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Up on the Farm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six short years since Adam Keefe patrolled the floor at Maples Pavilion, the blooming of the Cardinal has taken on an extravagant and senses-staggering new hue.

These are bold and bursting times at Stanford, which, after years of mediocrity and a recent rise all the way to last season’s Final Four, is suddenly the men’s basketball program that dominates the Western scene.

Eleven of the top 12 players from last season’s 30-victory team return for this season, including tournament heroes Arthur Lee and Mark Madsen, plus Coach Mike Montgomery has the added bonus of talented center Jason Collins, who redshirted last season after knee surgery.

“This is a different world,” Keefe, a 1992 All-American forward and current member of the Utah Jazz, said while attending a recent Stanford exhibition game.

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“I don’t even know if I could get a scholarship with this team.”

While Keefe is, of course, exaggerating about the scholarship possibilities, he is not overstating the transformation in attitude and talent.

A Stanford program that, before Montgomery arrived in 1986--and even, in his first years--revolved around a single star player and celebrated any sort of postseason berth, now assumes that last season’s Final Four moment was only the beginning and luxuriates in a roster of talent that literally dwarfs any previous Cardinal team.

Guard Todd Lichti was the star of the 1989 team, which gave Stanford its first NCAA tournament berth (and a first-round loss to Siena) since Stanford won the national title in 1942.

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Keefe was the man in the early 1990s, leading the Cardinal to another one-and-out NCAA appearance (a loss to Alabama) in 1992.

Point guard Brevin Knight was the unquestioned leader in the mid-'90s, the player most responsible for creating the resurgent atmosphere--and three consecutive NCAA berths--but his teams never made it past the third round.

“I remember vividly how happy we were to make the tournament my senior year,” Keefe says. “The year before, we won the [postseason] NIT. That’s still great, but this is just leaps and bounds. These guys are so much more talented, have so much more ability.

“I’ve dreamed of this for Stanford for years and years. . . . You know, there’s a lot of luck, you’ve got to be injury free--but a national title is something that’s not out of the question. Whereas in the past, it was pretty far-fetched.”

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But everything has changed in the wake of the Cardinal’s stirring tournament run--and pulsating, 86-85 overtime loss to eventual national champion Kentucky in the national semifinals.

Stanford was a top-10 team in nearly every preseason poll and an overwhelming pick to win the Pacific 10 title (which it hasn’t done since it tied UCLA for the top spot in 1963 in the old Athletic Assn. of Western Universities).

The Cardinal could become the first West team to make back-to-back Final Four appearances since Nevada Las Vegas in 1990-91.

Cerebral, basketball-by-the-textbook Stanford, home of Nobel laureates, one presidential daughter and none of the academically borderline recruits who dot almost every other college hoops haven, has redefined the way people view basketball powerhouses.

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Stanford dropped its usual reserved traditions and actually, in combination with the women’s team, staged a “Midnight Madness” event on the first night of practices.

Meanwhile, in further giddy anticipation of this season, 300 students lined up in tents two weeks before the allotment of student tickets was handed out.

Hoops mania hitting “The Farm”?

“I imagined and I really believed it would happen,” says Lee, a graduate of North Hollywood High. “Because we have guys that are capable of doing it. . . .

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"[Going to the Final Four] was a great experience for us. And that’s going to motivate us, try to get back, and try to get even further.

“Knowing what it takes to get to the Final Four, and having been there, having that experience, it’s really helpful in terms of knowing, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ Not that, ‘Maybe, I hope we can do it.’ But we can do it, because we’ve done it before.”

Along the way, Montgomery, starting his 13th season at Stanford, has had to readjust his own thought process too.

“You’ve always looked at teams like UCLA when they were the No. 1 team in the country, ‘God, how nice would it be to just have that team and know you’re going to win every game?’ ” Montgomery says.

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“And now I have a full realization that they don’t feel any different with that team than I felt with a team that was 40th or whatever. Every game presents a challenge. The pressure you put on yourself is always there and that’s just never going to change.”

