Rally Time

This week's column from standout 6th Man and Stanford Daily writer Patrick Fitzgerald offers up a series of thoughts and views on this past Sunday's win versus the Golden Bears at Maples Pavilion, along with a look at the 6th Man's resurgence before and during the game, playing relaxed basketball, head coach Trent Johnson's candidacy for Pac-10 Coach of the Year, and this week's poll progress.

Editor's Note: The following blog/commentary offers the writer's views of the on-court performances and decisions of our men's basketball team. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our team's obvious desire and commitment.

I had this column written out in my head an hour and a half before game time Sunday. It was about 4:30, the skies were starting to clear up, and students were starting to shuffle into line outside Maples Pavilion.

That was also the time at which a rally was supposed to be held with the football team and The Band, aimed to announce changes to the Red Zone student section for next football season and ostensibly get students riled up before the basketball team took on Cal.

Unfortunately, as 4:30 came and went, it was painfully clear that the Band and football team (the "rally-ers") outnumbered the 6th Man members (the "rally-ees"). Looking slightly embarrassed, football coach Jim Harbaugh took the stand and announced that the Red Zone would be moving to the shady side of Stanford Stadium—a smart move. While it may be a freshman rite of passage to have the "S" you painted onto your chest sunburned onto your body for posterity (OK, maybe like a week), I could see why the University would want to further encourage student attendance. Yes, the move would uproot some alumni to other sections of the stadium, but as I told a friend standing next to me, "No seats for old men." (Hey, it was Oscar Sunday!)

The announcement, which had been hyped by several emails sent to students, didn't start much buzz in the line outside Maples. This seemed logical to me: most of the 6th Man die-hards who show up that early are seniors, who won't be members of the Red Zone next season. The Band, which was supposedly to keep playing until game time, finished up its rendition of "All Right Now" and quietly slid away. The rally, it seemed, had been a bust.

Then everything changed. Something incredible happened: the 6th Man showed up. At 5:00, roughly the time the Red Coats are supposed to open the doors, the line stretched all the way across one side of Maples—the longest I'd seen it all year. Then the doors opened, the students poured in, and the energy continued to build. Relentless heckling began. Cal players laughed at our taunts to their teammates (any sign of acknowledgment is a huge plus). The 6th Man was loud. It was boisterous.

It was back.

What accounts for the sudden uptick in Student support for the team? Several factors were at work. First, I think the fact that the team is top-10 in the country finally is setting in. Students are realizing that this is for real. Second, a rivalry game always helps. In any sport, playing Cal at home brings out the fans. Finally, I think scheduling the game on a Sunday evening, when other distractions are minimal, helps as well.

As for the game itself? The 6th Man rocked. It was like the student section of yore, loud and obnoxious from the get-go. Taj Finger finally got his big dunk (The "Taj Finger Tomahawk" they called it on SportsCenter) and brought the house down. Brook had a big dunk, followed by a big block, and brought the house down once more. Perhaps most importantly for the team moving forward, Anthony Goods relocated his mojo. Goods historically plays better at home, so can the 6th Man take some credit? Can they keep it up?

Two games left. Midterms are over. Here's hoping they will.

Overheard in the 6th Man

First and foremost, props to the 6th Man Committee for a well-organized performance. Instead of its usual perch in the center of the second row, the Committee dispersed its members throughout the crowd to keep everyone on point. They started the "U-C-L-A" chant during the Cal (and Bruin) fight song—a brilliant move that needs to catch on. Someone managed to acquire a pretty damning picture (from Facebook, I imagine) of Cal's Ryan Anderson and Jordan Wilkes applying eye shadow to one another. I don't care what the context was—the image was priceless and led to some major heckling. Anderson shot 2-for-13—most of the credit goes to Robin Lopez, but I'll claim a smidgen on behalf of the student section.

My only quibble is the size of the pictures. Last year someone had an amazingly hilarious picture of UCLA's Lorenzo Mata blown up on a sign. If whoever had acquired the Anderson-Wilkes shot had managed to blow up the picture to poster size, it would have been icing on the cake. If the University wouldn't have allowed such a poster into the game, then shame on them. It's all for fun.

A Goods time was had by all

Speaking of fun, Anthony Goods credited a more relaxed approach for his shooting performance Sunday night.

"You always get frustrated when you're not playing to your potential," he said after the game. "It's always good to relax and calm. Usually you think too much, you've just got to let yourself go and live in the present."

Lawrence Hill said something similar earlier in the season when he was slumping (although many would argue he technically still is). And the Lopez twins, especially Brook, have echoed the theme several times this year.

"The games do get a little heated but I'm trying to keep from exploding again, I'm trying to enjoy a bit more," Brook said Sunday. "Basketball's supposed to be fun."

So there you have it. It's all about having fun out there. I'm sure all the winning helps, and this team is easy-going for the most part, but something tells me the guys would be saying something a little different if coach Trent Johnson wasn't sitting next to them during the press conferences…

Sticking to his guns

Speaking of frustrations, Stanford fans who blasted Johnson for his late game substitutions in the loss to Arizona State last week must have bristled when Johnson "stayed the course" Sunday against Cal. There was no Drew Schiller for free throws, or Fred Washington for defense. This time, however, it worked. If there's one thing we've learned about Johnson, is that he's a loyal guy and sticks to his guns. For the most part, you can't argue with the result.

Johnson's success this year has him in the running for Pac-10 Coach of the Year, perhaps a favorite in some circles. Johnson himself will tell you that he doesn't care about the personal acclaim, and prefers to praise the team as whole. But such an award certainly hurt in recruiting, now, would it?

The talking heads on College Game Night discussed the subject at length Sunday night. I will agree that it's tough to give the award to Ben Howland—expectations loom large, and everyone thought UCLA would be just about this good.

Stanford's a different story. The Cardinal were picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll, yet having embraced Johnson's defensive philosophy the team is now 22-4 and a solid second in the Pac-10. While some of us thought that many pundits were underrating the Cardinal (and overrating USC), a top-10 ranking and possible 2nd seed in the tournament is really the stuff of highest hopes. If the Cardinal can win out at home, beat at least one of the two LA teams and make it to the final game of the Pac-10 Tournament, Johnson has to get the nod.

Johnson's competition for the award? Arizona State coach Herb Sendek. Sendek, named coach of the Sun Devils in April 2006, has turned around the program in Tempe and exceeded almost everyone's expectations. Written off as a distant 9th seed in conference preseason polling, the Sun Devils are 17-9 and tied for fifth in the Pac-10. They've beaten Xavier and Stanford and swept cross-state rival, the previously indomitable Arizona. In many respects, Sendek out coached Johnson down the stretch in the Valentine's Day victory. I'd be hard pressed to argue against him for Coach of the Year either.

Poll progress

Sunday's win over Cal bumped the Cardinal up to the eighth spot in both national polls. Expectations are growing by the day. The stakes are rising. The team's low-key attitude will be challenged. Will the rally continue? Stay tuned…

Coming next week: I'll offer my picks for All-Pac-10 honors, as well as the debut of my Pac-10 draft board.

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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