Friday, March 28, 2008

Men's Basketball Sweet 16 3/29/2008

Stanford 62 Texas 82 After our 2nd round win in Anaheim, I spent the next few days of Spring Break in San Diego where some friends and I had rented a beach house. While watching the second round Sunday games at a local sports bar, I bumped into an alum who I had met at the Washington game in Seattle, who just happened to drop by the bar while driving around San Diego with his family after being in Anaheim the previous day. It was cool to run into him again.

On Thursday, I flew into Houston from San Diego where I met up with Albert who had taken an earlier flight from San Jose. Even though Albert technically should have been at work since there are softball games this weekend, he was given the option to go back home for the game. It was an easy decision since you're only a senior once and it's not every year that Stanford makes the Sweet 16. We were joined on Friday afternoon by Melissa - the RA who inspired us to camp out and get into Stanford basketball our freshman year. She had shelled out quite a bit of money to book her last minute flight out to Houston.

Rush hour traffic coupled with an accident made getting to Reliant Stadium a nightmare. It took almost 2 hours to get there (compared to 35 minutes on the way back) and we arrived just before starting lineups were announced. The stadium was overwhelmingly orange (Texas) with small clusters of blue (Memphis), cardinal (Stanford) and green (Michigan State). Having a raised basketball court in the middle of a football field is something that I don't approve of. It throws off players' sight lines, lessens hustle plays on the sidelines and reduces crowd impact but hey, anything to sell more tickets, right? There was a decent showing of Stanford fans - mostly alums with maybe 20 or so 6th Man members. I guess most students had already made Spring Break plans.
It would be an understatement to say that the game wasn't one of our finest. We couldn't hit an outside shot in the first half and our one-dimensional offense caught up with us with 10 minutes left in the second when Brook ran out of gas after bringing us back to within 1. Texas is a great team and they exposed us for our weaknesses. They ran the high screen and roll (our defensive Achilles heels) to perfection and grabbed key offensive rebounds in the first half when we seemingly couldn't get a stop. They also hit some tough shots that we simply could not do anything about. Brook aside, Taj and Landry showed a lot of grit and hustle. I'm glad that Finger was his signature self in his last game in a Stanford uniform and hopefully Landry's performance is a sign of things to come. This wasn't quite the breakout year that many had envisioned for Landry but that was also a function of there being too few minutes to go around. He'll definitely get his chance to shine next year.
In order to beat a team like Texas, we needed to bring our A game. We didn't have it today and while disappointing, I have no complaints about our season. If you had asked me at the beginning of the year whether I would take 28-8 and a Sweet 16 appearance, I would have jumped at it. The truth is that this was a team that surpassed lots of expectations, including my own. Hell, there were times before conference play started that I worried about even making the tournament. Picked by pundits to finish 5th in the conference, we were in the Pac-10 title race until the last weekend and had a strong showing at the Pac-10 tournament. We also reached Stanford's 4th Sweet 16 since 1942. That's impressive and I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to witness all 36 games of this great run we had.

I'm especially grateful that we did so well on the road. As an alum astutely commented, it's on the road where you bond with your team. I definitely feel that way. Those road wins made spending all that time and money travelling around the country so much more worth it. Wins aside, I also enjoyed meeting numerous alums during the course of my travels. There's nothing more welcoming than seeing a friendly face in cardinal when you are miles from home. For those who I have met, hopefully our paths will cross at future games. On the subject of away games, getting into the games would not have been possible without the assistance of Andrew of the 6th Man Club and Sandi from the Basketball Office. I have heard how difficult it is for students in other schools to get tickets and I'm extremely appreciative of Andrew and Sandi's efforts to get me in for free. Finally, I've been lucky to have had great travel companions. There was Albert for the non-conference schedule, Ben from KZSU for Pac-10 games, Willy and Michael for the Pac-10 tournament, Alex and Daniel for the first two rounds and finally Albert and Melissa in Houston.

It's been a pleasure writing for the Hoopsboard of the Bootleg. As I've mentioned before, basketball is the sport which I am most passionate about. I've really enjoyed sharing my experiences with like-minded people who truly get this passion of mine. You see, whenever friends (who think I'm crazy) comment about how dedicated I must be to spend all this time and money to see Stanford play, I find it amusing, because they fail to see that I'm not doing it so much for loyalty as for myself. Watching our guys play gives me such joy. And at the end of the day, this amazing journey would not be possible without the 2007-2008 Stanford Men's Basketball team. Guys, thanks for the memories. It was an amazing ride and one that I will never ever forget.
~ Zhihao

Zhihao’s 2007-2008 Basketball Season Wrap UpGames: 38 (19 home, 19 away)
Record: 30-8 (2 exhibition)
Game time: 76 hours
Road time: 119 hours
Distance travelled: 18523 miles
Expenses: $2963

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Men's Basketball NCAA Round 2 vs Marquette 3/22/2008

Stanford 82 Marquette 81 (OT) With a day to kill between our first and second round game, Daniel and I spent Day 2 of March Madness camped out at Disneyland’s ESPN zone, the only sports bar we called that had the Direct TV package. I can’t think of a better way to spend Spring Break. It was simply glorious. Worn out from the day of riveting basketball action, we went to bed early and got up just in time for the Duke – West Virginia match up. Even though I have Duke advancing pretty far in my bracket, I didn’t pain me too much to see Duke lose.

