Cardinal Hoops News & Notes

Much was made of the stretch just concluded for the Card, with dicey home games against the Arizona schools and perilous trips to Cal and the LA schools. And then there has been intense focus on the injury situations for Stanford's power forwards. But there is still so much more going on with this team. For a look at the visiting Beavers, conference tourney projections, impending fatherhood, a rebounding shortfall and more, read on.

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Stanford may have won 10 straight at home over the Oregon State Beavers, with the last loss coming in the 1992-93 season - also the last time Stanford finished with a losing record and missed the post-season. But when the Card matched up with these critters in Corvallis four weeks ago, the good guys started the game at full strength. Having a healthy cadre of forwards is important if you want to stop or contain David Lucas, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week. Lucas is unquestionably the best player and scorer for the River Rats, averaging 17.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. In conference games, the OSU junior is scoring 19.7 points per game. A reasonable scouting strategy to try and stop him is to swing double-teams his way and trap him when possible. Lucas has an exceptional disposition against passing the ball and has never logged more than two assists in a game this year - after 24 contests played.

But if you are going to give help on the dangerous and mobile Lucas, try to do it without leaving guard Chris Stephens open. The few Stanford fans who were at Gil Coliseum four weeks ago remember the scorching shooting Portland sophomore unleashed in a scary upset bid. The 6'2" shooting guard rung up the Cardinal for 24 points in that game, and he just ripped the nets last Saturday for 22 in the upset of Arizona. He is a very quick guard who comes off screens and puts up shots with a lightning fast release. Stephens led the way in that game in the most lethal three-point shooting Stanford has suffered all year, a 60% clip. Mike Montgomery and his staff have to find a way to force tougher shots from a lineup that often plays three guards on the floor.

Oregon State comes into Maples Pavilion this evening as one hungry pack of Beavers. They are currently tied with Washington State for that prized eighth place in the Pac-10. Remembering that only eight teams make it to the conference tournament tipping off in two weeks at the Staples Center in L.A., tonight's visitors will be chomping at the bit for a big upset. While their road trip to the Bay Area does not ostensibly give them a very good chance to help themselves, with Stanford and Cal perhaps the two toughest places to play in the league, Wazzu is playing in the desert this week and have their own hurdles.

Also note that at 5-9, Oregon State has just made a huge surge in the conference standings. They were tied for last in the conference in wins this time a week ago, but then the Beavs bulldozed their way to two upset wins against Arizona and Arizona State. The Corvallis crew have won two straight and three of their last four, which has them riding sky high after dropping eight of their first 10 Pac-10 contests this year.

Also in Pac-10 news of interest, USC took down UCLA last night in a wild and often frenzied game at the Sports Arena. The one-point overtime win for Hank Bibby's boys moves them to 7-9 in the conference and a tie with their crosstown rivals for sixth place. The Trojans have swept the season series against the Bruins, which means that USC will win a tie if the two teams remain locked together after their road trip to the Oregon schools next week. Both schools also hold a one-game lead over Oregon State and Washington State currently. That all means that USC is now most likely not going to be the #8 seed and should in fact be sitting in the other half of the bracket from Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament as a #6 or #7. That would be good news for the Cardinal, who have dropped to the Trojans in the first round of the conference tourney in each of the last two years.

If the season ended today, Stanford would be matched up against OSU in the first round, while Oregon and California would play a #4 vs. #5 game to meet that winner. Arizona, Washington, USC and UCLA would be in the other half of the bracket and could only meet Stanford in the Saturday final game. Washington State and Arizona State would miss the event as the last two finishers in the conference race.

One thing you normally see after Josh Childress makes the annual road trip to play at UCLA and USC is a trim of his trademark afro. His mother is on his case endlessly about keeping it shorter and neater, and inevitably a trip to the barber comes when he is returns to the City of Angels.

Not this time.

"I've gotten a little superstitious," the affable junior says with a big grin. "The season has been going so well, and I kinda don't want to get it cut and jinx anything."

