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It has been a LONG time since we have spoken here at TheBootleg.com, and trust me; there is plenty to talk about. I have not yet had my chance to speak on victories over Arizona State, Arizona, or Cal, so I will try to keep comments short.
First off, does anyone else get the feeling that this is a team of destiny? Some Boot-posters were earlier comparing this team to the recent Ohio State college football championship team, and I think that is a good place to begin. It seems that both teams were/are destined to be victorious. The Buckeyes made a habit of playing close games that they won at the end because they were a collection of winners. They didn't blow anyone out of the water with overwhelming athleticism, they didn't blow many teams out, and they were never totally feared by any opponent. Essentially, they were that "soft" good team, the one that everyone wants to play because looking at the box score or reading articles about the team doesn't give the full story about their excellence. However, once teams played them they were clearly humbled and left to shake their heads in collective amazement. It turns out that they were certainly not "soft." They might not have blown opponents out, but they were the best-drilled, most skilled, best-coached, and most physical team you had played that season. When the game was over you realized that those guys on Sportscenter, Fox Sports, and CBS were wrong. This was not a lucky team that you had played, but a team that was superior in almost every aspect of the game. Most importantly, it was a team that refused to lose. It was a team filled with guys who believed in team success and backed up their teammates with fervor and commitment. Does anyone still doubt that Ohio State was a worthy champion?
The last paragraph easily could have been about this year's Stanford Cardinal. Stanford is the "soft" undefeated team in the eyes of people outside of the Pac-10. People look at the glossy record and refuse to believe Stanford is that good. They look at victories over Arizona, Oregon, and Arizona State as lucky. They point to a less than overwhelming cast of competitors in the Pac-10. It seems that pundits do everything but acknowledge that this team is for real. I know that recently a few national media members have touted Stanford as a championship contender, but most of the nation remains unconvinced. Many people EXPECT Stanford to fall today at USC. It is true that Stanford historically struggles against this team and that USC played Stanford tough in Maples last month, so it is feasible that Stanford could be upset. However, it is not feasible for some national media members to say that Stanford is unlikely to escape the weekend undefeated. USC and UCLA are the 6th and 8th place teams in the Pac-10. Stanford should beat both of them because they are the better team. They might be upset, but they should win both, and do so rather handily.
Stanford will be a contender throughout the NCAA Tournament because they simply know how to win basketball games. They are one of the best-coached teams in the nation and Mike Montgomery knows how to get maximum production out of his system and his players. Stanford does not have any of the big egos that usually come as a package deal with successful teams. The Cardinal players care first about winning and about individual accolades and personal statistics a DISTANT second. Not many players of Josh Childress' caliber would come off the bench when they were ready to return after injury. Not many Nick Robinson types would go back to the bench without a fight. Not many point guards would be so unselfish as to pass up a contested three-pointer in the waning seconds of a nationally televised game against a ranked rival to swing the ball to the open shooter. There is a story like this for every player on the roster. The fact that these players like each other and are committed to each other shows up in the win column. This team is built on teamwork and a winning attitude. This team does not know how to lose and doesn't want to learn what it feels like. That doesn't mean that they will make it through the season unblemished, but it does mean that they have a very good chance to be the only team in the country not ending their season on a losing note. Please don't call it luck; anyone who has watched this team play would prefer to call it destiny.
It was nice to see Stanford pull out a victory with Chris Hernandez having a tough night against Cal. Stanford is going to need everything it can get from Hernandez to win a title, but it was reassuring to see that this team can overcome a poor outing by its floor leader. Other guys stepped up nicely (seems to be the motto of this particular team) and Stanford was able to pull out a very nice win in what I think is the toughest venue in the Pac-10. Still, Hernandez is the glue of this team. Stanford is nothing more than a good team when he has an off night. All of the other pieces are there, but Hernandez is the smooth operator who gets this team to play to its potential. Lute Olson was correct when he said that Hernandez is the most valuable player on Stanford. Stanford has overcome several injuries this season, but Hernandez is the one guy that this team can not afford to lose for any period of time. Hernandez is going to be one of the best point guards in this conference for the next two-plus seasons, but it is comforting to see that his teammates can pick up the slack for him when he has an off night...