For our 2nd round game, reinforcements had arrived, now that winter quarter finals were done. Understandably, not everyone plans their finals schedule around basketball (unlike me). The 6th Man territory in Section 411 was well-represented and it looked like we filled up all the 75 or so seats we were allotted. Even though the arena was very Bruin-heavy, the overall Stanford turn-out today was much improved. I guess a second round Saturday game gets people’s juices flowing a lot more than a first round game against an Ivy-League team. While waiting for a friend to arrive, I bumped into several of the acquaintances I’ve made on my travels – a couple who I had sat next to during our pre-season scrimmage and seen at Northwestern, Siena and several other away games; a guy who let us store our luggage in his car during the Siena game and commiserated with us at a bar after the loss; the guy who had sat between Alex and I on our plane flight over; and the guy from the ASU game with his face-painted daughter. It was great to see so many familiar faces and it made me not want this journey to end.
As for the game, it was incredible - a huge rollercoaster ride of emotions that left everyone up in Section 411 emotionally drained. From our 7-0 start, Trent’s ejection and subsequent hole that we fell into, Kenny’s 3 which gave us some momentum going into the half and that we seized in the 2nd to gain the lead, only to struggle with the twins in foul trouble and cough back up, fighting back from a deficit with 3 minutes left to force OT, slugging it out basket for basket with Marquette and finally hitting the game winner with 1.2 seconds left. What a game!

Up to the point that Trent got tossed, I thought we had shown that we were the better team. Even though the score was close, we were able to get whatever shot we wanted on offense and Robin was playing like (gasp) a lottery pick. The unfortunate thing, was that many of our good looks simply didn’t go down. Brook’s missed chippies were especially frustrating. On defense, I was somewhat surprised to see us come out playing zone. While Marquette had a lot of good looks, a majority of them didn’t go down and I guess that was the chance we were willing to take. They crashed the boards hard (as one would expect) and got quite a few offensive boards though. I feel that we should consistently send all 5 of our guys to hit the defensive boards, especially since we have no transition game.

Even though we looked the better team, there are no guarantees that the better team wins. This was exacerbated by the terrible 1st half reffing. I thought we were done with Pac-10 refs. I guess I was wrong. Trent’s ejection which came as the result of several questionable calls was absurd. One of the refs justified the call by saying that Trent came on to the floor before a time-out was called. That’s complete BS since all the players were walking towards the bench and it was clearly a media time-out. I’ve never seen a coach ejected with two T’s in such quick succession. With his record of 5 career ejections, I guess we have another Libbey wannabe. I hope he doesn’t get to ref any more games in the tournament. It looked like the players were pretty frazzled after the debacle as Marquette hit all 4 of their technical free throws and jumped out to an 11 point lead. Thankfully, Kenny a big 3 (after a previous one went agonizingly in and out and to me was a sign that today might just not be our day) and we were able to close out the half on a 5-0 run.

Down only 6 at the half and with a well rested Brook Lopez (he picked up 2 fouls and had to sit for a big chunk of the first) I had faith that we would be able to channel our frustration at the refs and come out strong. Brook who eschewed his warm-ups when coming out from the locker room was ready and went to work on the right block. Perhaps his slow start in the first was a blessing in disguise because it made Marquette think that they could play him straight up and never adjusted in the second or in OT. That’s probably going to be one of our biggest advantages when playing non Pac-10 teams. They’ve never had to play against 2 7 footers before and tape can’t quite simulate game-type conditions. Thinking back to the first time we played teams like Oregon, Washington and Arizona, it took them at least a half of trying to play Brook straight up (and failing) before they adjusted. For Marquette, that half was the last half of their season.

Just when it looked like we had regained control and would assert our inside presence, both twins were relegated to the bench after picking up their 3rd fouls. There they would sit for just under 4 minutes – the longest 4 minutes of many Stanford fans’ lives. I understand the logic behind the move but allowing a 6 point lead to wither away when the other team is mostly settling for jumpers doesn’t seem smart. I wish someone could collect a comprehensive set of statistics to analyse this situation. While they’re at it, they could also see what our fast break conversion rate is and whether it would be in our interests to never take a 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 fast break opportunity even if it presents itself. My opinion is that only when Fred is running the break should we continue to press, but that’s just based on my gut feel.

