Finding the Fun All Over Again

There are some technical differences in this year of Stanford men's hoops that have made it fun and exciting to follow, including the famed 1-1-3 zone defense and a greater flexibility by the coaches with the personnel. But it's the players, with their hard work and undeniable chemistry, that have made this season special. Win or lose, they have won Cardinal hearts all over the globe...

If you have been paying any attention to this 2002-03 Stanford men's basketball season and have not experienced recurring episodes of uncontrollable excitement and elation, then you need to rush to your local physician and have your Cardinalmania™ checked out. For a variety of reasons, this is the most joy inspiring Stanford squad we have seen since the Brevin Knight years. They keep surprising us with their collective achievements, and provide a rotating cast of heroes each and every game. The guys on the team fit together with sincere chemistry that has helped them overachieve, and that has made this a truly fun year for the Stanford hoopsters. And that in turn has made this one of the most fun years for watching Stanford basketball ever.

Though the season started playing out in November, with instant magic in shocking wins over Xavier and Florida, the wheels were set in motion last spring and summer. As described in the acclaimed September 2002 issue of The Bootleg Magazine, this team threw down the gauntlet and made a commitment to physical excellence. They worked out the NCAA maximum of hours per week in the spring, and then committed three-hour sessions five days a week during a summer that had a fierce heat wave while they trained outdoors.

It is hard to put your finger on the collective success that Stanford has enjoyed this year, as tied to their work in the weight room, but some individual cases stand out. The top of the list is redshirt sophomore Nick Robinson. When I polled the players on the team this summer for who had changed his body the most, Robinson was always one of the top two names off their lips. Matt Lottich said, "He's totally swole'. You look at him and physically his body is ripped like Michael Jordan's." While granted that the 23-year old combo forward has some built-in advantages of physical maturation at his age, the quiet but unrelenting commitment of Robinson in the weight room produced changes that have been evident on the floor this season. He had more rebounds by the end of the preseason NIT than he pulled down all of the 2001-02 season, and defensively he has been able to set himself like a 200-pound anchor against many of the conference's bigger opposing forwards.

Basketball fans think of "strength" as upper body bulges, but John Murray has put a special emphasis on the midsection with his training program. That "core" strength is the basis upon which basketball players originate most of their agility and power. That is the source of much of Robinson's improved physical play this year, also the case of another 200-pound forward in Josh Childress. Childress has added 15-20 pounds to his frame in the last year, but his frame is still slight of build. Then how has he stepped up his rebounding from a mere 4.8 boards per game to his current team-leading output of 8.2 per game? And doing so in the same season that has seen Justin Davis skyrocket in his rebounding effectiveness? A stronger core, hands and lower body that has him leaping higher than before, and banging against big bodies with greater resiliency.

These workouts didn't just transpire during the off-season, and instead have continued with equal intensity through the season. After two-hour intense practices end, your Stanford Cardinal grab medicine balls, springs, weights and a variety of gadgets to start their unsung undertakings. It's a year-round process that goes well beyond the summer precisely because these kids are so committed to maximizing their bodies. And it is that commitment that makes you brim with pride as you see Stanford's success.

The toughest part of being a fan in today's sporting world is that so many of the characters are people you just can't bring yourself to root for. In basketball's professional ranks, you are sandwiched between Ron Artest's infantile outburts and Sean Kemp's infinite string of paternity suits. Between Jayson Williams' murder trial and the practice assault of Latrell Sprewell. Countless NBA stars and starlets frankly make headlines more often for their behavior than their basketball. In a greater world where we are hit with terror warnings, impending war, and a double dose of nightclub tragedies, what we crave is a good story in our lives. The sporting world is one of the thinner shades of reality in American society, but the story of earnest college student-athletes who want to make their fortune is bigger than the basketball they play.

The other dimension that makes this team such a great feel-good story in what they represent is that famed chemistry that the players and coaches love to talk about. "I think a real difference this year is that the kids all genuinely like each other," head coach Mike Montgomery says. "There aren't any egos on this team, where anybody feels they have to be the superstar."

Now, understand that Stanford is in the upper echelon of college basketball when it comes to guys liking each other and overall chemistry, without the suspensions, transfers and folding chair incidents. But this year is special. Specifically because last year's two stars of the oft-named "Casey and Curtis Show" have departed, the remaining cast were left on equal ground. And they were too busy with trying to rebuild/reload Stanford hoops to worry about the individual spotlight. Then consider the challenges presented by the loss of Chris Hernandez to injury and Teyo Johnson to the NFL draft, which took away leading figures in the backcourt and frontcourt. Julius Barnes didn't care that he would have to slide to the point guard slot, where he was almost certain to enjoy lesser stats and percentages; Nick Robinson didn't bat an eye at playing big at the power forward spot, a position he and the coaches have long admitted is not quite the natural fit for his small forward size and skills.

