- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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We know there is a Syracuse lurking out there. Hey, it could be Syracuse.
That's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. A team like last year's Orangemen can get hot in March, win six games in a row, and cut down the nets at the Final Four.
But with a little more than six weeks until Selection Sunday, just three teams have the "look" of a champion: Stanford, Duke and Connecticut.
And, believe it or not, they aren't afraid to say "See you in San Antonio." Then again, it would be hard for Stanford, Connecticut or Duke back off too far from the role of Final Four favorite.
While Connecticut and Duke started the season ranked 1-2 and each has been atop the polls, with the Blue Devils occupying the spot for the seventh straight season, Stanford could be something of a midseason surprise to be mentioned in the same sentence.
But here is the Cardinal, one of only two undefeated teams in the country along with Saint Joseph's -- another team certainly lurking if not favored to reach the Final Four.
Stanford may not be the most talented group of players, but as a group, the Cardinal is one of the country's best teams. And that was even while it went through its non-conference schedule without its most talented player -- All-America candidate Josh Childress.
"We just had to phase Josh (Childress) in," said Stanford center Josh Little before Thursday's 15th straight victory. "Once Josh gets in his groove, everything will be smoother."
Childress, who sat out the first nine games with a stress reaction in his foot, didn't make his first start of the season until Thursday. That's right, Stanford was 9-0 before he even suited up, and 14-0 before Childress started a game.
Now in the flow of the Cardinal's season, Childress scored 14 points in his first start. He made three 3s, grabbed six rebounds, and had three assists, two blocks and two steals. Oh, Stanford won handily, 67-52.
"Once we get all the gears kicking, we're going to be tough to beat," Little said. "We're not there yet. We shouldn't be there in January."
What is Little talking about? Stanford will be tough to beat later in the season? Stanford has been impossible to beat over the first two months, just ask those who've tried.
The Cardinal dispatched then-No. 1 Kansas in Anaheim in early December in the John Wooden Classic. The Cardinal beat Gonzaga (another team lurking) in the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland in late December. Oh, and the Cardinal won at Arizona earlier this month -- its fourth straight victory over the 'Cats in the desert.
"In some ways we're ahead of where we thought," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "We've been good in the three or four high-level games we have played. So, I'm real pleased with that."
Sure, any team can improve and better between today and March. But any of Stanford's problem areas, if you can call them problems, are certainly fixable. Stanford is simply looking to polish its offense, while its defense continues to keep teams in check.
Stanford has won its 15 games by a margin of 15.3 points. The Cardinal is holding teams to 59.9 points -- good enough for 21st in the country and second-best in the Pac-10. And, considering the Cardinal is shooting a Pac-10-best 48.5 percent from the field, the defense is only magnified.
But what has Stanford believing this season could be as special as its '98 Final Four campaign is the team's attitude. Childress didn't demand to be in the starting lineup with Nick Robinson playing well in his place. Montgomery does admit getting Childress more scoring opportunities will become a priority as the season progresses, but Robinson was so "user friendly" that he wasn't in a hurry to mess with the offense until Childress was ready to contribute on a regular basis.
It's this type of unselfishness on the part of Childress, and then Robinson once Childress moved into the starting five, that gives Stanford's staff and every player confidence that the Cardinal can make it to San Antonio.
What Childress did by not demanding more minutes, "makes everybody else way more accepting," Montgomery said. "The feeling was that if Josh can be that way then, 'What am I complaining about?'"
What we're really talking about is team chemistry. Some is genuine. Some is not.
Stanford's is genuine. The Cardinal enjoys being around each other. And before it won a single game, it was evident when we saw it first-hand back in October. The players enjoy hanging out with each other in the locker room, the lounge and apparently after practice. There is real friendship on this team.
Winning has certainly perpetuated the feeling, but it also helps that the key players -- and even to some extent Childress -- are all young men who are trying to overcome deficiencies, or out to prove something.