When we were down 6 with about 3 minutes left, and later down 1 Marquette ball with a 10 second differential on the game and shot clock (twice), I thought we were done for, but to the credit of the guys, they kept on fighting. It reminded me of the game against Wazzu in Pulman where they simply would not give up. After missing his first, Robin made the clutchest of free throws, and Fred and then Brook played solid defense to send the game into overtime. OT was a slugfest with each team’s best shot just not good enough to knock the other team out. We managed to get the ball last and after seeing so many shots look good but rim out, we finally got something to go in our favour. And it was the game-winning shot – one of Stanford’s biggest NCAA tournament shots in recent memory.
Wow, what a game. Brook and Robin were amazing. As Mitch commented in the post game conference, these 2 tournament games have been their best at passing out of double teams. I’ve seen glimpse of this before and hope they will continue in our next few games. A pass back out and repost is so much better than tossing up a bad shot. Mitch had 16 assists, 1 turnover and was 3-3 from behind the arc. You can’t ask any more than that. Kenny played some key minutes, hit some big shots and had the happiest feet in the huddle with 1.2 seconds left. It’s a pity he’s leaving next year but I’m glad he’s finally had his chance to shine in games that we’ve won. All in all, kudos to the guys for staring adversity in the eyes and never backing down.
What a tremendous win. It brings to mind a conversation I had with radio broadcaster David Fleming in Pullman where he said that nowadays, a tournament appearance/first round victory is par for the course. If you really want to create something special and make some noise, you have to make it to the second weekend. Well, Houston here we come. This ride ain’t over yet.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Men's Basketball NCAA Round 1 vs Cornell 3/20/2008

Stanford 77 Cornell 53 Finals provided a nice distraction from basketball and the 4 days between the Pac-10 Championship Game and the NCAA 1st rounds went by pretty quickly. I managed to get subsidised tickets through 6th Man. Supposedly, 6th Man was initially only allotted 20 tickets but they ended up securing 75. Still, they were in high demand and issued based on how many priority points we had. Luckily, that wasn’t an issue for me. Unfortunately, due to finals, quite a number of 6th Man members were unable to make it down to the first round game, but purchased tickets with the intention of making it down Saturday.

With a take home final due Thursday afternoon and a 7am flight to Orange County in the morning, I had to pull an all nighter and so it was an extra long day of basketball for me. After some logistical issues, I made it to my gate just as the plane was boarding. The flight to OC was filled with basketball fans and I heard a few Go Stanfords as I boarded in my 6th Man shirt. Alex and I sat next to a fellow Stanford fan and got some early morning basketball talk under our belts. After landing, we took a shuttle to the hotel that a friend who was doing the radio broadcasts had kindly offered us to crash in with him. There was a Cornell fan who good naturedly gave us some grief as we got on, but conceded that we would probably blow them out and had booked a flight out of Anaheim at 6pm. Talk He asked to be dropped off at a drinking hole across the road from the Honda Center. It was only 9am.
After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we made our way to the Honda Center and met up with some friends – a fellow senior and So-Cal native, and the alum I had met when we played the LA schools a couple of weeks ago. I also later met up with Cardinal Junkie - the guy who inspired our blog with his video blog of Stanford’s amazing 2003-2004 basketball season. We first met at the Old Pro before our whole odyssey began and had continued to keep in touch. It was nice to finally catch up again. I also bumped into another Stanford fan who I had met at the ASU game in Tempe. He remembered me and this time, had his two adorable kids with him. We chose not to dwell on that game too much.
I wasn’t that impressed with the overall Stanford turn out. I thought Kentucky, Marquette and Cornell fans did a pretty good travelling and it seemed that a whole bunch of Cornell students (definitely outnumbering 6th Man) made it to the game. They were very enthusiastic and were standing and cheering throughout the 2nd half, even as they were getting blown out. In the first game between Kentucky and Marquette, we were mostly rooting for Kentucky, just so that we could avoid Marquette’s outstanding guards and pressing defense. Crawford of Kentucky gave it everything he had, but their valiant comeback fell short and Marquette advanced.
As for us, we started out sloppily, turning the ball over and giving up a couple of offensive rebounds, but our defense was dominating and we very soon righted the ship and started hitting shots. It didn’t hurt that we were much bigger than them. We even got out and ran the break with reasonable success. Hopefully that will dissuade Marquette from crashing the boards hard. Hey, one can dream. Everyone got playing time and we hit a good amount of 3s. Hopefully this will give the guys confidence come Saturday’s game. When we did get the ball into the post, I liked how both Lopez twins kicked the ball back out to open shooters. Robin was great today and seemed even more focused than usual. He’s definitely looked good these past few weeks. The part of me that likes to overthink things is afraid that his draft stock may have soared to the point that he may seriously reconsider staying in school (assuming that was his initial plan). Oh well, there’s nothing we can do except appreciate what we have and enjoy the moment.
All in all, the game was just what the doctor ordered. Cornell was clearly outmatched and unable to deal with our size. I’m glad that we didn’t screw around for too long and put them away early enough so that bench was able to get substantial minutes. It might come in handy on Saturday. Coming into the tournament, all I wanted was to get past the first weekend. Marquette’s in our way and it’s not going to be easy, but if we can play to our potential and pound them with our size – size that they haven’t seen before, Houston beckons. Let’s do this. Go Card!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Men's Basketball Pac 10 Finals 3/15/2008

