Stanford likes opening its practices with a good ol' fashion game of tag. There's one catch though, everyone must dribble a basketball.

So during yesterday's Cardinal practice in the Alamodome, what did 6-foot-8 Mark Madsen do when he was tagged? Did he start chasing his slower teammates? Nope, he pursued the quickest Cardinal of them all - Arthur Lee.He caught the little guard on his first try, too. Lee wasn't surprised, nor were his teammates. However, for those who aren't familiar with this 22-year-old LDS sophomore, they couldn't help but do a double take.

It's nothing new for Madsen, a native of Danville, Calif. Almost everything he accomplishes amazes people.

While serving his LDS mission in southern Spain a couple years ago, the sheer nature of what he was doing made Madsen an icon. In addition to his tie and jacket, people were intrigued by his height. Especially Tommy.

"He challenged me to a one-on-one game," Madsen said. "His name was Tommy. The kid was 6-6 and he could shoot, he was the best player in the town. I said `OK, let's go.' I took my tie off. I took my jacket off. I took my shoes off. I played him barefoot, it was fun."

Fun for him. Poor Tommy got kicked around his own playground by Madsen and lost 20-4. Ouch.

Tommy was no longer the best player in the little Spanish town, at least for the two years Madsen was serving his mission.

The day Madsen returned to the States was a very happy day for Stanford coach Mike Montgomery. For one, it meant he finally could utilize his highly recruited player. But also, he knew he was getting a very mature young man.

Twenty-one-year-old freshmen are only myths unless you're talking about BYU or Utah.

During the ensuing summer pick-up games, it only took a few of Madsen's flying elbows and loose ball scrambles for the Stanford coaching staff to realize how he got the nickname "Mad Dog."

"He wasn't in very good shape," Stanford assistant coach Trent Johnson said. "But the thing that was impressive about Mark was right away he was ready to go and do whatever he needed to do to get himself where he needed to be."

Madsen struggled throughout much of last season to get back in shape, just as Utah's Alex Jensen has this year. But by season's end, he was playing his best ball, and it took an overtime thriller by Utah to eliminate Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen.

He worked constantly throughout the next summer on honing his skills. Through four NCAA Tournament games, he's averaging a double-double and has helped propel Stanford to the Final Four.

Stats, however, are not why Madsen's name is increasingly being spoken throughout the basketball community. It's that he's never met a rebound he didn't like, and that he has absolutely no fear when it comes to diving on the hardwood.

"The way I look at sports is, once you go out on the field or court, you leave everything behind," Madsen said. "It's a fight for survival. If I'm not fighting to survive, the other guy is going to pound me into the ground."

Despite his German Shepherd demeanor on the court, this Mad Dog is more like a poodle off it.

During his senior year of high school, he was the student body president and lettered in a plethora of sports. Yet he refused to wear his letter jacket for fear his peers would believe he was showing them up.

He actually thanks his coaches for yelling at him. He sits on the front row of classes, he maintains a 3.2 GPA, and he's always thinking of others first.

That's probably why he's set his religious beliefs aside the last two Sundays. During his team's NCAA tourney games against Western Michigan and Rhode Island, he was torn. Both games were on Sunday, and his Mormon beliefs tell him the Sabbath is a day of rest. Yet basketball is one of his passions.

His only option was to play when he thought of his teammates first.

"That was an issue I really struggle with," Madsen said. "At first I said I wasn't going to do it, but I was uncomfortable with my decision."

In San Antonio this weekend, nobody has to play on Sunday. If Stanford can get by Kentucky tonight, in addition to watching films and practicing, he's going to try and find a local Mormon church, and put his mind at ease. He's still looking though.

Don't laugh and count out Stanford either.

"There are people out there that automatically assume we're going to lose, and that would be a mistake," Madsen said.

It would be a mistake simply because Madsen has a will to win, and the belief that exterior impressions can be deceiving.

Tommy can attest.



Other missionaries

Mark Madsen and Alex Jensen aren't the only players in this year's Final Four to have served LDS missions. Reserves Greg Barrett of Utah and Dave Bennion of Stanford are also both returned missionaries.