The Stanford men's basketball team is ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into Saturday's 6 p.m. showdown with No. 5 Arizona.
The key word in that sentence is "team"; the Cardinal (12-0, 1-0 in the Pacific-10 Conference) climbed to the top of the polls for the first time ever without a superstar, and has stayed there three weeks with suffocating defense and a potent balance of inside and outside scorers.
Need defense? Stanford is limiting opponents to a national-best .314 shooting percentage.
Inside strength? The Collins twins--6-foot-11 center Jason and 6-10 power forward Jarron--together average 22.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game.
Perimeter punch? Wings Ryan Mendez and David Moseley both average more than 10 points per game, and are a combined 40 for 104 (.385) on three-pointers.
But the most telling fact of all is this: Two of Stanford's three leading scorers, 6-9 senior power forward Mark Madsen and 6-6 freshman guard-forward Casey Jacobsen, both come off the bench.
"That poses a problem, I think, for people that are trying to scout us," said Jacobsen, a McDonald's all-American and California player of the year who has scored 65 points in the past three games and leads Stanford with 14 points per game. He scored 24 points against Arizona State. "They're going to prepare for the guys that are on the floor to start the game, and then they have to worry about who's on the bench and who's going to guard us.
"The players that they have on the floor are probably going to be tired, so they better get somebody else in or something."
The problem for a lot of teams is that they don't have anyone to fill such a role. That's especially true for Arizona (12-2, 1-0), which will have just eight scholarship players in uniform Saturday after a number left the team for various reasons this season.
"One thing we don't have a problem with is finding time for everybody," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. "I think Mike [Montgomery, Stanford's coach] may be getting into a problem of getting playing time for some guys."
Finding court minutes for everybody was a lot easier when Madsen missed eight games with a strained right hamstring suffered in the season-opening win over Duke. With Madsen back, averaging 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, Montgomery has to fit four players--Madsen, the Collins brothers and surprisingly effective freshman center Curtis Borchardt--into two spots.
The odd man out, for now, is Borchardt, a Washington State player of the year who at 6-11 leads the team in blocks with 30. Borchardt also has enough touch to hit the crucial late three-pointer, which he did in an early-season win over then-No. 2 Auburn.
"Having players that are good enough to play and deserving of playing time is a positive no matter how you slice it," Montgomery said. "If the kids buy in to that, it's a real plus."
So far, the experiment is working. Even Madsen, a starter when healthy for the past two years, is hooked.
"Of course every player wants to start," Madsen said, noting he may be the lone exception. "I can't explain it, but I feel great about my role right now. There is no comparison starting on a mediocre team and coming off the bench on a championship club."
Madsen may be back in the starting lineup against Arizona, but Montgomery won't say. In fact, the coach has become increasingly irritated over the past few weeks when asked about who starts and who doesn't.
"It's not an issue," Montgomery snapped following the Cardinal's 86-67 win over Arizona State on Thursday. "It's only an issue because you [media] make it an issue."
Not everyone at Stanford was so quick to adopt the role-player concept. Both Moseley, a senior, and Mendez, a redshirt junior, considered transferring during their sophomore seasons two years ago. And Jarron Collins, who may lose his starting spot to Madsen, said the idea of being a sub is not innate.
"Everybody wants to be the man, but deep down we realize that we need to sacrifice the self for ourselves," he said, adding that it took some time to absorb that lesson. "Look at what David Robinson did when the Spurs asked him to sacrifice last year. The best teams are ones where people give in for the team."
Unselfish players, great team play, the No. 1 ranking--is there anything wrong on the idyllic Stanford campus?
Well, yes. If the Cardinal is thin anywhere, it's at point guard. After four years with all-American Brevin Knight, and two more with clutch performer Arthur Lee, junior Mike McDonald now holds the position.
McDonald is not asked to score much, and at 4.5 points per game, he doesn't. His role is running the offense, distributing the ball (4.4 assists per game), and playing defense.
So far, McDonald and backups Tony Giovacchini and Julius Barnes have been adequate, but have yet to face the kind of nonstop full-court pressure Arizona is sure to bring. Montgomery will be the first to admit his team is not perfect, and questions whether the Cardinal should be No. 1.
"That's just an arbitrary number, anyway," Montgomery said. "All we're trying to do is win games."
A Top Five Day
No. 5 Arizona (12-2)
at No. 1 Stanford (12-0)
No. 1 Connecticut (11-0)
at No. 2 Tennessee (11-1)
4 p.m., WUSA-9, WJZ-13