Stanford 64 UCLA 67 In my first 3 years at Stanford, we’d only won a single game in the Pac-10 Tournament. With 2 wins and a championship game berth this year, we’d already eclipsed that total and this trip down to LA was already a success. Of course, getting revenge on UCLA after last week’s controversial game, winning the Pac-10 Tournament and maybe even clinching a 2 seed with Duke’s loss to Clemson today would have been icing on the cake.

After grabbing lunch with the friend who had kindly put us up in his place for 3 days, we headed over to Staples. Judging from the scalpers outside the arena, tickets were in abundance. I guess some fans from other schools had dumped their tickets after last night’s session. When we got inside, I recognized some new faces among the 6th Man crowd. I guess they made it down just for today’s game. I was expecting an overwhelming turn-out from Bruins fans but it was actually about the same, if not less than last night. Perhaps the lure of 2 games, including one against rivals USC was more enticing. As for the Stanford crowd, I’d say that we had more people than the past 2 days. It was good to see.

Unlike previous games, most of the seats under the basket were filled and so 6th Man members who had higher up seats weren’t able to move down en masse. Instead, they formed their own 4 row cheering section. Quite a few of the Washington State fans from yesterday had returned and I noticed during player introductions that they were rooting for UCLA. I guess we had riled them up sufficiently the previous night. In fact, I later found out what the incident that I had mentioned in my previous post was in a 6th Man e-mail:

"Last night, the 6th Man section in Staples Center had a couple adventures of their own. Cougar and UCLA fans didn't know what they were getting themselves into when they decided to take us on. Three casualties later, other fans learned that we meant business. And by casualties, we mean that through acts of frustration, such as pouring beer over the 6th Man, Cougar fans were escorted out of the stadium."

The ushers were their usual annoying selves. They told someone that their sign was too big and couldn’t be held up. Then, with less than 2 minutes left in the game when UCLA was missing free throws and we were trying to mount a comeback, they came over and said that we had to sit down even though virtually no one was sitting behind us. One guy said that even though no one was complaining right then, if we continued to stand and there was a complaint, we would be asked to leave. That didn’t stop me from standing, but seriously, we’re at a sporting event, not the opera. There was little bit of back and forth between the UCLA fans in front of us, but it was good natured and mainly just fans rooting for their own team – the way it’s supposed to be. We shook hands after the game and wished each other luck in the tournament although personally, I wouldn’t be heartbroken at all if UCLA makes an early exit once Kevin Love gets a taste of some non Pac-10 refereeing.

While it was naturally disappointing to see us lose, UCLA is a tough match up and they pretty much have the blueprint to defeat us. When we played man, they used high screens and let Collison go to work on Mitch. Collison was simply playing to his ability (I think he tries to get his team-mates involved too much sometimes) and when he missed because one of our shot blockers challenged his shot, UCLA crashed the boards with abandon since we don’t have any threat of a transition game. There were times when we had Mitch rotating and trying to grab a rebound against someone significantly taller than him. It wasn’t pretty. On the other hand, we couldn’t crash the boards as much as we liked because of UCLA’s transition game which burned us repeatedly in the first half. That basically summed up the game which was a lot closer than it should have been thanks to UCLA’s abysmal free throw shooting. I feel that this is what teams in the tournament will try to do (and what teams have been doing in the 2nd half of Pac-10 play) and our best response would be for everyone to box out and go after defensive rebounds. Playing zone against teams with great guards who can penetrate is the other counter and I feel that we might have gone to the zone a little bit earlier in the 2nd.

On the offensive end, I thought we did a decent job except for a couple of unnecessary turnovers. It was nice to see Goods come alive, given that he’s battling several hand injuries. Hopefully he can get on a hot streak when it really counts. Fred was also going aggressively to the hole and had a tremendous steal and tight-rope walk on the sidelines for the bucket and foul. He also took a hard hit on the head during one defensive rebound battle and an inadvertent elbow from Robin but Fred’s a warrior and we need him to stay aggressive on offense so that he can earn his minutes to play lock down defense. Mitch threw up a couple of bad shots but I’m sure his mentality was that the big guys would clean up on the boards. UCLA, unfortunately, did a great job and limited the second chance opportunities that we thrive on.