The last time Childress allowed any work to be done on his 'fro was at the New Year, just before he started playing this season.

Tonight is the fourth straight Thursday game for Stanford this year that will be completely untelevised in any market, and the fifth blackout in seven such games this year. Of the two precious Thursday games that have been televised this year, only the UCLA game at Maples Pavilion last month was viewable in the Bay Area. The other game was at Arizona State and was shown in other Pac-10 markets but not locally, where the San Jose Sharks took precedent.

Stanford fans are not the only ones around this #1 ranked program who are hot under the collar about the paucity of television coverage this year, particularly Pac-10 Thursday night games. The pain this brings goes well beyond fans, as wonderfully articulated yesterday by Chris Jaenike in his story on how television coverage impacts recruiting. Mike Montgomery is plenty steamed by this problem, and is letting rip with his displeasure over the situation.

"You can watch a lot of sports on Thursday nights in the Bay Area - but not basketball," the Stanford head coach says. "I watch a lot of basketball during the week, so I guess it's a good thing we play on Thursdays."

Montgomery and the Stanford team are hoping they don't lose forward Nick Robinson for next Thursday's tough game at Washington State, but that all depends on the birth of his first child. His wife, Meagen, is nine months pregnant and is due to give birth on Monday March 1. If all goes according to schedule, Robinson will travel with the team for their final road swing of the regular season. But even if they welcome their newborn on time, this a brutally tough time of the basketball year for the redshirt junior to take his first steps of fatherhood.

"It's a distraction - no doubt," says two-time father Mike Montgomery. "It just depends on how he deals with it. He'll be tired, and sleep is hard to come by in the beginning. But his wife has a lot of great support around her."

With Justin Davis still uncertain for his timeline or extent of return to action, plus Matt Haryasz still gimpy on his sprained ankle, a weary or absent Robinson could be a crushing blow to this team's stretch run for an unprecedented 18-0 perfect conference season.

"I think you could make a real legitimate argument for Nick being the most valuable player on this team," Montgomery posits. "He brings so many intangibles, it's hard to put a value on it sometimes. Obviously we are not as big and strong when he is on the floor, but we've adjusted to that."

One adjustment that has gone marvelously well has been Rob Little's point production in the absence of Justin Davis in the frontcourt. The junior center is playing the most minutes of his career, with a revelation of conditioning and foul-free play. He is scoring double digits at 10.6 points per game, an average he has previously not achieved at Stanford, and the 6'9" big man has scored 16 or more points in four of his last five games.

"I'm hoping it's a direct reflection of my weight loss," he opines. "This is the time of year when you usually get tired. We're deeper in the season, school piles up, and the weather takes a little more out of you. So it's exciting to still be playing good basketball and contributing to the team."

"Thank goodness he's been effective," booms Montgomery. "We need a low post presence. The ability of Rob to score inside is huge for us."

But while point totals are rising for the Virginia native, his rebounding has sagged. Little is averaging just 5.4 boards per game, versus a 5.7 average last year. He has failed to clear more than seven rebounds in any conference game this year, and his season high was the nine boards he cleaned against the undersized and overmatched Harvard Crimson. A year ago, despite inferior conditioning and vertical lift, Little pulled down double digit rebounds three times in conference play and registered two double-doubles.

"Looking back at the tape," Little explains. "I'm looking at the ball too much instead of blocking out. I got pushed around at USC - and we found five rebounds I should have had on film that I didn't get. I have to give a better effort on the offensive glass - I'm not even giving my man a battle. Rebounding is all effort."

The Stanford center has spent time this past week looking over tape with assistant coach Russell Turner, who is mercilessly hounding Little to improve his rebounding focus. Cardinalmaniacs™ may also remember that it was Turner who helped push Josh Childress to new heights last year with his rebounding, resulting in a conference crown in that statistic.

"As a big guy, you have to be defense first. We sometimes get away from that and think of me - how can I score," Little admits. "They are bad habits, but with my new body, there is no reason I can't rebound better than this. This is still time left this year and still practices I can work."

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