Rob Little had one of the best games I have seen him play last Saturday against Cal. Little asserted himself from the opening tip and was relentless in the paint. Little threw his weight around, banged on the boards, and helped to play outstanding defense against Leon Powe. If Little can get to a point where he can bring production like that to the court every night, the Card become even more dangerous. Right now, the only thing that concerns me about this team is the lack of consistency in the front court. Little mixes bad games with stellar games, when healthy; Justin Davis is wildly inconsistent (although more consistent this season than in past ones); Matt Haryasz goes through funks you would expect from a still developing sophomore; and Joe Kirchofer is an energy player whose offense is nothing more than a bonus. Someone always steps up in the front court, but there is always the worry that none of the four will post a dominant game. When that happens, this team is at its most vulnerable. If Rob Little can put together more games like the one he had against Cal it will go a a long way to easing the minds of Coach Montgomery and Stanford fans...
I am reluctant to devote another paragraph to the Stanford defense because it seems like I talk about it every week, but the Card play incredible defense. The performance against Leon Powe was amazing. Stanford defenders pushed and harassed him all night and never let him establish position down low. Coach Montgomery drew up a masterful defensive game plan and his players executed it perfectly. After being burned by Richard Midgely the first time around, Stanford defenders keyed in on him as well and were able to contain him. The second half of the game was as good of a defensive performance as you will see from a college basketball team...
The last second of the first half against Cal is the perfect reference for fans that can't understand how Stanford is still undefeated. Most teams would have sulked into the locker room down by six points and brooding about officiating during the late first half run. The Cardinal sucked it up and clawed their way to four points in the final second. The hustle and heart of the team changed the momentum of the game and signaled the beginning of the end for the Bears. Championship teams make the little plays that lead to victory. The Josh Childress rebound and two free throws was that type of championship caliber play...
Fox Sports Net does an awful job covering Pac-10 basketball. It has gotten better (last year I would have rated it as mind-numbingly awful), but they still have a long way to go. Frankly, the announcers seem to know little about college basketball and even less about Pac-10 basketball. It gets so bad that I often find myself turning off the audio and tuning into Murph and Platz or the KZSU feed and watching the game with radio commentary. At least those people know the player's names, have some energy, and have knowledge of Pac-10 basketball and Stanford history. Plus, the fact that Stanford is the number one team in the nation and can't get airtime from Fox Sports is ridiculous. Essentially, the Pac-10 is killing itself with its television contract. If the conference wants more respect on the national level then they should find a network that cares about Pac-10 basketball and will do a good job promoting it. Find someone who is willing to put quality broadcasters behind the microphone and put the top teams on television. It is what the other networks do and what Fox Sports should have done long ago...
This is shaping up to be the most interesting Pac-10 Tournament yet. For the first time since the tourney was resurrected it looks like all the teams might have something to play for, and that should have sponsors and fans alike jumping for joy. If Stanford enters undefeated, you have to believe that Coach Montgomery will not do his usual routine of writing off the tournament, and Stanford will truly play to win. Arizona comes to the tourney fighting for a higher seed. It is not often that the Cats don't have a protected seed (1-4) locked up by this point, but they will most likely be a borderline 4/5 seed by the time the Pac-10 tourney roles around. If that is the case, look for Lute Olson to take this event a little more seriously than he has in the past. California and Oregon still believe they are bubble teams, so strong performances down the stretch and solid showings in the tourney could be enough to squeak themselves into the big dance. USC and UCLA, as always, will be playing in front of partisan crowds and will attempt to ride the home advantage to a tourney victory. Washington might be the scariest team not named Stanford or Arizona in the field because of their athleticism and recent good play, and if the chips fall right the Huskies could easily pull together a three day run through the tournament. Finally, I find it hard to believe that Dick Bennett won't have something special drawn up for his Washington State Cougars. If they get the right draw, they could cause problems. Thus, it appears that any of the teams in the contest will actually have some shot at winning and everyone will have a reason to play hard and make this thing interesting. Should make for a very exciting three days…
Alright, a new format from here on out. Rather than listing teams 1-20, we will seed teams 1-4. In my opinion, these are the teams that SHOULD be seeded in the top 16 protected positions. This is not a copy of Joe Lunardi or anyone else; this is who I believe, after watching and reading far too much about basketball, are the top 16 seeds. A few new features at the end include big name teams that have disappointed, underrated teams (teams that will fair better than their seed indicates come tourney time), and overrated teams (teams that will perform worse than their seed indicates come tourney time).
Number one seeds
- Stanford (21-0) - The Card could lose a couple games and still be a number one seed. However, there is some benefit to being the number one overall seed, so there is plenty of motivation for the Card. Right now they are playing like the best team in the nation.
- St. Joseph's (23-0) - The Duke loss to Wake Forest is big for the Hawks because it increases the likelihood of St. Joe's earning the number one seed in the East bracket. The A-10 is weak, but I don't see how anyone can doubt these guys.
