Scary good? No, just perfect so far
Each are trying to do what UNLV did last. But, let's be honest, Stanford and Saint Joseph's aren't in the Runnin' Rebels class -- even if one or both duplicate UNLV's remarkable feat of finishing the regular season undefeated.
Even at 20-0, neither Stanford or St. Joe's intimidates its opponents. And if either gets to 30-0 entering the NCAA Tournament, they won't be feared by foes in the dance.
UNLV? Now that was a team that intimidated its opponents. The Runnin' Rebels were feared by those in the Big West and beyond. It was a team loaded with potential NBA players who knew pretty much from the moment they stepped on the court that they were going to win. That will happen when a team wins 45 straight games over the course of two seasons.
"Remember we were the defending champs," said Greg Anthony, a junior guard on UNLV's 1990 national championship team that won its final 11 games and didn't lose again until the '91 Final Four.
Not only did UNLV expect to win, but the nation expected the Rebels to win every game.
"It was a shock when they lost to Duke in the national semifinals," says Saint Joseph's head coach Martelli. "No one is invincible like they were. That UNLV team will go down as one of the 10-12 best teams ever. No one is going to say that about us or Stanford."
"We knew entering the season that we were really good," former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "We were intimidating because of our defense. We had coaches scared that they couldn't get into their offense. We weren't flawed at all.
"There is more parity now, not a lot of great teams. It was pretty hard when we did it, but we were darn good."
No one has gone more than 26 games before losing in the regular season since UNLV's dominance. Why? Tarkanian hit on the biggest reason: parity, which translates into tougher road games. But, quite frankly, there hasn't been another team as feared as UNLV in the last 12 seasons.
It doesn't mean Saint Joseph's and Stanford can't end up like Massachusetts during the 1995-96 season. The Minutemen went 26-0 before losing to George Washington on Feb. 24. They won their next nine games to get to the Final Four, where Marcus Camby and company lost to Kentucky in the national semifinals.
Or, this year's perfection could translate into the 1999 Connecticut Huskies, who won 19 straight to open the season and ultimately won the national title.
Or maybe they'll be like Utah in 1998, which won 18 straight but wasn't expected to get to the Final Four. Yet the Utes did, and then lost to Kentucky in the national title game. Or maybe they'll be like Kansas in 1997 and win 22 in a row and then flame out in the Sweet 16.
The point is, just because Stanford and Saint Joseph's have gone 20 straight games without a loss, doesn't mean either is invincible or without flaws. They aren't, and they both know it.
Stanford was quick to say after Saturday's thrilling victory over Arizona that the Cardinal have plenty to work on, starting with offensive lulls like the one that allowed Arizona to outscore Stanford 14-0 late in the second half. It's just one area the Cardinal can work on, said center Rob Little. Stanford also had issues with Arizona's quickness, and admittedly, assistant coach Tony Fuller said Stanford couldn't stop the Wildcats from scoring.
But Stanford knows while its record may be unblemished, its play is not perfect. There is no talk of going undefeated, just "winning the next game." And that means winning in places such as rival Cal on Saturday, at USC and UCLA next weekend, and the Washington schools in the final week of the regular season. Winning these games, as well as a pair at home against Oregon and Oregon State, would get Stanford to 27-0. A perfect regular season, technically. But still not perfect into the NCAA Tournament. That would take three more wins at the Staples Center in the Pac-10 tournament.
Stanford faces four, if not more, chances to lose. Saint Joseph's, meanwhile, probably has only one more scheduled opportunity to lose -- Wednesday at home against Dayton. Still, a feeling of invincibility isn't flowing out of either Philadelphia or Northern California.
"No one is going to be shocked if either one of us loses a regular-season game," Martelli said. "Both teams clearly recognize that if we don't play our best game, we could lose to all of the teams left on our schedule."
But Martelli wouldn't mind being held in high esteem if the Hawks do get through the next seven games and run the table at the A-10 tournament in Dayton.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Martelli said. "We know who we are. But that would be great."
To get to 30-0, Saint Joseph's will have to overcome its big men making about one of two free throws they attempt. The Hawks also know their strength lies in their backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, which means teams may look to counter with bigger players. Cal was one team that could play the Hawks big, and it's no coincidence St. Joe's closest call came Dec. 20 against the Bears (59-57).
|“||No one is invincible like they were. That UNLV team will go down as one of the 10-12 best teams ever. No one is going to say that about us or Stanford." ”|
|— Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's head coach|
"Every one of these teams in the top 10 is flawed," Martelli said. "The key is being able to exploit the flaw."
Exploiting a familiar foe's weaknesses in conference play has kept teams from going undefeated the past 12 seasons. More often than not, the last unbeatens each season wind up losing a conference game (Kansas lost to Missouri in double overtime in '97). It's a case of knowing how to exploit a better team's flaws, especially the second time around in the league.
"It's just so hard to go through a year undefeated," Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon said. "Most of the conference champs have a few losses. It's just too tough. I never would predict a team would go undefeated in the regular season. But, I will say, Stanford and Saint Joseph's have won their tougher games."
Dixon is referring to Stanford's non-conference wins over Kansas and Gonzaga, as well as beating Arizona twice and winning in Oregon. Saint Joseph's already won at Richmond and Xavier, while opening the season with a victory over Gonzaga in New York and Cal a few weeks later in Oakland.
"I think people forget how tough it is to win on the road, especially with 18- to 22-year olds," Gonzaga's Mark Few said. "Teams in the pros don't go through the season undefeated. These teams that are winning all of these games, the more they win, the more it becomes a big game when they're on the road.
"UNLV had an intimidation factor about them when they did it. There was fear when teams played them. UNLV wouldn't let you run your offense. Saint Joseph's pressure defense is the closest thing to that because it's harder to run your offense. Stanford doesn't get out and press people but the Cardinal have great balance."
Few knows first-hand just what it may take to beat either. Gonzaga's only two losses this season have come to Saint Joseph's and Stanford. Few would still be surprised if either were able to run the table, because it's just too hard.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said going undefeated was never a goal. It still isn't. The same is true at Saint Joseph's.
And, while it hasn't happened since 1991, and no one expects Stanford or Saint Joseph's to do it (not even themselves), doesn't mean one of these two can't in 2004. And if they do, maybe Stanford or Saint Joseph's will be a little more intimidating come March. At least for a few rounds.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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