Bulldogs Draw Cardinal To Open NCAA Play

Rick Stansbury admitted his advance information on the opponent was sketchy. "There's not much we know about Stanford right now except they're in the…" After a few silent seconds, the fan magazine editor provided the prompt. "…Pac-10!" the coach repeated, grinning.

No, neither Mississippi State head coach nor team knew too much about their first-round opponent in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Nor did they really care at the moment. All that mattered to the Bulldogs is that they are rewarded for a tough and not always enjoyable regular season with a berth in the postseason.

"It's a clean slate," said senior forward Lawrence Roberts. "It's a whole different ball game. Every team is at the same level as far as you lose, you go home. We know it's our last game if we don't win so we're going to go in there guns blazing."

The Bulldogs will be loading up for their NCAA shootout in Charlotte, N.C., as the #9 seed in the overall Austin, Texas, Regional. State, 22-10, is matched against the 18-12 and #8-seeded Cardinal. The winner of Friday's game (time TBA as of 7:30 Sunday) in the Charlotte Coliseum will play Sunday, meeting the winner of Duke-Delaware State. The Duke Blue Devils are the overall #1 seed in this regional, and Sunday's survivor advances to Austin the next weekend.

By Monday morning Stansbury and staff will know far more about Stanford than the league (the Cardinal went 11-7 in the Pac-10) and the records. What the coach knew even before learning of seed-and-site was that no matter the assignment this bid was a reward his team deserved.

"First and foremost we're happy to be a part of this tournament. As I've said many times, for this team going through the things they've gone through, to be in this position, I'm awfully proud of them."

The Bulldogs were entirely confident their name would be called Sunday, so much so that media members were allowed to join them in the team room (but not share their pizzas) for the selection show. Even when it went down to the last of the four regionals nobody appeared worried; in fact, senior forward Ontario Harper was playing a basketball video game in the minutes leading up to the announcement. It was pure coincidence that the ‘teams' on his screen were Florida, the team that knocked State out of the SEC Tournament in Atlanta, and…Duke.

#9-seed State will be definite under-Dogs in Charlotte, but after a career of postseason appearances Harper is not worried. "You don't have the bulls-eye on your back," he said. "Everybody's not expecting us to win, but we've still got to play."

For his part Stansbury had no problems with a seeding in the lower-half of a NCAA bracket. He had anticipated being either an eight or nine, the only difference in the two being which gets to wear the ‘home' jerseys. Stanford will. "And it could have fallen to a ten," Stansbury said. "But 8, 9, 10, that doesn't mean anything."

Actually it could, as a 10 (or a 7) would have meant meeting some #2 seed in the second round instead of a top-seed, not to mention one practically playing at home. But given State's overall record, a 9-7 mark for SEC season, and only one win all year over a currently-ranked opponent (Florida), a mid-bracket seed seemed reasonable. The Bulldogs were 2-8 against teams that made the 64-team field, with wins over St. Mary's and Florida.

By the same token State has gone into the last three NCAA Tournaments the higher or highest seed in their sub-regionals, and not gotten past the second round. So some veterans don't mind playing under-Dogs for a change. "The seed, it's about what we thought," Roberts said. "We knew we'd fall into that seed, it was just a matter of what bracket and where we'd be at."

Stansbury said seedings don't matter nearly as much as the particular opponent anyway, which is always a matter of draw-luck. "No question sometimes you get bad matchups, two years ago we got a bad Butler matchup and I don't think anybody wanted to play Xavier last year."

Now, for another change, State plays a foe from one of the ‘power' conferences. The Cardinal split their last six games, and also lost in the second round of their league tourney. The mixed results at the end of the schedule were largely due to the loss of leading scorer Dan Grunfeld, son of the 1970's Tennessee star, who tore a knee ligament in the 22nd game of the year. The junior swingman had been averaging 17.9 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Since then Stanford has relied on junior guard Chris Hernandez (15.3 points, 62 treys) and forward Matt Haryasz (12.4 points, 9.1 rebounds). The Cardinal is not a high-powered offensive team, shooting just 44% and scoring 70 points, but they are an outstanding defensive club and feature plenty veterans of previous NCAA tourneys.

So does State, which means neither squad should have any March Madness jitters by Friday. The two seem closely-matched enough that being 8/9 seeds looks natural now, not that the number in front of the name means much to Stansbury. "This year more than in previous years, seeding outside one or maybe two carries less weight than ever before. There are so many teams so close.

"But we're not going in as a favorite, we're a low seed and that's a difference from the way we've gone in the last three years. So if you want to turn that into a positive, we'll be the underdog and use that to our advantage if we can."

One advantage coach and team do see is the scheduling. State will have had a full week's rest between tournament games, and the Bulldogs need it badly. "I'm definitely glad to play on a Friday," said senior guard Shane Power, still recovering from an ankle injured during the Wednesday practice in Atlanta. "It gives an extra day not only to get healthy but get our legs back."

Power played both SEC tourney games but was far from full strength, especially the second day, and did not practice Sunday. "I hope to practice tomorrow," he said. Stansbury said Power would not be ready for at least another day, and that senior guard Winsome Frazier and senior center Marcus Campbell would also be questionable. "The rest will help us, for sure," the coach said.

Roberts isn't so certain. "I can't tell if that will help or hurt, the injuries have happened the day before a game, we've never seen them coming! It would be a lot better to play tomorrow before somebody gets hurt!"

Hopefully the Bulldogs don't lose anyone else before Friday's tipoff. They plan to fly to Charlotte on Wednesday, and the site satisfies Stansbury. "Outside The Hump, it's as close as any option." And given NCAA ticket policies distance is essentially meaningless anyway.

All that matters is that State is scheduled to start dancing Friday, and this team would like to keep the music playing longer than their previous three appearances. Getting to this point took a lot out of the Dogs, Frazier said. "It's a light at the end of the tunnel now. People might not see us going far in the bracket, but we can upset a lot of teams."

It would certainly be seen as an upset if Mississippi State were to win a set in Charlotte and advance to Austin. For that matter Stansbury doesn't want his team to even consider Sunday's potential for playing top-seeded Duke. Stanford is the only business that matters.

"It's an opportunity to be in the tournament," Stansbury said. "And you have to understand it's a one game deal and you have to be at your best."

Older Dogs understand this very well, after the letdowns of 2003 and '04. So the Cardinal will get all of State's attention this week. "It's a great opportunity to take a game at a time," Roberts said. "The goal is still high, and I think we can advance pretty far if we stay focused on taking it one game at a time." Besides, Roberts added, "This is it for us seniors. And when you have the option of win or go home, teams tend to give it their all."

"It's a great opportunity," Power said. "We have to get healthy for it, have good days of practice, and go in with a clean slate. It's 0-0 at this point."

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