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November of 2002 looked like a breakout performance for then-sophomore Rob Little, as he dominated a highly ranked Florida squad in Madison Square Garden. Little came to Stanford with the label of being a "double-wide body," but in his opening games that 2002-03 season, he looked reshaped and recharged. Unfortunately, he piled on close to 30 pounds during the season with bad habits and decisions, rendering him a mere shell of himself by the second half of the Pac-10 season. In February of his sophomore year, Little averaged 7.1 ppg and 4.0 rpg, hardly satisfactory for a starting center on a team where Justin Davis was recovering from a knee injury.
This year, we have seen Little average 16.3 points and 5.7 boards in his first three February games, including one of the top games of his career in manhandling Cal last Saturday. Little has led the team in scoring twice in his last three games; he never led the team in scoring last year past that Florida preseason NIT game.
One look at the rejuvenated junior tells you that he is succeeding in holding his lighter and leaner body late into this season, which gives him a chance to make impacts today every bit as strong as what he did against Gonzaga back in December.
"I feel like the team really needs a strong presence in the post now more than ever, in terms of setting the tone on both ends of the courts," the articulate center explains. "Teams need to know that I can hurt them at both ends of the court, and it opens things up for our guards."
"My energy is up from years past," Little continues. "Which is a reflection of my conditioning."
But there is more at work here than nutrition and conditioning. Little is an emotional being who has strong motivation factors and deterrents in the psychological realm, as well. Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery believes that things clicking upstairs for his starting center are every bit as important as his vertical leap and his cross-court speed.
"I think there is a portion where it is physical," Montgomery says of Little's production. "I think a lot of it for Rob is mental. Being in shape and being involved has kept him excited."
Though it is tough for analysts to grasp, this again returns to the issues of chemistry and selflessness that are so pervasive with this team. There have been subtle (or not so subtle) cracks of divisiveness in some recent years which appear to be completely absent in this 2003-04 team. For a psychological creature like Little, that makes a big difference on the floor.
"I do feel more engaged this year. Last year I lost confidence late; it was tough," the 6'9" 265-pound junior admits. "All I can say is that my teammates are very supportive of me. They give me confidence, when I don't always have it. It's tough when you are young and you have upperclassmen who are in their own world, but I feel now that the seniors and juniors and freshmen are all really close."
You can postulate that the closeness and chemistry that fosters the universal support Little describes is what allows a different man to step up each night. Defenses who key on Matt Lottich find Chris Hernandez driving and draining jumpers. Overplay on the perimeter leaves Little and the frontcourt in favorable spacings. If you double-team the low post, Josh Childress will kill you from the wing in a myriad of ways. And beyond the realm of possibility, these scenarios are a reality because of the encouragement the players give each other through all game situations.
"I think that with our unselfish guards - down the line from Chris to Dan [Grunfeld] - I feel really good about them making me a better player, and them giving me a chance on offense. With a year more experience, I understand what this team needs from me and what I need to do," Little expounds.
Regardless of when and where the final buzzer sounds on this Stanford team in the NCAA Tournament, these dimensions will be the lasting legacy of this beloved team. Future rosters will find their challenge to match this unprecedented success, not in the athleticism or skills, but in the team ethic and bonding.
If you think you know what to expect in tonight's game at the L.A. Sports Arena, then you are a minority of one. Despite a tireless amount of film review of the USC Trojans, neither players nor coaches know quite what they will see tonight from the team that more than any other has been a bugaboo for the Cardinal of late.
"Henry [Bibby] is probably in his basement right now - like a mad scientist, dreaming some stuff up," Montgomery says of the threatening and unpredictable SC defenses. "They key is to keep our poise... You can't get confused by them."
The team spent time Tuesday simulating aggressive on-ball pressure defense in practice, and they spent a good deal of time Wednesday walking through the various answers they want to bring to different pressure packages. If SC wants to employ full-court pressure on the in-bounds play after a made basket, Stanford has something ready. If SC wants to employ a half-court or three-quarters 1-3-1 trap, the Card should have things ready. But the problem lies in the sheer madness of Bibby's unpredictability.
Case in point, Stanford prepared primarily for the first encounter this year with the Trojans for zone defenses, yet SC came out and played a surprising amount of man.
"They have a few different things they do," says junior forward Josh Childress. "You don't know which you'll see when. We prepare and scout, but we just have to go out there and ball. We have to play because we won't have all the answers."
Matt Haryasz first filled in for Justin Davis after the senior power forward injured his knee three weeks ago, but that lasted just one game with an ankle sprain for the sophomore big man. Nick Robinson has taken the last three starts, but he too is ailing with his own ankle sprain. Robinson sat out all of Monday's practice and took part in just half the action Tuesday. Wednesday was a shortened practice that saw the redshirt sophomore take part in nearly all work, but he tells The Bootleg that he is at just 70% right now.
"I've been working on it the last three days," he says of training sessions to treat his ankle. "I'll be fine; it's just sore. It's hard to jump or push off, but I can play. Just have to get massages to get the swelling down."
Haryasz still has some up-and-down pain of his own, and also is regularly treating his ankle, but he is closer to 100%. The pair will somehow have to combine for big minutes and big play in the fast-moving and physical action expected tonight. As of late Wednesday, no starter had been named for the game, though I would expect Haryasz to get the nod unless Robinson is feeling pretty good at game time.
In addition to traditional massages, both players have been taking home a piece of training equipment called the GameReady, which applies constant cold temperature plus pressure to whatever joint around which it is wrapped.
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