At the end of the day, the guys battled hard but with 3 games in 3 days with this last one against a great team, I’m sure that legs were tiring. It’s been a tremendous effort these 3 days and now that a 3 seed has been locked up, it’s time to get some rest, wait for the selection show tomorrow and get ready for the Big Dance. We should be playing in Anaheim and I’m looking forward to my third trip to LA in 3 weeks, but first I need to take care of this little basketball distraction called school. I foresee several late nights on the horizon but it’s only going to make Thursday come even quicker. Let’s get ready to Dance!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Men's Basketball Pac 10 Semifinals 3/14/2008

Stanford 75 Washington St 68 Compared to last year, the Pac-10 tournament is so much more enjoyable when you're still in it. And who could ask for a better appetizer than the cross-town rivalry game between UCLA and USC which went down to the wire. Staples was overwhelmingly filled by Bruin fans and there were a couple in front of us who were drunk and particularly obnoxious to the USC band and fans. I guess it strikes me as somewhat absurd for grown adults to be picking fights with college kids and other adults. But I wasn't entirely sympathetic to the Trojans since we received the same treatment when we were playing them in the Coliseum.

I thought USC made a couple mistakes in crunch time - not fouling Westbrook when they had the chance and instead letting him pass it to Collison who is lights out from the free throw line, and then running the clock down to take a 3 when they still had time to drive for a quick 2 or take an earlier 3 and try to get an offensive rebound if they missed. With OJ seeming content to run the clock down, I might have even fouled him with 5 seconds left and let him make 1 and try for the intentional miss. But I guess I'm a guy who likes to do things purely by the numbers.

Unlike the quarterfinals game which was the last game of the night and a separate session from the UCLA and USC games, not as many people vacated their seats after the first game, and so it was harder to gather 6th Man behind the basket since not all of us had tickets for behind the basket (we were only allocated 4 rows). Nonetheless, some people managed to sneak down and take the place of UCLA and USC fans who left. There were a group of Washington State fans seated directly behind us and throughout the game, there was a lot of back and forth between us. The first dealt with the issue of us standing up. Now, I wasn't planning on standing for the whole game, which is what some 6th Man members wanted to do, but I felt that I should be entitled to stand at certain times - like after tip off and before the opposing team scores (which is what Arizona fans do), during time-outs when our band is playing, when we make a run and have momentum on our side (which is what the Washington State fans seated midcourt did), and during the closing 2 minutes or so of a game (which is what happened with the UCLA-USC game).

Well, the Wazzu fans seated behind us complained when we were standing after tip-off and got the ushers to make us sit down. They complained when we stood during the first time-out when our band was playing, and the ushers made us sit down. And they complained when we stood when we were making a run. There was one woman who complained to ushers that band members sometimes had a foot in the aisle and were obstructing her view. It was extremely annoying. Finally, during the closing couple of minutes of the game when Washington State was making their run and she was yelling for us to sit down, I turned around and told her that I would sit when her fellow Washington State fans seated midcourt sat. That seemed to shut her up.

There was also the usual trash talking, and when we made our run to push the lead up significantly and were standing, something happened. I'm not sure exactly what took place but I think that a couple of Wazzu fans were asked by guys in red suits to move away from behind us to other open seats. Finally, there was one drunk UCLA fan in front of us who was rooting for the Cougars and would stand up and taunt us whenever they made a basket. He also tried to snatch away signs that some of us were holding up. He got into it with some 6th Man members and was told by the ushers to calm down. Things continued to escalate throughout the game and we might have made another complaint and he finally shifted seats and took off his UCLA shirt. While I admit that some of us may have had something to drink (6th Man comprised mainly of seniors) and might have been obnoxious, I still think it's absurd for adults to get into it with college students.
As for the game, it was another great team performance where we pounded them in the paint, outboarded them, and played solid, disruptive defense that garnered 14 turnovers from a Wazzu team that typically takes care of the ball. I also liked how we were able to respond on the offensive end, despite Wazzu making 3s at torrid pace. Some of them were clean looks but when Weaver makes multiple step-back 3s or Low hits a shot with someone in his face, there's really nothing you can do. One of my favourite plays of the night when was when Weaver drove and Robin was faced with one of those, do I try to contest the shot and let him dish it to Baynes for the dunk (Weaver's staple play) situations. I feared the worst but Robin stayed with his man long enough to make Weaver think that he had an easy dunk, only to block it at the last moment. It was a thing of beauty. If Robin can display that level of thinking and athleticism against Love and his multiple pump-fakes, I like our chances of containing him. Besides Brook who was dominant as usual, Law stepped up his game today and gave us an outside shooting threat. Two of his best games this season have been against WSU and he's had a good Pac-1o Tournament so far.

