You don’t win 670 college basketball games without a mind like the proverbial steel trap, and so it is with Mike Montgomery and his recall of his last team that went deep into a season undefeated. He remembers the season finale at Washington in 2004, ”where we shot a few less free throws than our opponents.”
That’s the competitive cynic in him coming out, and indeed, when Washington won 75-62 that March 6, Stanford shot three free throws and the Huskies went 24 of 30 (Washington held the Cardinal to 39-percent shooting, which also had a little to do with it).
The bigger point is that Montgomery, coaching a team that was 26-0, was carrying around the weight of the world that day, or at least the burden of endless speculation about when (or if) it might finally lose.
Today, Arizona, top-ranked and 20-0 out of the gate in 2013-14, is still some distance from Stanford’s standard, yet commanding increasing attention as it faces a treacherous Bay Area trip this week.
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By my reckoning, ’Zona’s 20-game start ties it for third with another of Monty’’s Stanford teams (2001) in the 36-year Pac-10/12 era, behind that ’04 Cardinal squad and Ralph Miller’s 1981 Oregon State team, which also went 26-0 before losing. (If you go back to pre-1978 Pac-8 days, UCLA is a list all its own, six times under John Wooden starting at least 20-0, including four years when it ran the table all the way through the NCAA title game. But this is a discussion about mortals.)
On senior day in Corvallis, that top-ranked OSU team never saw it coming, although it should have, getting scalded by an uber-talented (Byron Scott, Fat Lever, Alton Lister), fifth-rated Arizona State squad, 87-67. For his part, Montgomery, putting aside the free throws at Edmundson Pavilion, recalls how the heat was getting oppressive for his 2004 team.
“I felt the pressure; I tried to keep it away from our guys,” said Montgomery, now coaching Cal. “When we got to the very end, when we were one or two wins away (from an unbeaten regular season), it was there. You couldn’t deny it. Whether the players felt it or not, I don’t know.
The glare hasn’t really fazed Arizona yet, but the prospect of it would be new not only to its coach, Sean Miller, but surprisingly, to the program. Miller’s best start at Xavier (2008-09) was 9-0, and Arizona’s best in the Pac-10/12 era was 12-0 in 1987-88.
“We’ve handled it well to this point,” said Miller on Tuesday’s Pac-12 teleconference. ”I don’t know how that’ll turn out on Wednesday (at Stanford). That can change very quickly. I’m smart enough to know that it’s not going to be like this every year. It’s difficult enough to win several in a row, let alone 20.”
The Bay Area is an obvious place for a slip. Stanford shoots well, but might not have enough inside to stay with Arizona. Cal, though it just turned in a disappointing weekend in L.A., can be troublesome off the dribble and shooting from outside, and with Richard Solomon and David Kravish, will contest underneath.
“I’ll tell you, they better not sleep on Stanford,” Montgomery warned, “or they won’t have to worry about it when they get to us.”
Arizona has two reliable components to keep this thing going. Its field-goal defense of .372 is easily best in the league and third nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted rankings. And it has a 10.1 rebound margin, always a handy asset when the shots aren’t falling. It has size, freshman Aaron Gordon’s energy and most people think guard Nick Johnson is the leader as the conference player of the year.
Last week at home, Arizona made only six of 29 three-point shots against Colorado and Utah. The Utes dragged the ’Cats down to the final minutes before succumbing, leaving their coach, Larry Krystkowiak, to say, “I think it’s imperative that you’re dialed in on the glass. We got them to miss a number of shots, but we did a really poor job on the defensive glass. If you have a deficiency, it can’t be a 20-offensive-rebounds (’Zona’s total) kind of deficiency.”
Krystkowiak points out that somewhere, some night, Arizona’s depth could come into question. The Wildcats used just seven players against Utah. Miller would hope that game isn’t in March. The experience of those aforementioned 26-0 teams underscores that past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Stanford lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament that year to Alabama at KeyArena. Monty’s only two defeats were within four miles of each other — and the ’81 Oregon State team went down to Kansas State, also in the second round, in the most devastating defeat in program history.
And What’s More …
• ASU coach Herb Sendek on center Jordan Bachynski: ”Not to be dramatic, but I would submit he’s arguably the most improved player in college basketball, if you look over the span of 3½ years.”
• UCLA’s game at Oregon Thursday night renews a coaching rivalry from the Missouri Valley Conference in the late ’90s, when Steve Alford went 6-5 against Dana Altman as coaches of Missouri State and Creighton, respectively.
• Fans at Oregon’s Saturday game with USC get a free bobblehead of Phil Knight. Wonder what kind of shoes it’ll be wearing?
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org