Stanford on brink with power, smarts Basketball: The Duke of the West has developed a winning attitude and become an NCAA force with size, depth and toughness.

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

After eight years as coach at Montana, Mike Montgomery realized "at some point, you just have to make a move." His move in 1986 took him to Stanford University, a school that was very rich in athletic success -- as long as you didn't include men's basketball.

Montgomery was not at all impressed.

"Nobody came to games. We didn't even have a weight room when I got there," Montgomery recalled over the weekend. "The prevailing attitude -- and nobody would come out and actually say it -- was 'we can't win here.' People loved the program, they loved the school, they loved the kids. But the idea was that we wouldn't be able to win."

This past regular season you couldn't find a seat at Maples Pavilion, a cozy, 7,391-seat structure that just might be the most raucous arena outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium. One look at forward Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen leveling opponents is an indication that, yes, a weight room is being put to good use.

And Stanford's spot in this weekend's Final Four in San Antonio -- coming one year after losing perhaps the best player in school history, Brevin Knight -- is an indication that a school that has produced world-class athletes for years (since 1980, Stanford has won 55 national titles, more than any other school) can even turn out a winning men's basketball program.

"When I was being recruited here, I remember Coach Montgomery talking about 'the goal is to get to the Final Four,' " said Madsen. "There were a lot of people that couldn't believe it. Right now, it's a reality."

And almost a surprising reality when you consider that, before Montgomery's arrival in 1986, the men's basketball team had not appeared in the postseason since winning the 1942 NCAA title (against Dartmouth, for which Stanford took home a whopping $93.75). Now, Stanford has been in the postseason in 10 of 12 years, winning the NIT title (1991) and advancing to the Sweet 16 (1997) before this year's Final Four run that has resulted in the best record in school history (30-4).

"Maybe I was naive, but I thought we could win here like anywhere else," Montgomery said. "You have to have kids who believe they can win, and kids who make basketball a priority. We work year-round here. We have kids who want to reach the highest level. Most of all, what we tried to do was turn around an attitude that was not only in the program, but outside the program."

Don't let Stanford's academic reputation of being the Duke of the West fool you into thinking that this team -- whose players once, on a bus to a game, got into a heated discussion on the square root of zero -- is soft. The Cardinal, with more size and probably as much depth as any team in the Final Four, are the same team that pounded Tim Duncan into submission in Stanford's upset of Wake Forest in last year's tournament.

Setting that tone is Madsen, a 22-year-old Mormon who went on a two-year mission after high school before coming to Stanford. Off the court, he's polite almost to a fault, a student who's quick to discuss his application of macro-economics to basketball ("In statistics, the regression analysis means if someone does poor on something, there's a better chance the next time that the person will do a lot better," Madsen shared last week. "So in basketball, if you have a bad night, chances are you'll be better the next night.")

But there's a reason why a fifth-grade teacher nicknamed him "Mad Dog." Madsen said he was never a bully, but had a mean streak. He said he started the one real fight he ever had -- in fourth grade -- by mocking a long-haired fifth-grader whose constant twitch made his head flick to the side.

"This is kind of painful for me to go into," Madsen said. "I didn't realize he had a disability. He looked normal."

On the court, the philosophy of Madsen, who was responsible for a lot of the licks on Duncan last March, is straightforward.

"Once you go on the court, you leave everything behind -- it becomes a fight to survive," said Madsen, a sophomore. "It's nice to be a good citizen off the court, but the good citizenship rules don't apply on the court."

And though Madsen is the most physically imposing tough guy on a team that has eight players who are 6 feet 7 or taller, it's 6-0 point guard Arthur Lee who is more apt to go for an opponent's throat (if he's not grabbing his own, an act against Rhode Island that -- though he said he doesn't remember it -- resulted in his written apology this week).

Lee seemed to spend the entire season playing with a chip on his shoulder, because he has not been able to shake the comparisons to Knight, the starting point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I love Brevin, but people seem to believe that the only reason why I do the things I do is because I played against him for two years," Lee said. "There's no pressure following him. I just go out and try to be the best Arthur Lee I can be."

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