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Russell Can Relate to Cardinal Pride

March 23, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

Bill Russell sat behind John Thompson and next to Jim Brown. All three watched Maryland beat Georgetown in the first NCAA West Regional semifinal at the Arrowhead Pond Thursday night.

Then Russell left. But he should have stayed in his seat, for Russell would have loved watching Stanford.

The way the Cardinal has played basketball all season--with a sense of purpose as well as a sense of fun, with the sense of entitlement which comes when you know you are well-prepared and talented and most of all without the need to feel burdened by high expectations--it is the way Russell's Boston Celtics used to play.

Stanford, seeded No. 1 in the West and the team with the best record in the country at 31-2, could have been beaten by Cincinnati. The Bearcats are relentless defenders and carry themselves with a toughness that borders on out-of-control.

Bearcat guard Steve Logan jerked Cardinal forward Jarron Collins to the floor by yanking hard on Collins' jersey. It was the only way Logan could have stopped Collins from dunking. Logan is 6-feet tall. Collins is 6-10. An intentional foul was called.

Collins missed both foul shots. Then Ryan Mendez traveled. Cincinnati scored and what had been a 24-21 Stanford lead and could have been, say 28-21, turned into a 24-23 lead. By halftime the Bearcats led, 38-34. Cincinnati's guards, Logan and Kenny Satterfield, who comes from the Bronx and who backs down from no one, were running circles around the Cardinal and laughing about it.

This is the time when the rest of the country expects the West Coast schools to crumble, to back off in the face of a ferocious team like Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a coach, Bob Huggins, who seems to wish he could slap a kid around as if this were 1950. You can just tell by the way the veins in his face begin bulging whenever his players make mistakes. And the Bearcats play as if they want to avoid any chance of that happening.

But Stanford didn't back off or back down. The Cardinal beat Cincinnati, 78-65, and will play No. 3-seeded Maryland Saturday for the right to make that Final Four trip.

There have been highly ranked teams in the past that have played as if expectations were something to make the stomach turn. There have been favored teams whose kids never smiled, whose coaches always grumbled.

Stanford is not one of those teams. Only once, in that loss at Maples Pavilion to UCLA, has Stanford seemed stressed out, tired, a little unwilling to keep up the pace, to keep doing everything right.

And that's what hits you about Stanford after it so patiently repelled rambunctious Cincinnati.

The NCAA tournament can seem a lot like what some of us think of the hereafter, as that place where you'll be rewarded forever based on the good things you've done and the good habits you have developed in this life.

Stanford is now being rewarded for all the good things its coach, Mike Montgomery, has taught. It is being rewarded for all the good habits its veteran team has developed this season and for the last two or three seasons.

When you do the right things enough--make the good pass, look first for the big man, block out all the time, find the open guy on the perimeter, don't get bothered if someone knocks you down but don't be afraid to knock somebody down either--you do those things automatically when you arrive at the Sweet 16.

It bears repeating that it helps a lot to have seniors on your team. The Cardinal has Mendez, Jarron Collins and Michael McDonald. And Jarron's twin, Jason, would be a senior if he hadn't been injured. And Casey Jacobsen plays as if he's a senior.

Sneak a look at the two East Regional teams. Duke and USC are full of veterans too, of juniors and seniors who have learned how easy it can be to lose and how much fun it is to win.

But it is not easy, when you deal with college kids, to raise expectations in a way where the fun is not lost.

Stanford still has the fun.

Jacobsen couldn't keep his shirt tucked in or help himself from doing a pirouette and a fist pump when he made his final three-point shot. The sophomore from Glendora was brilliant, scoring 27 points and getting four rebounds. Jacobsen enjoyed his battles with Logan and Satterfield and at the end, as the final 30 seconds were going away, Jacobsen stood at center court next to Logan. Logan was looking glumly at his shoes. Jacobsen patted Logan's back and said, "I had fun, thanks." Logan looked up, looked surprised, then managed a weak smile.

It is fun to play hard against someone who plays equally hard. The Cardinal does that. It plays hard, it has fun, it says thanks, it moves on.

As Montgomery said afterward, "Thirty-one and two sounds pretty good to me." Then he smiled.

The Stanford players were funny when someone asked if they knew much about Maryland.

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