Everywhere you look, Stanford is two deep, at least, and veteran:

* Seven-foot-two center Tim Young is back for his fifth season (he redshirted the 1995-96 season because of a back injury), and is backed up by Collins.

* Madsen, a rollicking, 22-year-old junior; Collins’ agile twin, Jarron, and senior banger Mark Seaton share the big forward spot.

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* Senior Pete Sauer and junior David Moseley, whom Montgomery calls the team’s most improved player since last season, are the small forwards.

* Senior Kris Weems, still pained by his NCAA shooting slump, and junior Ryan Mendez play off-guard.

* And the incomparable Lee, a senior, and sophomore apprentice Mark McDonald are the point guards.

They have the target on their backs now, while UCLA and Arizona reload with young talent and Washington and California threaten with weapons of their own.

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They have recruiting momentum too, having already landed several of the nation’s top prep players this fall.

So it isn’t just natural coach’s nerves that make Montgomery particularly anxious to see what develops this season.

“There’s always been a little bit of fear of failure involved in what you do,” Montgomery says. “I’m not sure it’s good, but I’m not sure it’s all bad, either.

“I don’t think we will screw it up. Whatever anybody else might perceive. . . . trust me, we won’t screw it up.”

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No Better Place

Maybe the surest sign of the respect Stanford has earned and received is that nobody is trying to push Montgomery into another, better job.

Probably because, as Montgomery says with a smile, nobody can currently think of a better job than the one he has now.

He has been approached by, among others, Ohio State and Virginia over the recent years, and stayed at Stanford each time, while also watching his salary rise each time.

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A few years ago, when the UCLA job swung unexpectedly open after the firing of Jim Harrick, a Times reporter somewhat cheekily suggested that Montgomery, who grew up Long Beach, would be a leading Bruin contender if he wanted to be.

“Who needs that?” Montgomery said then, laughing, but also knowingly referring to the constant and continued intrigue in Westwood.

A few years later, it’s clear: If Montgomery’s style of basketball--everybody touches the ball on offense, everybody plays defense, everybody crashes the boards, no forced shots, few turnovers--can turn the Cardinal into a national power and lure top players to this beautiful campus and electric academic atmosphere, there is no other, better place to be.

Who really needs all that UCLA stuff?

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“I said that tongue-in-cheek,” Montgomery says now. “I only said that because people always assume that their job’s better than our job, or that their university’s a better place to coach than ours. And there are reasons for everybody that they would want to be one place and not the other.

“UCLA’s certainly one of the best in the country and it has been for a long, long time. All I would like people to do is to acknowledge that Stanford is the same.”

The players, too, aren’t impressed by those who measure them against UCLA, Arizona or Duke. .

“We don’t want to compare ourselves to them,” says Madsen, whose thunderous dunk was the climax of Stanford’s comeback victory over Rhode Island in last season’s Midwest Regional final. “We want to build something that’s special, so that other schools are asked, ‘Are you like a Stanford?’ ”

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With the heightened hopes and high rankings in mind, Montgomery’s theme to his players this season has been to savor the camaraderie and excitement of each game and each practice--and not get overwhelmed by outside expectations.

“We know that we have expectations, but we can’t worry about that too much,” Lee says. “We’ve just got to go play. That’s when we’re the most relaxed, going out there and playing hard and knowing that this is all going to be over in a minute.”

As the surest sign that Montgomery is confident about his team, he has put together the Cardinal’s toughest nonconference schedule in memory.

Included are: the preseason NIT, with potential matchups against Purdue and North Carolina; a meeting with preseason top-10 Temple in the Pete Newell Challenge on Dec. 29, and a visit to Maples in February by Connecticut, which handed Stanford one of its four regular season losses last season at Storrs, Conn.

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Make a schedule to gear up for late-round NCAA games? That’s what Duke and UCLA and Arizona and North Carolina do.

We are looking, Keefe says proudly, at a program that already has gotten to that level, you just didn’t notice until recently.

“Really,” Keefe says, “if you look at the program, the way it’s been for the past, what, four years, with Brevin and that whole period of time through last season--that is a Duke.”


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