The only worrying aspect was how we almost let Wazzu creep back into the game with turnovers and poor free throw shooting. In a game where we did a better job managing the clock with a lead, Mitch struggled from the free throw line as Wazzu did a good job of not fouling our better free throw shooters and focusing on Mitch. I really wish Trent would have done a little Drew Shiller experiment to see whether he could come in cold and make free throws, since we were still up a fair amount and it was a reasonably good time to experiment, but I guess he wanted to stick with Mitch. Things worked out but I was pretty nervous for a while.

I guess we've locked up a #3 seed and could possibly earn a #2 if we beat UCLA tomorrow and things fall into place. I'm sure the players are raring for a rematch. It's a pity that Luc is hurt and won't be playing. Hopefully, fatigue won't be an issue because we really need to take care of the ball and play smart on offense so that UCLA doesn't run and use their athleticism and shooting in the open court. There are going to be a sea of Bruin fans and judging from today, it's going to be pretty hostile. But I can guarantee you that 6th Man won't be backing down.
~ Zhihao

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Men's Basketball Pac 10 Quarterfinals 3/13/2008

Stanford 75 Arizona 64 The Pac-10 Tournament - a great pre-cursor to the Big Dance. Last year was the first time I made it down to Staples and even though we lost in a heartbreaker to USC, I was sold. What's there not to like? You have all the fans from the Pac-10, even OSU who were helped out by the orange clad concession sellers, and 9 basketball games (maybe 8.5 since any game involving an OSU team that was calculated at 2.5 million to 1 to win the Pac-10 Tournament, counts as half a game). To make things even better, it only cost Stanford students $35 this year. What a steal!

I drove down with some buddies on Wednesday morning and we got to Staples with plenty of time before the first play-in game between Washington and Cal. Neither team looked impressive but at least Washington had the excuse of not having Brockman (their best player). Still it was a high scoring affair between two teams that don't play much defense and Cal managed to cover the spread (which I was thankful for). The turn out was decent for play-in night but I was surprised that there weren't that many Cal/Washington fans in attendance. The second game of the night between Oregon State and Arizona was a laugher with Arizona unable to miss a shot and Oregon St unable to do anything on offense. We left at half time to grab supper and get some work done, since this is, after all, the week before finals and we had some papers/group projects that are due. I apologise to anyone who is in a group project with me this quarter. I'm trying my best, but I have certain priorities that cannot be compromised.

With 4 great games of basketball, the quater finals day of the Pac-10 Tournament is the day that I look forward to the most. ASU-USC was a great match up to get things started with freshmen Harden and Mayo going at it. Too bad the refs had to ruin it with an extremely questionable call down the stretch that had the whole of Staples, besides Trojan fans of course, booing. I've unfortunately come to expect this with Pac-10 refs.

The next game on deck was the rematch between UCLA and Cal, which also meant hearing each school's fight song (they are the same) over and over again. UCLA fans showed up in full force and were annoying as usual. They would randomly yell "Go Bruins" even when UCLA wasn't playing, and also started a UCLA fight-fight-fight chant during the Oregon-Wazzu game. Right before our game, one old Bruin fan came to our area and started talking trash to the band and our tree. I actually felt embarrassed for him as he was escorted away by an attendant. UCLA came out to play after all the flack they've been getting in the media for their two tainted victories against us and Cal, and tore Cal apart - not that there were many Cal fans in attennance to witness it. I'm definitely looking forward to the UCLA-USC match up on Friday - possibly the first one in Pac-10 Tournament history at the semi-finals or later stage.

After a quick dinner, we got back for the Oregon-Wash State game. Wazzu fans really came out in full force. It's impressive that they have such a big following - maybe they'll take any excuse to get out of Pullman? I didn't really care who won the game. Oregon fans are notoriously classless (they travelled much better last year) and after being in Pullman, Cougars fans whine too much. Actually after visiting most Pac-10 schools, I have to say that the only fans I don't have an issue with are those that are pretty dispassionate (OSU, ASU and USC come to mind). I guess it's natural. I do like what Bennett has done with Wazzu and really like Weaver so I thought I'd root for Wazzu. On the other hand, I was reminded repeatedly that Oregon has without a doubt, some of the hottest cheerleaders. I guess it would be nice for them to stay around for a bit and after they dug themselves into such a huge hole thanks to Wazzu's offensive execution and lights-out shooting, I had to root for a close game. Oregon did provide one in the second half but just couldn't quite get over the hump.
It was finally time for our showdown against Arizona. Coming into the game, I was pretty concerned, especially after seeing their first half performance against OSU. With Wise back, they would be a handful and I wasn't sure how we'd handle Bayless who was simply unstoppable in Tuscon. The 6th Man who had made the trip down (we had about 50 people) congregated in our seats that were behind the basket on court level, right next to the band. We got pretty loud and were by far the most coordinated student group out there, much to the chagrin of the few Arizona fans sitting behind us and the people's whose view we were occasionally obstructing. I would have felt bad if there weren't so many empty seats in the arena that they could have moved to (and most did).

