When the Stanford men’s basketball team hosts the top-ranked and undefeated Arizona Wildcats tonight at 6 p.m. at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal (13-6, 4-3 Pac-12) will do all it can to make life difficult for the heavily favored Wildcats (20-0, 7-0), who enter the matchup riding the longest win streak in school history.
To understand the gravity of a game in which Arizona will put its school-best win streak on the line, some background on both the history of the Stanford-Arizona matchup, and on a more personal level, my attachment to the rivalry as a lifelong Stanford basketball fan, is in order.
For those who are perhaps a bit unfamiliar with the basketball history between these two schools, a quick refresher might be useful.
Between 1998 and 2005, Stanford and Arizona were the dominant basketball powers on the West Coast. During the formative years of my basketball fandom, back when the floor at Maples visibly bounced at the mercy of the stomping Sixth Man Club, the Cardinal and the Wildcats combined to win seven of eight Pac-10 titles. The only year one of these two teams didn’t win the conference championship, 2002, they tied for second.
The two schools combined to finish first and second together in the conference standings six times during that stretch, with the only exceptions coming during the aforementioned 2002 season, and 2005, when Stanford tied for third.
In other words, Stanford was a basketball school, and Stanford-Arizona was the yearly climax of the Pac-10 basketball season. The games between the two teams often decided the outcome of the conference race, and from 2001 until a certain game in 2004 — a stretch of six straight contests — the road team peculiarly won every matchup in the series.
Stanford basketball had reached its pinnacle during the 2003-04 season, when the team put its 19-game win streak and No. 2 national ranking on the line to host No. 12 Arizona. What ensued on Feb. 7, 2004 was a back-and-forth affair that is hard to describe, and is now probably best experienced on YouTube.
There was a dramatic Stanford rally in the final minute of the game, complete with a bouncing Tiger (Tigger?) Woods at courtside, an absolutely raucous student section, and the most wonderfully ludicrous shot in Stanford basketball history, a running 35-footer by Nick Robinson as time expired to complete the comeback. Maples Pavilion exploded, the Stanford winning streak would continue and the Cardinal would end the conference season as Pac-10 champions, much to the delirious delight of this then-11-year-old.
Shortly thereafter, however, the precipitous decline of Stanford basketball began. The Cardinal was upset in the second round of the tournament by Alabama in a dubiously officiated game, head coach Mike Montgomery left for the NBA, the Maples floor was “fixed” and Stanford’s streak of 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances came to an end in 2006. Aside from the Lopez-led run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2008, Stanford basketball has failed to return to the previously lofty heights set during that eight-year span. My 11-year-old self would have been crestfallen to learn that this was the future that would befall my beloved Cardinal.
So it seems only fitting that if the much-beleaguered Johnny Dawkins era of Stanford basketball is ever going to have a turnaround, tonight would be the place to start, a week shy of the 10-year anniversary of Robinson’s heroics.
Stanford’s senior class is talented and likable, if at times mercurial and inconsistent. The Cardinal features a junior guard in Chasson Randle, who, barring injury, is going to finish his career as one of the top three scorers in school history. And as good as they are, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the Wildcats can keep their win streak going all season.
As I sit up in the press box tonight to take in the game, I will attempt to maintain ‘neutrality,’ as any ‘professional’ sports writer should. I will not participate in the chants of the student section, I will not cheer or clap. I will not yell at the refs for a bad call.
But if you think that I won’t be rocking my vintage Casey Jacobsen jersey under my shirt, or that I won’t be praying to the basketball gods during every single free throw, you’d be sadly mistaken. The 11-year-old in me lives on. Let’s bring back the magic to Maples.
Contact Daniel Lupin at delupin ‘at’ stanford.edu.