ANAHEIM, Calif. — One team is making its first appearance in 20 years; the other is battling for its first NCAA Tournament win since hiring a new coach in 2004. The pressures faced by Cornell and No. 11 Stanford couldn’t be more divergent, and it was evident in the answers given by the teams at media day today.
“You know, now, if you lose, there’s no second chances, no tomorrows,” said Stanford junior guard Mitch Johnson. “So I think everyone’s playing with their backs against the wall.”
With the Cardinal not receiving an NCAA bid two seasons ago and being bounced out of the tournament’s first round two of the last three years, the pressure to perform is squarely on third-seeded Stanford (26-7, 13-5 Pac-10) and its head coach Trent Johnson. After leading Nevada to the Sweet 16 in 2003-04, Coach Johnson was brought in to Stanford to help push a team — which had spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the country but was bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the second round — back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. Instead, it hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since.
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“I feel comfortable playing here this time of year,” said Coach Johnson, who has a 2-3 career record in the NCAA tournament and said his team will focus on defending, rebounding and protecting the ball. “You have to do what you have done all year to get you here.”
Cornell sophomore guard Louis Dale and the No. 14-seeded Red (22-5, 14-0 Ivy) don’t feel nearly the same pressure.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Dale, the Ivy League Player of the Year, who lead his squad to its second-ever Ivy title. “We’re just gonna come out and play as hard as we can. … I don’t think we’re really focusing in on being the underdog.”
“We think we have a chance to win a game out here,” said Cornell junior guard Adam Gore.
That lack of fear combined with confidence has the team upbeat about its chances, to the surprise of many.
“I think we play looser [as the underdog] and when we play loose like that we’re a pretty good team,” said sophomore forward Ryan Wittman, Cornell’s leading scorer.
“It’s just not a group that’s, you know, amazingly as young as we are, they’re not overwhelmed by this situation,” said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue.
One thing the teams see eye-to-eye on, though, is that neither school cares much about the other’s academic standing: a popular subject in the media and college campuses, among other places.
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“I think people on campus are making a big deal out of it,” said Stanford sophomore Guard Drew Schiller.
“It’s just basketball,” Mitch Johnson said. “I think, you know, however people’s schedules fall for academics and things like that is pretty minor.”
“We’re not really focused on how hard Stanford’s classes are,” Gore said. “Obviously, they’re a very good team. It just so happens to be they’re a pretty good institution as well. So we’re not really focused on that part of the matchup.”
Another thing the teams share in common is the use — or lack thereof — of a postseason tournament. The Ivy League is the last conference to not have a postseason tournament to determine its NCAA bid, and the Pac-10 was the second-to-last before it switched to its current system.
Of course, the coaches don’t agree on how this impacts their teams. Coach Johnson believes the amount of rest — with his team having just played playoff contests — won’t impact the outcome of the game. Donahue disagrees.
“Everybody’s healthy. I think the energy level’s great. I think that’s an advantage,” he said. “I know that the layoff you can say those things, but this time of year, I love that our guys are fresh, [I] really do. Especially the way we [have] got to play. To play a team as physical as Stanford we’re going to need our legs. We’re going to need to be able to shoot the ball from far late in the game.”
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Stanford hasn’t faced a team that can shoot like Cornell, who his among the nation’s leaders in free-throw, 3-point and field-goal percentage. As Cornell’s leading scorer and most lethal long-range shooter, Wittman, poses the biggest challenge for Stanford. On the other hand, the Red haven’t seen a team with the size of the Cardinal, or more specifically, 7-0 sophomore twins Brook and Robin Lopez.
“From the film we’ve watched, [Cornell is definitely a] very good shooting team,” Mitch Johnson said. “[Wittman] catches and shoots pretty quick. … I think we’ll just have to do a good job of staying with him, and not really getting lost in transition and giving up some 3-point shots in transition.”
As for the Lopez twins, they pose a unique challenge for the squad, especially All-Pac-10 First Team honoree Brook, who lead the team in points, rebounds and blocks. Robin was second in all three categories.
“I think the key is we’ve got to try to keep them out of their comfort zone,” Wittman said. “Obviously, we’ve got a 7-footer of our own, but we don’t have two of them like they do.”
“They’re a lot bigger, like heavier and stronger, so I think a big key for us will be keeping them off the glass, and making sure they only get one shot,” said Cornell junior 7-foot center Jeff Foote. “The last time I went up against a 7-footer was my brother when I was like only 6-4, so it’s a new challenge: not just one, but two.”