As for the game, it was a tightly contested first half with Budinger playing as well as I've seen him play against us. Jordan also had a good first half while Bayless was solid, but not spectacular. We could not buy an outside shot to save our lives (Shiller, Kenny, Fields, Goods all missed and it was actually Mitch who hit our only 2 3 pointers of the game) and got almost all our points from attacking the paint relentlessly (with Fred driving and our big men hitting the boards). Brook made some tough shots from the post and we rebounded especially well. We also did a good job taking care of the ball and limited Arizona's fastbreak points. In general, I feel that if we make smart decisions with the ball and prevent transition baskets, our half court defense will keep us in the game, even if we aren't shooting particularly well. The refs surprisingly let a lot of contact go in the first half, which I always feel is to our advantage.

In the second, the whistles came out early and often but we continued to score thanks to offensive rebound after offensive rebound. We were really attacking the boards and there were a couple of instances (Fred and Taj come to mind) when it looked like we just wanted the ball more. After initially trading baskets with Arizona, our defense finally clamped down with Fred fighting through screens and shutting Budinger down. After taking Budinger out of the game, he then denied Wise from penetrating, and finally matched up against Bayless who is Arizona's go-to-guy in crunch time. Fred played 33 minutes and got the job done. I cannot underly how important he is to our team.

Tonight was definitely one of our better all around team performances. We got a key win against a very good Arizona squad that is tournament bound. Hopefully the USC game was just an aberration and we're back on track. The short turn-around time could hurt us since a lot of our players played major minutes but I feel we match up really well against Wazzu. More importantly, with Louisville, U Conn and Notre Dame (teams that could have been #3 seeds) losing in their quarterfinal match ups, we just might have sewn up a 3 seed for the NCAA tournament. The rest might be gravy but nonetheless, I'd like to see us take it to Wazzu and have our rematch against a LA school.
~ Zhihao

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Men's Basketball @ USC 3/8/2008

Stanford 64 USC 77 With a day to kill before the USC game, I took things easy and caught up with a friend from Stanford who is now studying at UCLA med school. It was nice to catch up and we got some of that frozen yoghurt which seems to have taken So-Cal by storm. With an 11am tip-off on Saturday and our previous experience with LA traffic, we decided not to take any chances and left for USC bright and early. Traffic was pretty light and we got to the Galen Center two hours before tip off.

Will call wasn’t open yet but I was lucky enough to obtain a media pass. To be honest, with all the talk about how nice the Galen Center is, apart from the lobby area, I wasn’t that impressed. I can’t quite pinpoint what it was, but it seemed rather run of the mill. The student section comprised of seats behind the basket. Those who showed up early, showed up real early, but there weren’t that many of them. By tipoff, however, they had about the same number of people as we would have in the 6th Man Section, except that it was a lot more spread out. The rest of the arena wasn’t that packed and there were quite a few empty seats. Fans were late coming in and coupled with the glitzy team introductions and over-exuberant PA guy, it resembled more of a LA pro sports atmosphere than a college one.
The game was pretty disappointing. We came out extremely flat and played with little energy. USC just seemed a step quicker than us at every position. They killed us on the boards and had tons of second chance opportunities. I don’t know what it was - the early start time, our nagging injuries or a UCLA induced hangover. It wasn’t pretty. There were some positive though. We seemed to handle the full court press reasonably well and didn’t turn the ball over. We even managed to score a few easy baskets although there were times when the press seemed to take us out of our offensive rhythm – not that we were in much of an offensive rhythm when they didn’t press. I also liked what we showed on zone defense. It’s good to know that we have it in our bag of tricks. And of course there was Kenny Brown’s play. He always seems to step up in the last game of conference play (see Arizona last year) and even though it came in a losing effort, it was nice to see someone have a good game.

I don’t really feel like going into the deficiencies that the other players showed but hopefully this game will be a wake up call. Our teams has prided itself on defense and rebounding throughout the season and for the second half of Pac-10 play, the rebounding part of it has been largely lacking. I don’t really know what it is but we need to figure it out soon. Right now, we’re looking at a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and with a Pac-10 opening match up against an Arizona team that is fighting for its life, we’re going to have a battle on our hands.

