Inside NCAA Week

The NCAA Tournament carries a lot of magic and intrigue, but it also has some unique logistics for participant teams like Stanford. The Cardinal are in their 11th straight Big Dance, so the routine is nothing new, but it is interesting to see how things play out behind the scenes. Read on for what is happening with Stanford Basketball this week, including all the answers on the return of <b>Tim Morris</b>.

It all got started Sunday, but it really didn't.  The plan a few days earlier had been to practice at 4:30 PM on Sunday, after the team had a chance to watch the bracket revelation show and then answer questions from the media.  But Trent Johnson made the call instead to give the team Sunday off.  The team also had Saturday off, which gave them two much-needed consecutive days of rest.  The only player working out on Sunday was Tim Morris, who shot jumper and ran drills up and down the court with assistant coach L.J. Hepp in the afternoon, but more on that later...

The two days of rest were needed not just for the Stanford student-athletes to get a good jump on the studying for their final exams, but also to physically recuperate from their Los Angeles exhaustion.  The short bench with which Stanford has played all season, but particularly in the last month, has taken its toll.  But the late start time and grueling nature of the Washington State game in Thursday's Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinal was a beatdown.  The Washington-Arizona State game that preceded the Cardinal-Cougars clash went to overtime, and that kept the nightcap from tipping off until 9:20 PM.  The game ended at 11:15 PM, and players did not make it to the team hotel until after midnight.  Keep in mind that the conference tournament also fell during Stanford's "dead week," which students know is anything but what the name indicates.  Classes typically pile up papers, projects and final assignments during this last week of instruction before final exams, which stacked on top of exam studying can make it the toughest week of the quarter.  Matt Haryasz, for example, had to write a paper Thursday night after he got back to the hotel.

Stanford visibly faded in the second half of Friday's game against Washington, which was evident in the rebounding column.  Trent Johnson and the player admitted afterward something I have not heard them admit all year - that they were fatigued in the game.  And while nobody would want to take a loss, it was probably best for the health of the Stanford team to not play on Saturday.  The ability to take consecutive days off is something the team has not done in 2005, except when playing California in a one-game week.

Sunday was still a busy day for Stanford Basketball, with the coaching and support staff working feverishly to scout and break down the teams in their pod as soon as the brackets were announced.  It is an unsung though Herculean task that goes on behind the scenes, but Stanford does an incredible job amassing tape throughout the year.  Last year's video coordinator was Hepp, when he served on the administrative staff before his hire as a coach under Trent Johnson.  This year the video coordinator position is manned by Donny Guerinoni, who played as a guard at Nevada for Johnson after transferring from West Valley College.  Stanford had an idea that they would be between a #7 and a #10 seed before the brackets were released on Sunday, and they had pegged the pool of schools who projected as possible first round opponents.  They had a minimum of four complete game tapes on hand for every one of those possible opponents.

Mississippi State popped up on CBS on that Selection Sunday bracket show, and Guerinoni had five tapes to present to the coaching staff to start their scouting.  By comparison, it has been reported by our sister site on the network that covers MSU, Dawgs' Bite, that the Bulldog staff had just one tape on Stanford by Sunday evening.  As another data point, the Washington Huskies reportedly had just one tape on Montana Sunday night when the brackets came out, and that was the film from when Montana played Stanford in December.  It is hard to understand why major programs do not have the organized effort to have more tape at their disposal on Selection Sunday through efforts like Stanford's.  Especially when conference tournaments are so widely televised these days.  The Big Sky final was nationally televised on ESPN2, for example, and both of Stanford's games in the Pac-10 Tournament were on Fox Sports Net.

Even if schools are caught with their shorts down Sunday evening without film, there is a company in New Jersey who tapes games all year of all Division I teams, and they take orders on Selection Sunday from teams in the Tournament.  Couriers get on planes immediately and spread throughout the country, where they are met at airports on Monday and hand tapes over to the schools.  No doubt, this is where Mississippi State, Washington and others get much of their tape for scouting.  But Stanford helps itself with their advanced jump on the scouting.

That helped the Cardinal video editing and production staff to have complete scouting clip segments on every Bulldog player put together and burned onto DVDs on Monday, which the Stanford players took home with them that afternoon after practice completed.