- Mississippi State (21-1) - The race for the last two number seeds gets more interesting with the Duke loss. Still, it can't be forgotten that these guys are one fluke tip-in away from joining St. Joe's and Stanford in the race for perfection. They have answered all the critics and beaten everyone placed in front of them.
- Oklahoma State (20-2) - The Cowboys are the biggest mover because of the recent Duke mini-slide. They have asserted their dominance over the Big 12, and if they can win both the regular season title and the Big 12 tourney, it will be tough to keep them out a top spot.
Number two seeds
- Duke (21-3) - I have the benefit of writing this after their second consecutive loss which is why they have dropped. However, if Duke recovers, wins out and claims an ACC tournament victory as well, they will be a number one seed for sure. If they drop another game, then things get interesting. Still, I think Duke is too good to lose again in the regular season and this drop to a number two seed will most likely be temporary.
- Pittsburgh (23-2) - The Panthers have laid claim as the frontrunners to the Big East Championship, and that alone is worth a spot as a number one or two seed. Dispatching UConn was a big victory, but the loss to Seton Hall prevents them from moving higher.
- Gonzaga (22-2) - Say what you will about the WCC, but the Bulldogs are too good to not be a number two seed. Who below them has done as much to earn this spot? Even if the seeding committee decides otherwise, this team will go very far in March and might very well last into April.
- Kentucky (18-4) - Frankly, I don't think the Wildcats deserve this lofty of a ranking, but I can't even fathom moving anybody else up to a top two seed. Kentucky has been very up and down, but so long as they don't face the Georgia Bulldogs they should be okay. Any sort of good finish to the regular season and prolonged run in the SEC tournament (I am thinking title game) makes this seed pretty close to a reality.
Number three seeds
- Wake Forest (16-5) - This might seem a little bit high for a team with their record, but the win over Duke is huge for their tournament credentials. Back to back wins over Cincinnati and Duke is a real statement and has this team moving quicker up the charts than anyone else.
- Providence (17-5) - I honestly never expected to rank Providence in the top 10 of any ranking I compiled. However, they are beating everyone they have needed to, and will likely be able to hold onto this position if they continue to win because the teams around them are so inconsistent. They might not be the worthiest team to ever hold this place, but right now they are the tenth best team in the nation.
- Texas (18-4) - The 'Horns bounced back nicely against Texas A&M after a disappointing loss against Iowa State. However, the loss is not enough to overwrite what has been a very successful season in Austin. Barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the Longhorns are nearly a certainty to earn a protected seed.
- South Carolina (20-5) - The Gamecocks have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2003-2004 season. They suffered a tough setback last week against Mississippi State, and the tough four-point loss at home prevents them from moving up further, but the Gamecocks proved they will be a major player in the SEC tournament. If they win there, a number two seed may be a possibility.
Number four seeds
- Memphis (18-4) - Memphis has moved to the top of the Conference USA, and while teams like Cincinnati and Louisville fade to black, the Tigers continue to impress. These guys know how to win games and will be a huge threat down the stretch. I don't think the selection committee sees this team as a number four seed yet, but a strong finish should change that perception.
- Connecticut (20-5) - I don't understand how the Huskies have lost five games. They have more talent than most anyone in the nation and should be dominating the rest of college basketball. They are the perfect example of why you don't play games on paper. I still think this team will be fine come tournament time, but the high number of losses makes the road to the Final Four a very bumpy and difficult one indeed.
- North Carolina (15-7) - The Tar Heels really need to start playing better to solidify this spot. Right now, they are far too inconsistent. However, the loss by North Carolina State to Clemson, as well as Louisville's recent slide leaves this spot open. A good finish in the ACC will make this team tough to ignore when the selection committee doles out its final protected seeds.
- Southern Illinois (21-2) - Will the committee ever dream of ranking the Salukis this high? Not a chance. However, this week, the final spot came down to Louisville and Southern Illinois, and I just couldn't pick the Cardinals. I know it is horrible to knock a team down when they are playing without injured players, but other teams have done a far better job than Louisville has at playing through injuries. A 26-point loss to Texas Christian is unacceptable. Plus, the Salukis need to be acknowledged for their impressive season. The committee will never seed them this high, and they probably won't be this high next week, but a tip of the cap to one team that comes out an plays hard every week during a season where good teams continue to play down to the level of their opponent.
Others receiving consideration (alphabetical order)
Big Name teams that are not protected seeds (alphabetical order)
Overrated (alphabetical order)
Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas Tech, Wisconsin
Underrated (alphabetical order)
Charlotte, Dayton, LSU, Michigan State, South Carolina, Southern Illinois, Utah State
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