Guard Matt Lottich wasn't supposed to be a major contributor, yet he's proven to be one of the dependable 3-point threats in crucial situations. His point guard, Chris Hernandez, wasn't supposed to be the best point in the West. It wasn't even a given he'd be healthy enough to play. But Hernandez's injuries are behind him (foot and back) and his play as much as anyone's during Childress' absence helped Stanford emerge as the best team in the West.
Up front, Justin Davis battled injuries throughout his career and was an afterthought in the Bay Area at a time when he was competing with Drew Gooden in high school for name recognition. His frontcourt mate, Little, has his weight issue under control.
Childress was the only big name on the squad heading into the 2003-04 season, and he might have the least problematic ego.
"It's not phony," Montgomery said. "This group genuinely likes each other. They hang out and do stuff together. That makes it so much easier to handle."
Back in October, Montgomery didn't have to do too much teaching when the Cardinal gathered for practice. The Cardinal and its coach were on the same page. Still, few predicting these Cardinal were a Final Four team.
Yes, Stanford was a good team. But, the turning point to becoming a team the country saw as a Final Four team came when they beat Gonzaga -- at least in the eyes of Montgomery. Even though the Cardinal had already beaten Kansas.
"Gonzaga was a great win for us,'' Montgomery said. "The Arizona road win was great because we were playing in a tough environment."
The win at Arizona came less than 48 hours after Arizona State was a tip-in away from beating the Cardinal. So, would we still be talking about Stanford as a favorite to reach the Final Four if it had lost to the Sun Devils?
Yes. One loss in January woudln't change the fact these Stanford players have the moxie to get to San Antonio.
No, Stanford doesn't wow teams with its athleticism, but it beats them down by not making mistakes. And, make no mistake, the Cardinal could beat everyone on its way to the Final Four ... but more on that in the weeks to come.
Duke isn't all that different than Stanford, other than the fact the Blue Devils have lost. The Blue Devils get out on the break a little more, and as a result, are scoring more with (79.2 ppg). But Duke's defense is just as tight as Stanford (58.7 ppg) and the Blue Devils are also tops in the ACC in field-goal percentage (47.7 percent) -- beating teams by a margin of 20.5 ppg.
And, also like Stanford, these Blue Devils are a close bunch who really get along with each other. It shows in their admiration for each other in discussing the abilities of teammates, as well as just when they're hanging out on the road, around practice, or after a game.
"We're closer than any team I've been on here," said fifth-year senior Nick Horvath. "That's what sets this team apart in the locker room. We're good friends. It's a great atmosphere as good as I've had here."
The one thing that you'll see when it comes to Duke and Stanford is a genuine love from those on the bench. The Duke bench is always up clapping, celebrating and encouraging the starters, or vice versa.
"We're closer than (2001)," said senior point guard Chris Duhon of the Blue Devils' last title year. "There's just a great feel for each other on and off the court. We understand each other's roles. This team is something really special."
The Blue Devils' season seemed to turn on Michigan State's court during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in early December.
The Blue Devils were coming off their loss to Purdue in the Great Alaska Shootout and still hadn't played in a true road game in a hostile environment until they went to East Lansing. But, its 72-50 win not only set the Blue Devils on its current course of ACC perfection, but also showed this week as it escaped the Comcast Center with its No. 1 ranking for the first time in three seasons. The Blue Devils were in control against the Terps for the entire 40 minutes in the eight-point win. Duke has already won at Clemson and Virginia, while crushing Texas in New York in front of a partisan Duke crowd.
"We needed each other at Michigan State," Duhon said. "That prepared us for the Maryland game."
But the ACC won't be all smooth sailing for the Blue Devils, will it? Like Stanford during its perfection, the onus is on the players to improve despite winning in impressive fashion.
"We've still got a ways to go," Duke sophomore guard J.J. Redick said. "To win the (national) title we need to have a great team. There are a few certain things that we need to improve on. Sometimes we feel like we can just outscore people. If we get a lead, we feel like it's OK to score on the next possession."
What Redick means is Duke is trading baskets too much. But that can be tweaked. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has already done something that will help this team, and that's reducing the rotation. The Blue Devils are relying almost exclusively on eight players -- Duhon, Redick, Daniel Ewing, Luol Deng, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery and Horvath.
