March 20, 2008

The Cardinal is in the Building

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The Cardinal(s) hit the floor for practice open to the media and they are all about business.
Stanford head coach Trent Johnson stood in the middle of the court, clapping his hands and his players dribbled down the court alongside in a workmanlike manner.

Immediately, I look for the Lopez Twins. As you will see tomorrow, these are legit 7-0 footers. Our photographer/videographer Rob Burris immediately said to me, “those dudes are big,” and Rob is 6-6. Having a true 7-0 footer nowadays is a rarity for any professional team – let alone a collegiate program. Having two of them makes matters worse.

But what was probably more unique than any other team that I have seen during this public practice sessions (Kentucky, Marquette and Cornell) was the team’s focus (or arrogance … I’ll explain later). As I pan the court, there are very few smiles. At most, there was light clapping and intensity. It was almost what you would stereotype a Stanford practice to be. I almost felt that they have textbooks for playbooks. The level of seriousness was almost scary; they really had a workmanlike attitude. I was hoping that they would come out in a jovial matter. I anticipated them coming into the gym, thinking and acting as if tomorrow’s game would be a cake walk. That’s how upsets happen.

“This whole thing is supposed to be for media,” Rob remarked.

In fact, I tried to schedule a post practice interview with Cardinal guard Mitch Johnson but that was denied because Stanford had another practice after the public showing.

But then again, the lack of looseness might reflect a sense of pressure the Cardinal has.

They are predicted to win this match. They are the 3-seed playing in their home state against a 14-seed. Since being hired at Stanford, Coach Johnson has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game after leaving Nevada for Stanford. Is it the pressure and/or nervousness that explained the team’s relative lack of emotion? I don’t know. But my inner fan hopes so.

Explaining the Arrogance
While most teams practiced light shooting drills in front of the public, Stanford ran sets. I almost couldn’t believe it. Coach Johnson called out the sets almost like a drill sergeant … no smiles, nothing. It wasn’t until there were two minutes left when Johnson spoke with ESPN’s Jay Bilas (who will be appearing on The Red Light) until I saw a smile. It was almost like they were showing off what they plan to do in the game tomorrow. But with head coach Steve Donahue standing in the seats with pen and pad ready, maybe the decision to “show out” will come back to haunt them.

Some notes from practice:
The Cardinal practiced a drill where they fast break as soon as the rebound was grabbed. Both teams, Cornell and Stanford, have stretches where they struggle in the half-court set so fast-break points will be important. Ironically, the Red did the same thing last time I saw them in practice in Ithaca.