks play a tight, stifling defense, designed to keep the opponents’ guards from getting the ball inside to their big men, who might be able to score easily on the Hawks.
As of yet, though, St. Joseph’s has not played a team that can consistently pass inside on their defense, which gives St. Joe’s the opportunity to build a lead and then hang on to it. This is why many St. Joseph’s games are low-scoring and one-sided. True, the Hawks have an easy schedule and play in a weak conference (the Atlantic 10), so in the tourney, they might play a team that can penetrate their perimeter defense. But until then, they won’t be losing. I agree with many pundits who predict St. Joe’s as the team more assured of perfection.
In ways, this team is more surprising than St. Joe’s because as a top-quality academic institution, Stanford has higher academic standards -- even when recruiting athletes -- than most state schools do. This limits Coach Mike Montgomery to a smaller pool of talent, and yet he has arguably the top team in the country right now. Unlike St. Joseph’s, Stanford does not have an obvious offensive disposition. In fact, the really remarkable thing about Stanford is how they continue to win even as their lineup is plagued by injuries. First, it was junior Josh Childress, the teams’ leading scorer, out with a stress fracture in his foot. Stanford beat Kansas, the defending national runner-up, while he was out. Up until last Saturday’s game against Cal, it was second-place scorer and rebounder Justin Davis who was injured. The Cardinal (that’s their mascot, the Cardinal -- no “s”) have never been at full health all season, which makes their undefeated run all the more unlikely.
And their team has shown flaws. At times, their offense stalls, often giving opponents a chance to erase a deficit or build a lead. But somehow, Stanford responds to the pressure and always comes back. In that way, the biggest star of the Stanford squad is Coach Mike Montgomery, who has taken a group of untouted players and given them the mental toughness necessary to keep winning. Stanford has been much luckier than St. Joe’s, almost losing several times to Pac-10 opponents. The chances of their going undefeated in the regular season is probably less than St. Joseph’s, but it could be as late as the last game of the season before they finally lose a game.