Monday represented the first practice of the week.  Though all practices have been kept light (relatively speaking) for weeks due to Stanford's thin roster.  Monday was a hard workout, to push the players after two days off, consistent with what Trent Johnson has been doing, though it was still a lighter workout than what Stanford and Johnson would like to do in a normal season.  Today will be another hard workout, and then the team travels to Charlotte on Wednesday.  The team will practice in Charlotte after they arrive, though with a lighter workout.  They will again work out on Thursday, keeping the activity light so that the Stanford players have some freshness in their legs on Friday.

It is worth noting that the Friday/Sunday schedule for Stanford is its own blessing.  With the players so whipped and weary coming out of the Pac-10 Tournament, having final exams this week on their plate, and also having the longest travel distance (more than 2,700 miles) of any team in this NCAA Tournament, it would have been brutal to play Thursday.

The timing also helps with the integration of Tim Morris back into the team.  The redshirt freshman has been academically ineligible since January 3, after he failed his Human Biology core classes in the autumn quarter and did not garner the minimum six units to maintain his eligibility.  It was thought at the time that he would be lost for the year, though the turnaround that Stanford Basketball has engineered has stretched the "year" possibly beyond the end of the winter quarter for which Morris is ineligible.  Friday is the final day of Stanford's winter quarter examinations, and thus officially the final day of the quarter.  As we broke two weeks ago, that means the shooting guard could be eligible again as early as Saturday, should he pass his classes.  If Stanford gets past the Bulldogs on Friday, Morris could play with his teammates Sunday against Duke.

The prospect of seeing Morris in a Cardinal uniform again this year is something that stunned even him.  "I didn't know the rule.  I didn't know it was possible," the redshirt sophomore admits of his outlook when he lost his eligibility back in January.

There is a lot of ignorance when it comes to the rules surrounding an eligibility situation like Morris', so here is a little FAQ to help you clear your mind:

Has Tim Morris been able to practice with the team during the winter quarter?

Yes.  He has been able to take part in all workouts and meetings with the team on campus.  Trent Johnson asked Morris if he wanted to take any time off to get his head clear and himself in order after the ineligibility ruling came down, but Morris insisted on practicing that day and every day since, which Johnson praises.

Why has Tim Morris not traveled with the team since January 3?

An ineligible student-athlete cannot travel away from campus with the team, so Morris has stayed home during the road trips to LA, Arizona, Oregon and the Pac-10 Tournament.

How do the travel restrictions affect when he can fly to Charlotte?

We have spoken with Karen Peters, Stanford assistant athletic director in charge of overseeing recruiting and eligibility compliance, to get the details on this matter.  She tells us that there is a special rule from the NCAA that governs the transition between academic periods and regaining eligibility.  While the student-athlete cannot compete until the school's academic term has concluded - regardless of how early he or she completes and passes their classes - their travel privileges can be reclaimed sooner.

"The NCAA has a special interpretation issued for eligibility between terms.  Once we know that a student will be eligible, then he is eligible to travel off campus," Peters says.

So when will Tim Morris fly to Charlotte?

He may complete exams and post grades earlier in the week that would get him his six units, which would allow him to travel as soon as he is certified.  However, the decision made by Morris and the Stanford staff is to keep him on campus all the way through his last examination on Friday morning.  It could send the wrong message to both the student-athlete and his professors for him to take off on the road during exams when he has most recently been unsuccessful in passing his classes.  Morris will fly to Charlotte at 2:00 PM on Friday afternoon on a direct flight on US Air, which arrives in Charlotte nine minutes before the game tips off.  The airport is just a stone's throw from the Coliseum, but Morris is expected to sit behind the bench when he arrives, rather than on the bench.

What can Tim Morris do with the team on Friday, beyond flying?

Per Peters, a student-athlete can partake in all team activities on the road, short of playing in a competition, once they have certified that he will be eligible with classes and units he has passed.

What can we expect from Tim Morris should he and Stanford play Sunday in the second round?

