BY GREGG ELLIS
When the Mississippi State coaching staff first began to analyze the Stanford scouting report in preparation for Friday's NCAA Tournament opener in Charlotte, N.C., they may have felt like they were looking at their own team.
After all, there are quite a few similarities.
Just like the Bulldogs, the Cardinal had to deal with key injuries, while both teams finished 6-5 down the stretch after going 1-1 in their respective conference tournaments.
And if there's been inconsistencies, it's been the guard play.
Now, though, both are approaching the tournament with a clean slate and the opportunity to start over with the hopes of making a strong, deep run.
Tip-off is slated for 8:55 p.m., with the winner to face the Duke/Delaware State victor on Sunday.
“We know they lost one of their best shooters in (Dan) Grunfeld,” said MSU coach Rick Stansbury, whose team is 22-10. “But they are a very balanced team. They don't beat themselves.”
Stanford, making its 11th-consecutive trip to the tournament, also appears to be extremely resilient.
Despite losing Grunfeld, who was averaging 17.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, on Feb. 12 to a torn ACL against California, the Cardinal has posted a 5-3 mark, including a 77-67 win against No. 1 seed Washington during that stretch.
But during his absence, forwards Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz have upped their level of play, averaging 15.2 and 12.5 points, respectively. The 6-foot-11 Haryasz has also been getting the job done of the boards, hauling in a team-high 9.1 rebounds.
“Any time you lose a player the caliber of Grunfeld, it's tough,” said Cardinal coach Trent Johnson, whose team will make the cross-country trip with an 18-12 ledger. “He has a really good feel for the game. That was a big loss. But much like any loss, guys have stepped up.
“But what we do hasn't changed at all. We lost his ability to score of the dribble and in late clock situations, but we're still going inside.”
Attrition didn't start with Grunfeld.
Backup point guard Carlton Weatherby has missed the entire season with a broken foot, while in December, guard Mark Bradford and forward Evan Moore quit to concentrate on football. Neither were starters, but both were expected to provide relief off the bench.
Then early in Pac-10 play, guard Tim Morris, described as the strongest and most explosive player on the team by the media guide, was sidelined after being declared academically ineligible. But because Stanford is on the quarter system, a term that ends this week, Morris will eligible Sunday if his team can beat MSU.
“It will be two Mash units trying to play,” Johnson said. “They've had their bodies banged and things go wrong, and we've been banged up.”
The losses have certainly affected Stanford's depth.
The Cardinal dresses out only eight players, while most of the time only seven get into the game. And both of those subs are freshmen – forward Taj Finger and center Peter Prowitt, who are combining for just three points an outing.
“We go deep in our bench; it's just that we don't have a long bench,” Johnson said with a laugh. “The kids enjoy it. We have less practice time (because of the numbers) and more game time. It's not that big of a deal.
“We have a great nucleus that has a lot of experience. That's been the difference.”
Arena: Charlotte Coliseum
Ticket Info: 1-704-894-2943
Friday Game Times: 12:30 p.m., Minnesota vs. Iowa State; 3 p.m., North Carolina vs. Oakland, Mich.; 6:25 p.m., Duke vs. Delaware State; 8:55 p.m., Mississippi State vs. Stanford.