The obvious comparisons were made within minutes of the bracket revelation on Sunday, when Stanford drew a team from the SEC. The Card were unceremoniously ousted in their last NCAA game by another SEC opponent: Alabama. The problems that plagued Stanford in that game could arise again, as they play an athletic and aggressive team, unable to cope with the style after being mentally handcuffed for three months by Pac-10 officiating. But there is a deeper concern I have as to how Mississippi State could parallel last year's opponent... as well as the North Carolina team that upended Stanford in 2000. The Tar Heels that year, the Tide last year and apparently the case for the Bulldogs this year - all tremendously talented and athletic teams who underachieved in the regular season. Those "sleeping giants" are not who you want to face in the NCAA Tournament, when the stakes are the highest and players leave it all out on the floor. Mississippi State has in Lawrence Roberts the 2004 SEC Player of the Year and someone who could and maybe should have come out early for the NBA Draft last spring. He is a Justin Davis level of rebounder, with twice the offensive skill. The guards and wings for MSU rival the best any Pac-10 can offer, to boot.
And these Bulldogs are hungry. They start four seniors, who all recognize this as their last chance at NCAA success. In a story all too familiar to Cardinalmaniacs™, Mississippi State has failed to advance to the Sweet 16 the last three years, each time getting upset by a lower seed. Last year they were a #2 and bowed out to #7 Xavier. In 2003 they lost a shocking first round game as a #5 seed to #12 Butler. And in 2002 they were bounced as a #3 seed by #6 Texas. Seniors with loads of talent and a lot to prove - these Bulldogs are chomping at the bit to finally find success this year.
"We just hope we're one of those dangerous teams, healing at the right time and coming together as one," says fifth-year senior Shane Power. "We're playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain."
One reason MSU underachieved the second half of their season was their deluge of injuries. Stanford can certainly empathize but will not shed a tear for their first round opponents, given the Cardinal's own woes this year. But one important difference is that the Bulldogs are healing right now and might be today in the best shape they have enjoyed in more than a month. Head coach Rick Stansbury declared yesterday that Power, a sharpshooting wing, is now at full strength after an ankle injury in the SEC Tournament.
"Shane is 100%. He's absolutely fine," the coach commented.
The other Bulldog bomber to beware is senior Winsome Frazier, who Stansbury also feels benefited tremendously from the long week of rest before this Friday tip-off. The 6'4" shooting guard missed eight games during the season with a broken bone in his foot and is working his way back into form.
"It's pretty obvious he has not been the old Frazier," the coach laments. "Frazier is the one that needed [rest] more than anybody - that second game in the SEC Tournament took a toll on him."
Stansbury stops short of calling Frazier as well as Power, though he does feel the senior's offense is close to where it once was, with the defense suffering more. And then there is big Marcus Campbell, who started 28 games for Mississippi State this year but has been out the last two weeks with a pulled calf muscle. He, too, has reaped the fruits of this Friday start, practicing the last couple days and improving each time out. Adding a 7'0" center to your rotation is non-trivial advantage, even if he comes off the bench for spot minutes.
On the defensive end, it sounds like Stansbury is focused on containing Chris Hernandez. As I sat and listened to the MSU head coach talk about Stanford during his press conference yesterday, he handed out more praise to the Cardinal point guard than any other Stanford player. While not quite a copy of the scouting report, it hints at how the Bulldogs might approach the game defensively. Stansbury compared Hernandez to Florida guard Anthony Roberson in his ability to shoot and score, and Mississippi State is particularly sensitive to three-point shooters after some of the blisterings they have suffered this year. Perimeter shooting defense has been a focal weakness, if not the weakness for the Bulldogs this year, and SEC opponents took advantage. On the year, MSU opponents averaged more than 21 three-point attempts per game. More than twenty-one!
If Stansbury puts sophomore point guard Gary Ervin on Hernandez, it could be a long night for the Stanford redshirt junior. Ervin does not have the size or length that some Pac-10 opponents have used against Hernandez in recent weeks, but he has fantastic quickness. He may resemble Chris Stephens from Oregon State, who gave Hernandez fits in both match-ups this year. With great quickness in both his hands and his feet, Ervin will be tasked to harass and pressure the Stanford shooter whenever he handles the ball. If the parallel to Stephens holds true, then keep in mind the 4-of-14 (28.6%) combined three-point shooting Hernandez mustered against the Beavers this year.
While we want to see Hernandez hit his shots and stay on his scoring game, there is a trap to beware. For a variety of reasons, Mississippi State has allowed a tremendous number of three-point attempts this year, and it stands to reason that the Cardinal will have their own openings tonight. That might be good for Hernandez, but this still remains a week three-point shooting team. When you take away Dan Grunfeld's statistics, Stanford is a meager 32.9% outside the arc. Jason Haas is shooting 20.0% and Nick Robinson is hitting 25.4% from deep. The Cardinal coaches are hoping against a shooting contest, and instead the emphasis all week has been on attacking the basket. But against a talented and athletic defense, Stanford could easily resort to bad outside shots, and that could make for a dark evening in Charlotte.