Nobody can know for sure, but there are two big picture observations to share.  The first is that Morris' conditioning is not where it was when he last played, or where it should be if he were on the active roster at this time of the year.  Practices are lighter during the season because the games are a good workout, themselves.  Morris misses not just that component, but he also has no team activities when Stanford is on the road.  During those road trips, the team may be gone for a stretch of four days, and then they have each week one NCAA-mandated day off, typically immediately following the weekend.  Subtracting all those days with the team is quite significant.  He has been working out extra on his own the last few weeks, but he simply is not in peak condition.  That being said, it is not expected that a player with two and a half months' rust would play big minutes on Sunday against Duke.  His conditioning may not play much of a factor if he is used in choice spots to give the Stanford guards a breather.

On the flip side, Morris has sharpened his skills during these last 70 days.  Unable to play in games, Morris has had more time to himself to work individually on his dribbling and shooting.  It is not completely analogous, but think of the parallel to how Chris Hernandez improved his free throw shooting and perimeter shooting when he took his medical redshirt two years ago.  We cannot know if Morris' improved skills will carry over 100% to competition, but his shot and handle have both improved.  It would be very interesting to see how he shoots the ball - an area that has been a weakness for him - should he have a chance to play Sunday in Charlotte.

Et Cetera News & Notes

  • Stanford has historically fared very well in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.  In their current streak of appearances in the Big Dance, which is in its 11th year going back to 1995, the Cardinal have not lost any first round game.  Their success in the second round is an equally well-documented marvel.  But as we look to the Mississippi State game this Friday, the Card do have history on their side, with 10 straight opening round wins in the NCAAs.  Many of those wins have come with Stanford as a higher seed than their first opponent, and thus favored to win.  Only three times in that 10-year stretch have we seen the Card as an eight-seed or lower, positioned as either an even match or underdog.  Stanford was #10 in 1995 and upset #7 UNC Charlotte.  In 1996 they were the #9 seed and beat #8 Bradley.  Most recently they were a #8 seed in 2002 and defeated #9 Western Kentucky.
  • Another key to first round wins through the last decade has been superior preparation from Selection Sunday through the Thursday or Friday game.  When second round games are played two days after the opener, there is much less time for either team to implement a scouting report in practices, and some observers have asserted that Stanford's Round of 32 upsets and losses have been a result of the Card's weakness in playing without advanced scouting and planning.  When the teams "just go out and play," Stanford lost some of its preparative advantages associated with Mike Montgomery.  The data is limited, but it is interesting to note how Stanford under Trent Johnson has fared during the Pac-10 season in parallel environments.  Ignoring the weeks when Stanford plays Cal, which are one-game weekends, every other week in the conference regular season had a pair of games not dissimilar to how a weekend in the NCAAs is scheduled.  Stanford was 3-5 in the first games of their eight such weekends this conference regular season.  By contrast, they were 6-2 in the second games in those weekends.  Again, the sample size is limited, but it is something to chew on this week.
  • Stanford is away from home and has the goal of winning two games in Charlotte and advancing to the second weekend on the Tournament.  It is worth noting that the Cardinal have very little precedent for such an accomplishment this year.  Of all the road trips they have taken, only once all year have they come back with two wins.  In Maui they lost two out of three games, and then the Card dropped another days later at Santa Clara.  The Michigan State-Denver roadie was a split.  Stanford was swept up at the Washingtons and fared the same at the Arizonas.  They also dropped the game in Corvallis before winning in Eugene.  The only time all year they won twice on the same road trip came in Los Angeles, when they handled UCLA and USC.
  • Charlotte will be rocking this weekend, with nearby North Carolina and Duke both playing at the site.  The two fanbases, for the most part, truly loathe each other, and that could come into play for crowd dynamics on Sunday.  Should Stanford defeat Mississippi State and advance to the second round, they would likely face #1 seed Duke.  No #1 seed has ever lost to a #16 seed in the opening round since the men's tournament expanded to a field of 64/65.  The hordes of Carolina fans would like nothing more than to see the Blue Devils bounced, so there is the possibility of wooing them as a surrogate rooting section for the Cardinal.  Look for the Stanford Band to don "Carolina blue" gear or play UNC tunes on Sunday to shamelessly suck up to the Tar Heel Nation in the house.

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