Anyone who thinks Stanford just stumbled luckily into the Final Four and is in awe of playing Kentucky Saturday ought to see the poster in the Cardinal locker room.
It is a pyramid of goals, signed by every player on the team before the season. At the base is the goal of winning the season opener. Check. At other levels are vows about rebounding, defense, commitment. Check, check, check. And at the pinnacle is the ultimate goal: to win the national championship.
If that last one seemed presumptuous at the time for a team at a school that hadn’t been to the Final Four since winning the title in 1942, it also reflected the confidence this Stanford team has had all along.
“We are loose, but we also have very high expectations for ourselves,” said Mark Madsen, Stanford’s leading scorer and rebounder. “We set some very lofty goals at the beginning of the season. Some people are writing us off. The Stanford team is filled with guys that are tough and refuse to say ‘gone.”’
The Cardinal (30-4) stumbled a few times during the season, getting as high as No. 4 in late January, falling back to No. 14 two weeks later, and going into the NCAA Tournament as No. 10. But suddenly they are two victories away from reaching that goal atop the pyramid.
The first step, and a big one, is to get past a strong, fast Kentucky team that has a first-year coach but a long, storied tradition of playing and winning in the Final Four.
“There are so many things about Kentucky that we are worried about,” Madsen said. “They run the floor very, very well. They can shoot a 3-pointer, and they have some really athletic players in the starting rotation and coming off the bench that can slash and penetrate and go to the basket. Our big focus … has gone into getting back on transition and not allowing them to get cheap buckets on the break.”
Guards have been getting the glory for Stanford and Kentucky in the tournament, and the matchup between the Cardinal’s Arthur Lee and the Wildcats’ Wayne Turner will be critical. But Kentucky coach Tubby Smith sees a marquee matchup of big men being even more pivotal against Stanford in the first game of the Final Four.
Stanford has Madsen (6-foot-8), Tim Young (7-1) and Peter Sauer (6-7) up front, going against Kentucky’s Nazr Mohammed (6-10), Scott Padgett (6-9) and Allen Edwards (6-5) or Jamaal Magloire (6-10).
“Certainly Mark Madsen and Tim Young present a real challenge for our whole front line,” Smith said. “We have a lot of depth, and they have a lot of depth, too. What really concerns me is not just those two but Peter Sauer. We don’t have anybody that can match up with him.”
As hot as Stanford’s been in the tournament, Kentucky’s been even hotter the past few weeks, winning 11 in a row - 10 of those by 10 points or more.
And for all the talk about how Stanford is physical and Kentucky is fast, the differences between them are not so clear as that.
“To typecast us as not having speed and quickness would be incorrect,” Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. “Kentucky is athletic, but in a way they are a little bit like us because they are big and they pick and choose when they elect to use their speed. I would almost typecast Kentucky more as powerful.”
xxxx KENTUCKY VS. STANFORD Ky Stan Record 33-4 30-4 vs. NCAA field-x 11-2 7-3 vs. Sweet 16-x 1-1 6-3 Avg. Pts. 80.0 80.1 Opp. Avg. Pts. 66.4 67.8 Scoring Margin 13.6 12.3 Starters scoring 54.4 56.2 Bench scoring 25.6 23.9 FG Pct. .483 .457 Opp. FG Pct. .382 .416 3-Pt. FG Pct. .370 .409 Opp. 3-Pt. FG Pct. .345 .336 3-Pt. FG-Game 6.5 7.4 Opp. 3-Pt. FG-Game 7.2 6.0 FT Pct. .670 .735 Reb. Avg. 42.6 41.2 Opp. Reb. Avg. 33.4 31.7 Rebound Margin 9.2 9.5 Ast. Avg. 17.8 16.4 Opp. Ast. Avg. 12.4 12.6 Turnover Avg. 15.3 13.7 Opp. Turnover Avg. 16.0 13.0 Steals Avg. 8.8 5.3 Opp. Steals Avg. 7.1 7.1 Blocks Avg. 6.1 3.1 Opp. Blocks Avg. 2.8 3.3 x-not including NCAA Tournament games