"We're starting to have a good feel for the rotation and who the main guys are going into the heart of the ACC," Duhon said. "We have to develop a bit more of the chemistry with that."
One thing the Duke players think has to be adjusted is using Redick as a distraction -- not that scoring 29 points at Maryland is a distraction. Duhon said teams will start "flying out" at Redick if he continues to light it up form outside.
"Once they do that, we can open up the inside players and be consistent with them, too," Duhon said of Williams and Randolph.
Like Stanford, which could still lose on the road at Oregon or UCLA, or at home to Arizona, Duke still must play North Carolina twice, at Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest. But the Blue Devils are looking more and more like a No. 1 seed, while Stanford has the top seed out West all but wrapped up.
As for claiming the third No. 1 seed? Well, that would be Connecticut, even though the Huskies have two losses and still have to go to Pittsburgh and play Syracuse twice. The Huskies still have the most dominant player inside in Emeka Okafor, who has flirted with triple doubles nearly every time out over the past month and is a consistent double-double performer. And when Ben Gordon is on from the perimeter, he's one of the top 3-point threats in the country.
Taliek Brown is back to being a reliable distributor, and as a senior point guard, he's one of the most experienced leaders on an elite team. Denham Brown is a tremendous third option, considering he can score from the perimeter and on the wing. Josh Boone is developing into a prominent power forward, able to finish inside, and rebound with Okafor. And then there's Charlie Villanueva, who when he is on the court, he's an offensive mismatch. But his defensive liabilities have drawn Calhoun's ire.
The bench has been shortened as well, which is not a bad thing. Point guard Marcus Williams has academic issues and is out for the Providence game Saturday. Hilton Armstrong can be a decent backup inside, while Rashad Anderson is a streaky shooter that can give the team multiple 3s off the bench.
As for improving into March, clearly the Huskies let teams hang around too often as evident by a one-point win at Rutgers and a three-point win at home to Pittsburgh. The North Carolina loss came down to the final possession, but it was on the road in one of the best atmospheres at the Smith Center in years. Oh, and that loss to Georgia Tech in November? By March, losing to Georgia Tech won't look so out of place, as the Yellow Jackets remain a legitimate NCAA team in the ACC.
"I don't know how far away we are," Calhoun said after the Pittsburgh win Monday. "Carolina was supposed to be a judgment on this team. Their starting five was as good as any in the country. But we did a great job on Sean May.
"We've played Oklahoma (crushed them), Georgetown (an easy win), North Carolina and Pittsburgh in the past two weeks and won three of four. I said after the Georgia Tech game that we had more talent than Georgia Tech and everyone poo-pooed me. And then we went out and beat Utah by 30."
Calhoun may have said Georgia Tech was better than the Huskies in November, but look at the Huskies now: They average 84.8 points a game (sixth nationally), are beating teams by an average of 20.1 points a game, holding teams to 64.7 points a game (fifth in the Big East), and shooting 41.5 percent on 3s, 51.1 percent overall, which is tops in the Big East. A lot of these numbers are because of Okafor. But like Duke and Stanford, the UConn chemistry can't be questioned.
The Huskies were patient and compassionate early when Villanueva was going through his eligibility issues. Taliek Brown didn't sweat it when Calhoun leaned at times on Williams early in the season when Brown was hurting. Denham Brown doesn't mind playing a secondary role, even though he would be a star on most teams. Gordon has emerged as a real leader.
As for Okafor, all he is is one of the best gentlemen the game has seen recently. And Calhoun strongly believes Okafor is also the best player in the country -- and he doesn't think it's close. Right or wrong, he at least has another reason to believe in his Huskies' chances of reaching the Final Four.
So, as we head into the second half of the season, it's at least clear Connecticut, Duke and Stanford have separated themselves from the rest of the country. How big is the gap? Certainly not as big as in year's past. How many teams are lurking. Probably more than any other recent season.
But, come March, expect at least one of these midseason favorites to officially be the 2004 NCAA Tournament favorite.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.