Monday , Mar , 15 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Cardinal stand tall atop Phoenix region

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – Stanford capped a tremendous regular
season Saturday with a Pac-10 Tournament title. The Cardinal were later
rewarded Sunday for their brilliance with a No. 1 seed in the Phoenix — or
West — bracket of the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford (29-1) benefited from the return to the lineup of big man Justin
Davis during the Pac-10 tourney and avenged its loss to Washington last week.
The Cardinal will face 16th-seed Texas-San Antonio in the first round on
Thursday in Seattle.

“A one seed – that’s great. We’re really pleased to be staying west and going
to Seattle,” Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. “The kids anticipated that.
I think, frankly, they are a little bit fatigued. Not a lot of emotion right
now, but they came in, watched the brackets, very business-like, and very
pleased to have the one seed, staying in Seattle.”

The Cardinal aren’t expected to have much problem with Texas San Antonio on
Thursday in Denver, as no 16th seed has ever pulled off the improbable upset
of a No. 1. Stanford will most likely face the winner of the eight-nine game
between the SEC’s Alabama and Missouri Valley regular season champion Southern
Illinois. Both squads received at-large bids to make the tournament.

“I think you are going to run into a good opponent really early, so I don’t
look ahead very much,” Montgomery said. “I think you’ve got to play your best
basketball, I think you know that. You’ve got to be mentally tuned to play
each and every game or you’re probably going to get beat.

Defending national champion Syracuse or ACC Tournament winner Maryland could
await Stanford in Phoenix if the seeds hold true to form.

On Thursday in Buffalo, second-seeded Connecticut (27-6), the Big East
Tournament champion, will match up against AEC champion Vermont (22-8) and
seventh-seeded DePaul (21-9) will take on Dayton (24-8).

Thursday’s Phoenix region games in Denver will pit fifth-seeded Syracuse
against BYU (21-8) and fourth-seeded Maryland against UTEP (24-7). On Friday
in Orlando, third-seeded North Carolina State (20-9) will meet Sun Belt winner
Louisiana-Lafayette (20-8) and sixth-seeded Vanderbilt will face MAC champion
Western Michigan (26-4).

The winners of the first two rounds will advance to the Phoenix Regional on
March 25 and 27 at the America West Arena.

The Phoenix region is wide open, and it would not be shocking for one of four
teams to emerge from this group.

Stanford has been great all season and has played beyond many people’s
expectations. But the Cardinal struggled a little bit — as much as you can
for a one-loss team — toward the end of the regular season. They are
susceptible to quick teams, and squads such as Alabama, Maryland and UConn
could give them fits if they meet.

The Huskies are probably the most talented team in the country, but their
hopes rest on the shoulders of shot-blocking monster Emeka Okafor, who has
been struggling of late with a back injury.

The Cardinal, though, are so solid on the defensive end that they can win even
when they don’t play that well. It’s hard to see any of the underdogs making
much noise in this bracket, even though the Crimson Tide could give Stanford a
scare.

Maryland and Syracuse have been too up-and-down this season to believe they
can string together enough wins to get to San Antonio, leaving Stanford and
UConn in a colossal clash in the Elite Eight.

But watch out for NC State, which finished in second place in the brutal ACC
regular season, because people have been selling them short all year.
Connecticut, though, has the best player in Okafor and a great coach to boot
in Jim Calhoun. They are a serious threat to win it all and should end up in
San Antonio as long as Okafor’s back doesn’t give out.