'Pretty small' Rhode Island now stands tall But Harrick's No. 8 seed will need to be Ram tough to beat physical Stanford

NCAA Tournament

Midwest Regional

March 22, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Ask Rhode Island guard Tyson Wheeler about the first time the team met with Jim Harrick, and he recalls a coach who was less than overwhelmed with the talent he had inherited with the Rams.

"When he first saw us, he grabbed Antonio's arms, and he looked at Dave," Wheeler said called yesterday, referring to forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean and backup center Dave Arigbabu. "And he said, 'These guys are pretty small compared to the Pac-10.' "

Ask Harrick what he remembers about that first meeting, and he recalls what his wife has told him: "She said I came home and threw up."

So to Harrick, all of this must be stunning. Surely he didn't believe before this season, his first at Rhode Island, that he would have his eighth-seeded Rams (25-8) in the Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four with a victory over third-seeded Stanford (29-4) in today's Midwest Regional final.

Under Harrick, who won a national title at UCLA in 1995, the Rams have advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than any other team in school history. Rhode Island knocked off the top seed (Kansas) in the second round last week, and advanced to today's game by beating upstart Valparaiso on Friday night.

That set up today's game against Stanford, which advanced with Friday's physical, 67-59 win over No. 2 seed Purdue. Stanford-Rhode Island will be a rematch of a Dec. 29 game in the opening round of the Cable Car Classic in San Jose, Calif., which the Cardinal won, 70-69.

"We certainly have an ominous task playing against Stanford," ,, Harrick said. "They are huge. In the Cable Car Classic, I never felt we controlled our destiny in that game. We had a chance to win, but at that time, I felt that they were a better team."

Rhode Island trailed by 13 in the first half of that game, and got back into it behind the hot hand of guard Cuttino Mobley (30 points). The Rams had a chance to win in the final seconds when Preston Murphy stole an inbounds pass with two seconds left, but his turnaround shot rolled off the rim at the buzzer.

The difference from December to now is that Rhode Island is getting better contributions from its front-line players. With sophomore center Luther Clay (two points in the first game) and junior forward Reynolds-Dean (eight points) playing bigger roles, the Rams are in better position to battle Stanford's large front line.

"This might be the most improved basketball team I've ever coached, from October to now," Harrick said. "Arigbabu, Clay and Reynolds-Dean -- so go those guys, so goes our team."

Those three had better be prepared to be physical, especially after Stanford's front line manhandled Purdue's physical big men. Boilermakers tough guy Brad Miller was left a bloody mess, getting stitches in his chin and suffering a bloodied nose during the course of Friday's game.

"Brad Miller definitely got some unusual hits," said Stanford forward Mark Madsen, who delivered quite a few shots on the way to a 15-point, 13-rebound game.

Harrick called the Stanford style coached by Mike Montgomery "beat and belt.

"You beat the guy to the spot, and belt him when he gets the ball," Harrick said. "You can't come across the lane and expect not to get drilled."

Montgomery was unapologetic about his team's style.

"We don't teach physical -- we don't put them in a padded room, and only the starters emerge," Montgomery said. "We talked about being stronger, bigger and a better rebounding team. I'm not apologizing that Tim Young is 7 feet, 250 pounds. And when Madsen goes across the key and asks for the ball, it's not a matter of being physical -- he just wants the ball."

So the outcome may well come down to who's left standing. If it's Stanford, the team will makes its first Final Four appearance since 1942 (that team won the NCAA title). If it's Rhode Island, the Rams will be in the Final Four for the first time in school history.

"They're bare bones, they're easy to scout, they're simplistic and fundamental," Harrick said. "It's a very easy game to scout, a very hard game to win."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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