Stanford and Mississippi State entered last season’s NCAA tournament with high expectations. Both were ousted in the opening weekend.
Neither team is as highly regarded this time around as the Cardinal make their 11th straight NCAA tournament appearance, facing the Bulldogs in the first round of the Austin Regional.
Stanford finished last season with a 30-2 record and ranked No. 1, but lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Alabama. Mississippi State, meanwhile, had the highest seed in school history—a No. 2—and won the opener against 15th-seeded Monmouth, but was upset by No. 7 seed Xavier in the second round.
The winner will likely meet top-seeded Duke, which is facing 16th-seeded Delaware State, in the second round on Sunday.
“Last year’s over. We’ve got this year to worry about,” Cardinal forward Fred Washington said.
Stanford has made huge strides, finishing third in the Pac-10 after an 0-3 conference start. Its strong play late in the season is what kept its impressive NCAA tournament run alive.
“We didn’t want to be the first class not to go,” senior center Rob Little said. “We had some rough moments. Starting 0-3 in the Pac-10 was a shocker, but we stormed back.
“It shows you the mental toughness in the guys. We were going to persevere no matter what happened. That’s a sign of a good, solid program. No matter what happens, players stick together.”
It’s been a year of transition for Stanford, which lost coach Mike Montgomery and star player Josh Childress to the NBA. Guard Dan Grunfeld was lost to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12. He had been the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.9 points per game.
The Cardinal lost to No. 14 Washington by just three points in the Pac-10 tournament semifinals on Friday.
Mississippi State is making its school-record fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
The Bulldogs have had their own injury problems this season, losing second-leading scorer Winsome Frazier to a broken foot on Jan. 8 and going 8-8 since then. Frazier returned on Feb. 15, but hasn’t scored more than 13 points since his return.
Seeded fifth or better in its region in each of the past three tournaments, Mississippi State was stunned each time by lower-seeded teams before the end of the first weekend. This time, the Bulldogs have received an essentially even draw in the first round.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury believes his team resembles Stanford in talent and tempo.
“There’s some similarities, I guess—we’ve got some athleticism in a few spots, and both of us want to play as quick as we can,” Stansbury said.
Mississippi State freshman forward Walter Sharpe will not be with the team, Stansbury said. Stansbury said Sharpe skipped Monday’s practice and was told “not to worry about coming back Tuesday.”
Stansbury said he will decide on Sharpe’s future with the program after the season.
Sharpe, who is averaging 2.4 points in 8.9 minutes per game, has had problems this season. He missed the team flight to Anaheim, Calif., for a December game and has received several suspensions for being late to games, practices and shootarounds.
The Bulldogs are led by forward Lawrence Roberts, the 2004 Southeastern Conference player of the year. He averages 16.7 points, but was held to eight on 2-of-8 shooting in an 80-64 loss to Florida on March 11 in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.
Stanford won the only meeting between the teams, 76-56 on Dec. 21, 1999.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Mississippi State - F Roberts (16.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg), F Shane Power (11.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Ontario Harper (8.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg), G Gary Ervin (7.6 ppg, 4.8 apg), G Winsome Frazier (12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg). Stanford - F Nick Robinson (8.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Matt Haryasz (12.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg), C Little (8.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg), G Chris Hernandez (15.2 ppg, 4.0 apg), G Washington (4.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Mississippi State - At-large berth, Southeastern Conference. Stanford - At-large berth, Pac-10.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Mississippi State - 9-7, 6 years. Stanford - 19-12, 13 years.