Stepping It Up!

This week's column from standout 6th Man and Stanford Daily writer Patrick Fitzgerald recaps the successful Arizona weekend that leaves the rising Cardinal ranked #20, sitting at 4-2 and tied for fourth place in the tightly-contested Pac-10 Conference race. The upcoming game with Cal in Berkeley will show whether the 2007/08 Cardinal wants to win, place or show!

After a spate of disappointing performances in recent weeks, many doubted their fighting spirit. How would they respond to adversity? Would they be able to step up in the clutch? It's not just the Stanford basketball team I'm talking about. The same could be said for the 6th Man. And for both, the past weekend was a step in the right direction.

The team demonstrated its resilience, beating Arizona for the first time in three years (my freshman year on the Farm) and employing defense and dominant post play to rebound from an atrocious first half against then-#22 Arizona State. Meanwhile, the fans finally came out in droves for Arizona and reached their loudest decibel levels of the season to help the team rally against the Sun Devils.

As a member of the student section for the last three years, I'll be the first to admit the 6th Man does not deserve the mantle of the "best in the country." Attendance is shaky and commitment often wavering; the opposition will make a run and soon its fans can be heard drowning out the Stanford faithful from the Maples Pavilion rafters.

Many theories exist regarding the demise of the 6th Man. Yes, for most undergraduates the legendary seasons of yore (even 2004's recent run) are a far-off memory. Few realize how good the team really is this season, and a bad loss or two will leave some to find other ways to spend their time on Thursdays and Saturdays. Stanford students are notoriously flaky for all sports, I'm afraid, although I'm not sure if this is a sign of apathy or simply having other priorities.

The growing "corporatization" of the game hasn't helped. A few blaring seconds of "feel-good" soul music coming into a timeout doesn't do much to help the soul of the arena, especially if there was just a Stanford turnover or bad play. The Band has been phased out of player introductions (and timeouts for that matter), and the players themselves aren't even present for the national anthem. The Band isn't always helping either, often doing its own cheers in disregard of what the 6th Man is yelling. The Wells Fargo Race is cute, but whenever I hear a student cheer for the yellow stagecoach (especially when we're playing Oregon, UCLA, USC, Arizona State or Cal), I want to smack them - or the CEO of Wells Fargo.

All is not lost, however. The UCLA/USC games were an aberration, as many students were still gone for winter break and the university in its infinite wisdom decided to sell extra seats in the student section to the general public, many of whom supported the other team. Tents have once again begun to appear outside Maples, and enthusiasm is finally building among the younger classes. My friends and I were first in line for Arizona (yes, it was freezing camping out Wednesday night, thanks for asking) but behind us was an enthusiastic group of freshman from Larkin. It wasn't quite like my freshman year, when hours before game time the line stretched past Avery Aquatic Center, but there is hope for the future. If the squad continues to win, expect to see the 6th Man get bigger and better as the season goes on.

As for the team, I think they're in pretty good shape as well. Two moments stood out most in my mind from last weekend: Fred Washington knocking down a pair of clutch free throws to beat Arizona, and Brook Lopez taking over the second half against Arizona State with his own personal 10-0 run. Both were reversals from what we'd seen on the road at Oregon: Washington's 0-for-6 performance at the line and Lopez's inability to execute down the stretch. Both, I think, bode well for the rest of the season.

Overheard in the 6th Man

"What is that on your head?" - directed at Arizona's Jordan Hill, and his "interesting" looking dreadlocks. This one drew some chuckles from the Wildcats during warm ups.

"Hey Chase, wanna get away?" - yours truly, to Arizona's Chase Budinger during his 5-for-18 performance from the field Thursday night.

"The midterm is in three weeks" - one 6th Man member to a colleague who had decided to read during a break in the action.

Standings Up

Stanford (4-2) now sits only one-half game behind Pac-10 leaders Washington State, UCLA and Arizona State (4-1 each). The Pac-10 is, more than ever before, up for grabs.

"It kind of creates a whole new ball game for us," Goods said of UCLA's loss at home to USC. "We're right back in the hunt."

Whoever can win on the road will likely emerge on top after this week; the Washington schools are heading to Arizona while UCLA and USC will be traveling to the Oregon schools. Speaking about the road ahead…

Looking Ahead

Next up for the Card is, of course, the arch-rival California Bears on Saturday. Cal (11-6, 2-4 Pac-10) is coming off two close losses at home - a 99-90 double-overtime defeat to Arizona State last Thursday, followed by a 79-75 losing effort to Arizona in which the Wildcats rallied from a six-point deficit with six minutes remaining.

Several of my fellow sportswriters have written this one off for the Cardinal. To be true, it's never easy to win on the road in the Pac-10 and Cal should be rearing for a fight after dropping three-straight games at home and four out of its last five overall. The students are finally back from winter break (the one advantage I'll concede to the semester system is the long winter) and will have Haas Pavilion fired up. Sophomore forward Ryan Anderson is also on fire for the Bears, averaging over 25 points and 11.5 rebounds in his last four games-including two straight games with at least 30.

But I think this one could definitely go in Stanford's favor. With the 6-10 Anderson and 6-11 senior center DeVon Hardin, the Bears are one of the few teams in the Pac-10 that also likes to go big. This match up could bode well for the Cardinal, as smaller, quicker teams have kept Johnson from playing both Lopez twins together. Robin has come off the bench for four straight games, but that could change Saturday night depending on how big Johnson wants to go.

Turnovers could also play a big role in Saturday's meeting. The Bears committed 17 in the Arizona loss, while Stanford gave up 16 against the Wildcats two days before. If the Cardinal is able to continue its success on the defensive end, and if Goods and Hill get hot from outside (Cal gave up 11 threes against Arizona) look for yet another ugly win in Stanford's corner.

I like Anderson's game a lot-he's quick and can shoot on the perimeter while also able to post smaller guys down low. He also happens to be from El Dorado Hills, a suburb of my hometown, Sacramento, and his high school played against mine. But I think Hardin eventually will make the better NBA player. For some reason, athletic shotblockers tend to do better at the next level than jump-shooting big men. But both will be likely first-round picks, especially if Anderson waits another year to declare.

Quotables

"This winning ugly is getting old, but it's winning" - Trent Johnson after the Arizona win

"I wasn't really thinking about Oregon… it was just one of those days. I think I'm going to make them every time" - Washington

"I don't even remember last year" - Johnson, on whether Brook Lopez would have made the same adjustments last season as he did Saturday against ASU

Poll progress

This weekend's victories garnered national attention, as the Card took a dramatic leap forward in the rankings. Stanford is now up to #20 and #21 in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, respectively, its highest AP ranking since losing to Siena Nov. 17 and best showing in the ESPN/USA Today poll since opening the Pac-10 season.

Interesting to see UCLA slide to eighth from fourth in the AP poll, swapping exactly with Washington State. I know the home loss to USC was surprising, and the Cougars held their own at home against Oregon, but let's not forget what happened the week before. The final score of UCLA's win over Washington State on Jan. 12 may have been 81-74, but anyone who watched the game knows that the Bruins dominated throughout. But such is life in the Pac-10.

Patrick Fitzgerald covers men's basketball as well as the occasional news story for The Stanford Daily. Have some dirt on an opposing player or a good idea for a 6th Man chant? Email him at patfitz@stanford.edu.


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