The Stanford basketball team thought it had silenced the skeptics when the Cardinal reached last year's Final Four and took the subsequent champion, Kentucky, to the overtime buzzer in the NCAA semifinals in San Antonio.
The Cardinal became the chic choice in Sports Illustrated's preseason poll last month, with senior point guard Arthur Lee adorning the magazine's cover. But five games into the season, the same questions asked during the middle of last season are being raised again.
Can Stanford beat another Top 10 team on the road?
Can Stanford beat a team with greater quickness?
Is Stanford overrated?
The No. 5 Cardinal will get a chance to answer today when it makes its second cross-country trip in two weeks to face second-ranked Maryland in the BB&T; Classic at the MCI Center in Washington.
Even some Stanford players and coach Mike Montgomery are asking themselves the same questions.
"We've got to get used to playing on the road against top teams," said senior forward Peter Sauer.
One of Stanford's perceived past weaknesses was exposed, and a new one revealed, in the recent Preseason NIT in New York.
While coming back from a late, 10-point deficit to beat St. John's in the semifinals, some of the Cardinal's big men looked a bit slow in trying to defend a smaller, quicker Red Storm frontcourt.
With Lee limited because of a hip pointer, the Cardinal had problems running its offense and were beaten by North Carolina in the final.
Stanford has had more than a week to prepare for the Terrapins, but can Montgomery find anyone to simulate Maryland's fast hands and quick feet in practice?
"I'm definitely concerned," Montgomery said during a teleconference last week. "They're probably playing as well as anyone in the country. They're extremely athletic."
Asked about his team's inability to beat a Top 10 team with superior quickness, Montgomery said, "That was [a problem] last season."
It certainly was. Despite a school-record 30 victories and the school's first Final Four appearance since 1942, three of the team's five defeats were to Arizona and to Connecticut by a combined 70 points.
But a team that returned all five starters and 10 of its first 11 players has changed its persona a bit this year.
Jarron Collins, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who was hampered by a knee injury last season, gives Stanford a bigger, quicker body inside than former reserve Pete Van Elswyk to spell senior forward Mark Madsen at power forward.
That's also the case with Jason Collins, Jarron's 6-10 twin, who was redshirted last year and now backs up 7-2, 250-pound Tim Young at center.
"I think we're a lot more athletic [inside] than we were last year," said Madsen, Stanford's best frontcourt player.
If there is a concern right now, it's in Stanford's perimeter game. A lingering foot injury to sophomore guard Mike McDonald has left Lee without any backup at the point.
A prolonged shooting slump has left both senior Kris Weems (10 of 30) and junior Ryan Mendez (10 of 31) hesitant about hoisting up three-pointers.
"I don't think any one of our players has played nearly as well as we expected so far," said Montgomery, whose team is shooting just 40 percent from the field.
Some of it might have to do with the continued pressure the players feel from the heightened anticipation coming into the season.
It began with 1,500 of their fellow students camping out for season tickets outside Maples Pavilion for a few nights last month. Some of it also has to do with Stanford's status as one of the teams to beat.
"We definitely expected the games to be more intense this year," said Madsen, who carries the decidedly intense nickname of "Mad Dog."
"Last year, we definitely snuck up on people. This year we're going to have to be ready every game if we want to have a good year."
That was evident in New York, where Madsen was outplayed by St. John's sophomore Ron Artest in the semifinals, and Lee by North Carolina junior Ed Cota in the final.
Montgomery doesn't seem to think it's been a case of the Cardinal taking its opponents lightly as much as it is his team playing a tougher early-season schedule than last year.
Back-to-back trips east certainly doesn't help, but Montgomery said the scheduling was unavoidable since he committed to the tournament in Washington long before Stanford was invited to the Preseason NIT.
"It sounded better before we did it," said Montgomery. "We really didn't want to do it this way."
Such is life at, or at least near, the top.
The spotlight is brighter, the scrutiny more intense.
The skeptics are back.
"There are people still doubting us," said Lee, "and that pushes us even more."
But will it push Stanford all the way back to the Final Four?
Pub Date: 12/06/98