STANFORD, CALIF. While much of the nation sleeps, Stanford toils on the West Coast, racking up wins and moving up the rankings.
The Cardinal hadn't been talked about much as a potential Final Four contender because of some key injuries. But quietly and steadily, they've become one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season and are the only undefeated team in the top five.
Now that third-ranked Stanford (13-0) is finally healthy, watch out.
"I really don't think that we get a lot of the respect that other teams on the East Coast get," said sophomore point guard Chris Hernandez, sidelined earlier this season with back spasms. "That's fine. It just makes us more the underdog, so we can come out and prove to people more that we deserve to be with those top teams that they always name."
Despite his team's impressive first half of the season, coach Mike Montgomery warned his players to stay humble.
He knew the Cardinal would hear all the hype this week on campus, especially after their 82-72 victory over Arizona last Saturday in Tucson. Rival California is up next, on Saturday.
"I said, 'You know, you came back to campus and undoubtedly any number of people have told you how good you are,'" Montgomery recalled of his talk with the team. "'That's great. We played well, we won a game and now let's get back to the reality of who we are and what we have to do and why we were able to be successful.'
"I think it's important for the kids to know why we've been successful. For us, it started on the defensive end. Without that, we could be pretty average in a hurry."
That seems unlikely.
Not with this cast of overachievers, who are determined to make a deep postseason run this spring after losing to Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season -- the Cardinal's ninth straight appearance in the tournament.
And not now that their best player is back to full strength.
Junior forward Josh Childress, the Pac-10's second-leading rebounder last season and Stanford's top returning scorer, says he's finally playing at 100 percent after missing the first nine games with a left foot injury.
Yet he's still coming off the bench.
"Starting's not really an issue," Montgomery said. "He's a starter. He's one of the best players in the conference and probably one of the best players in the country."