When asked Sunday about what he has learned through his years on The Farm from the NCAA Tournament, senior Rob Little said, "Life isn't fair."
Nothing this year has been "fair" for the Cardinal. Their off-season losses of their head coach, strength & conditioning coach, top three scorers, top two rebounders, highest ever NBA Draft pick (one year early) and their home gym - all added up to only half their 2004-05 woes. Staford's top two returning players Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz started the season with injuries, and breakout top scorer Dan Grunfeld tore his ACL and ended his season while the Card were still on the Tournament bubble. Top reserve wing Tim Morris became academically ineligible, immediately following his first career start. Reserve point guard Carlton Weatherby broke his foot and was lost for the year, while two more reserves quit the team to focus on football and school.
Minus the coaching and playing firepower than supported Stanford to their best ever winning percentage at 30-2, the Card could have spiraled downward to the basement of the Pac-10 this year. They looked like they were headed in that direction when they started conference play with an 0-3 record.
"I wasn't thinking we were going to go to any tournament," Little admits of the early January malaise.
But the good guys found an iron will and rebounded stronger after each blow. After losing Morris and then their next game with Hernandez out (back spasms), they rallied for six straight wins, including a road sweep in Los Angeles and a heralded upset of Arizona at home. After Grunfeld went down, Stanford still managed to finish on a 5-3 run, including an upset of the newly tabbed #1 seed Washington Huskies.
"I think we got knocked down a couple times this year," Hernandez says. "And we showed character in those situations."
As soon as the veteran point guard added the "tough" descriptor for this team, Little chided him. Hernandez heard all last year that he was a "tough" point guard and fought this off-season to further develop his skills and athleticism, to show that he was a playmaker and not just a big ball of grit. Though this season has been a classic demonstration of determination for Hernandez and his few remaining teammates, who have played just eight healthy and eligible bodies the last month. It is impossible to call them anything other than tough. That characteristic is so pervasive that even Hernandez has given in, against his own pet peeve.
"I've heard it so many times," he laughs. "So I embraced it."
The smiles throughout the media room yesterday from the Stanford players were heartfelt and sincere. They know how difficult it has been this year, not just due to their circumstances, but also because of their own self-imposed struggles as they have had personal failures. No player or coach has made flawless decisions in this transition year, and many collective and individual mistakes cost the Cardinal some wins. Despite the rollercoaster ride, Trent Johnson says he has never been shocked by the bounce back and resiliency that his team has shown.
"The only thing I've been surprised with all year long is the number of injuries we've had," Johnson declares.
The first year Cardinal head coach also says he would not have been surprised had Stanford been left out of the brackets yesterday. He has made the case to the media several times in the last week as to why he felt they did deserve an NCAA bid, but he came into Selection Sunday with characteristically low expectations.
"A lot of funny things have happened," he quips on the NCAA selection process. "I think there was some anticipation on the kids' part, but I had no expectation."
Johnson will not admit it, but even his heart had to be racing as the brackets were rolled out on CBS on Sunday. Stanford was not named until the fourth and final bracket, after three other Pac-10 teams had been called out. Washington surprised to the upside with their #1 seed, though UCLA squeaked by with one of the last few at-large bids as a #11 seed, though they finished tied with Stanford for third in the conference.
"It was fun to be a little nervous," Haryasz offers with a big grin. "It's like when you take a test and you don't know for sure how you did. The excitement in the room was pretty high."
Excitement remains high for the Stanford Basketball program, after they have weathered a stormy transition year and still held on to their proud streak of NCAA Tournament appearances. Currently only four teams in the nation have a longer active run of tickets to the Big Dance (see below). To put the 11-year stretch for Stanford in perspective, a full 28 teams in this year's field were not dancing a year ago, including four who had never previously made the Tournament. Another 13 can only claim two-year streaks.
Current NCAA Streaks for the 2005 Field of 65
5: Wake Forest
1: Alabama A&M*, Bucknell, Chattanooga, Creighton, Delaware State*, Eastern Kentucky, Farleigh Dickinson, George Washington, Iowa, Iowa State, LSU, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Niagara, Oakland*, Ohio, Oklahoma, Old Dominion, Pennsylvania, Southeastern Louisiana*, St. Mary's, UCLA, Utah State, Villanova, West Virginia, Winthrop, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
* first ever NCAA Tournament appearance
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