If you think Stanford Basketball has had more than its share of ailments and injuries this season, and in recent years, you will find the latest toll hard to stomach. Or believe.
The Cardinal has half of their roster down with food poisoning. Six players are ill and today ordered to strict bed rest with intravenous fluids. Head coach Trent Johnson heard the news of initially three players this morning. Then after he returned from speaking at a luncheon, the number had climbed to six.
"Tomorrow morning it will probably be another three," Johnson deadpans. He is today without five of his top eight players who constitute 93-plus percent of Stanford's minutes. The food poisoning hit senior Fred Washington, sophomore Mitch Johnson, sophomore Anthony Goods, junior Taj Finger, junior Peter Prowitt and senior Chris Bobel. Bobel has yet to play in a conference game this season, and Goods is already hobbled with an ankle sprain that was expected to keep him from playing in tomorrow's regular season finale. Washington and Johnson are everyday starters, and Finger and Prowitt are the team's only two post reserves to see regular action this season.
"We're just like a boxer," Johnson says of the newest hit for the Cardinal. "We get knocked down. We get back up. We get knocked down, and we get back up again."
Stanford has already been reeling in the absence of Goods, dropping three of five games before rebounding with a win against last-place Arizona State last night. The team started the season with frontcourt woes, without Prowitt and freshman phenom Brook Lopez.
"It's just like a hit list," bemoans Trent Johnson. "I'm waiting for the next injury to show up."
The food poisoning is believed to have its source in the team's pre-game meal Thursday night, the culprit specifically some chicken. Fred Washington was already feeling some effects during the Arizona State game, though the full force hit him and the other five players overnight. Other players were fortunately spared from the food poisoning.
"I don't eat too much during pre-game meals because I don't want to get too heavy," says fifth-year senior Carlton Weatherby. "Eating the salad probably saved me from going down."
"I asked them how they're feeling," he adds of his fallen teammates. "They feel like they'll be fine by tomorrow."
Tomorrow is also the home finale for the Cardinal - "Senior Day" for Weatherby and Bobel.
Stanford will play against their top conference rival, Arizona. Extra icing on this match-up includes the two teams being tied in the Pac-10 standings, with the winner taking a better seed in next week's Pac-10 Tournament and for the Cardinal the assurance of a bid in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford is projected by most experts as a #9 or #10 seed today in the Big Dance, but a loss tomorrow and a loss in Los Angeles next week could possibly knock them to the NIT.
Having so many key players ailing for such a critical make-or-break game for the Cardinal is a crushing blow. The team continued with its normal routine today for the remaining healthy players. A day like today, sandwiched between Thursday and Saturday games, offers a lighter practice of about an hour. The team walks through the scouting report, with some drills and shooting at game speed.
The only semblance of preparation in which Washington, Johnson and the others can participate is review of the DVD given to them, as is customary, after Thursday night's game. That DVD contains information on Arizona's personnel, scouting report and video of their last several games.
"They understand. They'll be prepared to play," Trent Johnson says. "Whoever is out there, we're going to play and compete. I don't lose a lot of sleep. What can you do right now? We have to practice and get ready to play."
Johnson expects that despite their physical challenges, the ailing players will step up in this game, which tips off Saturday at 12:30pm Pacific time.
"Last home game. Arizona. My goodness, with a little adrenaline rush... At least, that's how I look at it," the coach comments.
"We have to play," he adds. "I trust that these guys are doing the best that they can to get themselves ready to play because they're quality kids. Hey, it doesn't affect who we have to play tomorrow. They're not going to feel sorry for who's out there."
The Wildcats have to reason to take it easy on the Cardinal tomorrow. Arizona started the New Year with a 12-game winning streak but since then have been a 7-8 team. On paper they are not performing at the same level Stanford fans saw when these teams met in December.
"It's funny to me that everybody talks about Arizona being down, or this and that," Johnson says. "This is the same group - this is the same team coached by the same person - who earlier in the year had a chance to win a national championship. I feel like they still have that. The difference is just the league and the wear and tear of this conference. There is no easy game. They hit a spell there, like a lot of teams in this conference, where they haven't well because of some of the people they have played."
Arizona in December played one of the best games of the year that Stanford has witnessed from an opponent, shooting 61 percent from the field and 80 percent behind the three-point arc. Trent Johnson feels that the Wildcats are just as dangerous today as they were then, if not more so.
"You're talking about a team that has the highest field goal percentage shooting, so they can score from all five positions," he says. "The one concern I have is that Jordan Hill is really improved. He gives them an added dimension where they can go big and be quick off their feet."
Hill played just eight minutes in the first meeting. Today the 6'9" freshman is a starter for the Wildcats, a defensive presence and shotblocker who can also run the floor and score.
"We have yet to defend or contain Marcus Williams or [Mustafa] Shakur," the coach continues. "All due respect to [Ivan] Radenovic and all of those players, but Marcus Williams and Shakur have done pretty much whatever they have wanted against us. We have to defend them. We have to limit their transition baskets to have an opportunity. Against Cal, they really rebounded the ball well. They're really playing hard. That's our strength, and hopefully tomorrow afternoon it will be our strength again. Because if it isn't, we could have problems."
With a win tomorrow, Stanford would be no worse than fourth place and very possibly tied for third in what is regarded as the deepest and most difficult Pac-10 conference in years. A 19th overall win and that record in the conference would lock the Cardinal, regardless of Goods' ankle and their other ailments, for an NCAA Tournament bid. Saturday's contest is also the home finale for Stanford and Senior Day. The game will be televised nationally (on ABC or ESPN Full Court) to boot.
"This game means a lot to us and to me just because this is one of the more dominant teams in our conference over the last X amount of years. And they're good," Johnson maintains. "The rest of that stuff, I've never worried about. Seeding or whatever in the Pac-10 Tournament because regardless of what happens tomorrow, we'll have to play somebody good in the Pac-10 Tournament."
And what about the seeding implications for the NCAA Tournament?
"On Selection Sunday if our name is up there, we'll go to Iran for all I care," the coach quips.
With Stanford's luck this year, we wouldn't be surprised.
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