"This is probably the most versatile team I've seen," says forward Justin Davis, who has been on a wide variety of rosters during his four years on The Farm. "We have guys who can play three different positions on the floor, and they've been asked to do that with our holes this year. The loss of Casey [Jacobsen] and Curtis [Borchardt] gave people, who previously only experienced these situations in practice, the opportunity to shine. Don't underestimate the philosophy we have: that we're really a team. If someone scores 30 points in a loss, who cares? I see guys who score three points and are ecstatic in wins this year. If one of the top guys last year didn't get his points, he'd treat a win like a loss."

Julius Barnes came in with Davis in that same 1999 class and has seen the same gamut of lineups and chemistry. He echoes more of the same: "This year is a lot different," Barnes explains. "There are not cliques on this team, as compared to my first two years. This year is pretty much integrated together, and we're having a lot of fun because of that. Yeah, we need to take care of business on the court, but there needs to be fun. In the past, it was all business."

Davis recalls the same feeling when he started at Stanford, in awe of veterans like Mark Madsen, David Moseley and the Collins Twins. "My freshman year the older guys did their own thing. Now we're the older guys on a younger team, but we still hang out all the time with the young guys. They're so much fun to be around."

The love these guys all feel for each other, and the strong bonds they have formed with their blood, sweat and tears, is the key reason they can give up the ball or spotlight on any given night. Matt Lottich earned a world of praise and attention for his mid-January scoring tear, but in recent games where his shot hasn't fallen he has been excited to create shots for his teammates. The result is a team-leading assist-to-turnover ratio that is also second in the entire conference. And when you get to know Lottich, who is the most fiery competitor you can hope to find, it is amazing that he could lead in a stat designed to give others the buckets.

Lottich is also a player whose own scoring performances have come as a surprise to fans, but have come this year because of the chemistry and balance. Barnes explains: "It wasn't there last year because a lot of guys stood there and watched Curtis and Casey. When the ball finally did come their way, after not having taken a shot for a while, guys felt the need to just put it up from wherever they were on the floor. They weren't playing their game, and couldn't succeed. This year is exciting not only doing well as a team, but because we've seen a lot of great individual performances from different guys. When you key on one guy, someone else steps up."

Josh Childress has lit up many an opponent this year, but when his scoring didn't come Thursday night, there was Justin Davis and Julius Barnes. When Barnes has found the iron unkind, Matt Lottich has hit big shots from deep. Nick Robinson has proven that he can score in double figures, and pulled down an unending string of rebounds while filling in for the injured Davis, though his highlights have been built on so many hustle plays to key wins. Rob Little stunned a national TV audience with his domination in the Florida game, while Dan Grunfeld played above any freshman expectations in December. Matt Haryasz and Jason Haas are coming on late in the season at a time when Stanford frosh many times fade. Even Joe Kirchofer has found some offensive grooves in February.

One reason the team has been so selfless is that they have united in a goal seemingly against the world. The Pac-10 media voted them seventh in a preseason poll. Their own fans loudly opined that the team would be a borderline NIT invitee come March, and voted with their feet by ending a string of season ticket sellouts that stretched back before any of the current players on this roster. "There were a lot of questions," says Barnes. "Who would be the team leader? Who would step for the big plays? Who would be the scorer? On paper there were too many questions to people on the outside, but that all motivated us."

The us-against-the-world mentality that has Stanford blowing the lid off every expectation is the giddy factor that makes this team my favorite since the 1996-97 team. All this team of purported middling talent has achieved is a ninth straight 20-win season, and the potential upside to push into the high 20's before March is done. As of this day, the Cardinal are tied for second in the Pac-10 and have better than a fighting chance to hold that position through the end of the regular season. They are climbing the rankings and have one of the best resumés in the country with top 25 and top 50 RPI wins. And this team was picked seventh in the conference when the pundits thought Chris Hernandez and Teyo Johnson would suit up!

Shattering the glass ceiling with such force and fury like this Cardinal hoops squad has done is, well, a very Stanford thing to do. And that is perhaps the biggest reason why Cardinalmaniacs™ are connecting so emotionally with this team. It's not the dramatic slim wins or even the quality of the opponents. It's the gross overachieving of talented kids who have stupefied critics who thought they weren't great. That drive for success beyond expectations is what makes this team a beacon for what the entire University stands for. Pretty fun to watch unfold, huh?

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