Finally, there is the specter of rebounding. Stanford has lost the battle on the boards by an average of 5.0 rebounds in their last three losses, and the gaffes on the glass were no more apparent than in the Cardinal's last game in Los Angeles. Against a smaller but more athletic team, Stanford got hammered on the boards in the second half of the game, and that more than anything else cost them a trip to the Pac-10 Tournament finals. Players and coaches all discussed fatigue as an issue afterward, but they all acknowledged the difficulty in rebounding out of their zone defense. Stanford talked openly yesterday to the media about using a good deal of zone against Mississippi State, who happens to be the #1 rebounding team in the SEC, with a +8.9 margin. Trent Johnson has several times this week compared the Bulldogs to Arizona State, with Roberts as an Ike Diogu parallel, and that bodes well for the MSU big man, given the monster performances Diogu enjoyed against Stanford this year. If Stanford had trouble boxing out in the absence of man-to-man assignments against diminutive Washington, what do you think could happen tonight when one of the nation's best rebounders roams free?
If we are going to talk about SEC comparisons, then let's not ignore the meltdown that conference already experienced in the first day of the 2005 Tournament. Kentucky (#2 seed) struggled against a directional school... from their home state. 'Bama (#5) gets bounced by Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And LSU (#6) gets pimp-slapped by UAB. If that is how the upper seeds from the SEC handle themselves, then what is in store for a #8 seed from that conference, who has gone 8-8 in their last 16 games spanning more than two months?
There is an additional explanation for Mississippi State's fade in the second half of their season, which goes beyond their injuries. Unlike Stanford, who has rallied and strengthened their resolve after each blow, the Bulldogs have been beaten down. In their Thursday press conference, the MSU players talked openly about the hope that they can regain their "swagger" with this NCAA Tournament. They know that their edge has been missing for some time, and while it could very well come back tonight, it also may not. "An eight-nine match-up is about wills," says Rob Little. If that is true, then Stanford might very well will their way into the second round against an emotionally uneven Bulldog squad.
That would, of course, be the mirror opposite of how the game against Alabama played out last year. Stanford looked stunned, while the Tide rolled in the second half on a surge of unrelenting aggression. Alabama went to the free throw line 44 times in that game, to Stanford's meager 11 trips to the charity stripe. That disparity has been lamented all week by the Stanford players, and they have repeatedly announced their resolve to reverse the statistic in this NCAA Tournament. More than just a reflex to last year's loss, however, the attacking mentality is at the core of Trent Johnson's offensive philosophy. It seems to be more than just verbiage from the players, and could be the key to a win tonight.
"Last year, we didn't get to the [free throw] line. We weren't aggressive enough," Hernandez charges. "We have to test the refs, figure out what they're going to call or not call, and not settle for the mid-range shot."
On defense, there is some real hope that Stanford will not let Lawrence Roberts do to them what they allowed Ike Diogu to do this year, when the ASU center poured in more than 60 points in two games. Mississippi State will not start seven-footer Marcus Campbell, sticking with their "small" lineup that instead puts 6'5" forward Ontario Harper in the starting five. Harper is a good athlete who can rebound, but he physically appears a nice match-up for Matt Haryasz. Rob Little will be put on Roberts to start the game tonight, which pits two strong and physical players (with inflated official heights) together in the post. The fear is that Stanford will not double-team Roberts, in the same way they strangely singled Diogu. As the plan goes, that will not happen tonight when the Cardinal are in their man-to-man defense.
"We've already talked about doubling Roberts," Haryasz offers. "Rob will be on him initially, then I come off to help when he gets the ball. The key for me is not to try to block shots, so much as to surround him."
Roberts has a reputation as a selfish offensive player, who will force shots in difficult situations. If Haryasz and Little do pull off the double-team, Stanford might have a recipe for some defensive stops and transition opportunities on offense. To get out and run, however, they have to hit the boards. While the Cardinal have been a mediocre rebounding team all year, and that becomes a more pronounced liability in their zone defense, the players are animated in their insistence that they will play an inspired game on the boards tonight.
"I think it's important that everyone pursue the ball on defense," Haryasz maintains. "When a shot goes up, Rob crashes the boards, I crash the boards, Fred Washington crashes the boards, Nick crashes the boards and Chris crashes the boards."
Finally, the Bulldogs have some size in their lineup when 7'0" Campbell is healthy and can play. They also have reserve 7'2" junior Wesley Morgan off the bench. Nobody wishes a seven-footer against them, but with Stanford's tight eight-man roster, it is best to have match-ups that can allow all eight players to play minutes and contribute. Trent Johnson has been very selective in playing 6'10" freshman center Peter Prowitt in recent weeks, recognizing the youngster's limitations in defending away from the basket. Senior Rob Little has similarly seen his time trimmed, playing less than 30 minutes in each of his last 16 games and playing three games under 20 minutes in the last month. The Pac-10 is littered with small line-ups that work against both Little and Prowitt, but the Bulldogs' size, should they use it, ought to give both Stanford centers opportunities to play bigger minutes.
"With Roberts, Campbell and the 7'2" and 6'9" guys they bring off the bench, there are big bodies that could give me an opportunity to contribute," Prowitt opines.
Not only would it be a bonus to get contributions from the pair of Cardinal centers, but equally important would be the ripple effect felt elsewhere in the lineup. The more often Stanford can play "big," that takes pressure off the guards and wings by giving them a few more minutes to breathe on the bench. That of course is predicated upon Little and Prowitt staying out of foul trouble, which has been an elusive goal this year. They are entering tonight's game with the right mindset, however, to play disciplined and smart defense.
"We're going to play a lot smarter in terms of how we defend an outstanding big man," says Little of his match-up against Roberts. "The key is to stay down and not bite on the pump fakes."
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