Even though the goal should be to win the Pac-10 tournament, I’m kind of conflicted between winning and playing more games versus losing and getting more rest for our players who clearly need it. But ultimately, I’m going to be down at Staples and we don’t want to go into the NCAA tournament on a 3 game losing streak, so I think a goal of one win is a fair compromise when looking at the bigger picture. Regardless, I’m excited for some good basketball next week and my pick for the team to win it would be someone not seeded in the top 3. Someone like USC or even Arizona if we don’t take care of them on Thursday.
~ Zhihao

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Men's Basketball @ UCLA 3/6/2008

Stanford 67 UCLA 77 (OT) The best Pac-10 road trip was saved for last. After braving snow storms in Pullman, rain in Tempe, and lameness in Berkeley, it was time for the trip down to LA. Our flight out of SFO had quite a few Stanford alums going down to see the game. Good to see some Stanford spirit! We rented a car and I was dropped off on the UCLA campus. There was a men’s tennis match with cross town rivals USC going on. Both teams have good records and I watched a bit of the doubles play which UCLA was leading as I left. After a late lunch at the student union, I decided to explore the UCLA campus. Based on my travels this year, my favourite Pac-10 campuses are Washington, UCLA and Oregon in that order, and my favourite campus overall is Colorado, which has an unfair advantage with the Rockies as its backdrop.
After checking out the campus, I headed to downtown Westwood to grab some coffee and scope out the sports bar O Hara’s where I was meeting a Stanford alum and fellow Bootie. By the time six o’clock rolled by, the bar was packed with Bruins fans with a small pocket of 4 Stanford fans, including yours truly. This alum had kept an impressive 10 year streak of going to Stanford @ UCLA and USC games. Despite living in LA, he is a season ticket holder at Maples and always makes it up for the weekend game. This year, the only conference home game that he missed was Oregon. A fellow diehard! We hit it off really well. For this game, however, he was unable to get a ticket, despite requesting it months in advance, and had to resort to stubhub. How much he had to pay was still a sore subject, but I heard that uppers were going for $100 and lowers $400. Having both read a piece in today’s Daily about the lack of fan support at basketball games, we lamented the lack of student enthusiasm about basketball which he felt was also an issue back in his day (’95 – ’99). I guess some things never change.

After a drink and some food which he kindly paid for, we were pumped up and ready for the game. I have to admit that Pauley is the one arena I’ve been most excited to visit. Steeped in rich tradition with its reign of National Championships, the only other arena that could rival it is probably Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indiana. The championship banners, the history, the Den (UCLA’s student section) and the anticipation for our match up - there was a great energy to the place. Meanwhile, getting to Pauley was an absolute nightmare and Ben and his fellow radio announcer were stuck in traffic for a good two and a half hours. There was apparently a mudslide somewhere and they only made it to the arena fifteen minutes before tip off. Traffic also held up a fellow Stanford senior who lives in LA and was coming to the game. She was home this weekend and wanted to attend her first Stanford basketball game of the season (and maybe even life). Me being the nice guy I am, I got her a ticket to the hottest game in town, and up till now, the hottest ticket in my four years at Stanford. There were a decent number of Stanford fans in attendance. They were peppered around the arena with a group congregating in the visitor’s section in the uppers that was still rather UCLA heavy. One particular UCLA fan sitting in front of me took offense that I clapped loudly and cheered whenever we made a play or UCLA struggled. He gave me the stare down a couple of times coupled with mutters to friends. I stared right back. He tried to start something during half time with continued staring, but I decided to take the moral high ground approach when dealing with opposing jackass fans, smiling and asking him how he was doing, patiently explaining that I have the right as a fan who has travelled from Palo Alto to cheer for my team, and later shaking his hand and telling him good game when it was clear that we had lost.

As for the game itself, we played locked down defense, except for the repeated bites on Love pump-fakes, and rebounded pretty well in the first half. We also didn’t allow UCLA to score too many points in the open floor and off Love outlet passes. UCLA struggled from the perimeter and had many of their closer shots affected by our twin towers. Meanwhile, we hit some open looks although our passing out of the UCLA double team by our posts left much to be desired. Even though we turned the ball over somewhat, they didn’t usually lead to fast breaks and it was the slow it down, grind it out game that suits us.

In the second half, UCLA made the run that I expected them to. They started penetrating, hitting outside shots, and getting offensive boards. You need to play an almost perfect game to beat UCLA at home and at the end of the day, it was the little things like not managing the clock well with a lead, fouling someone on a put-back, not boxing out on the missed free throw, Brook not hitting both his free throws and then someone fouling Westbrook in the ensuing loose ball scrum 80 feet from the basket. The bounces went UCLA’s way. Westbrook’s first free throw that back rimmed straight up and in and then Collison drawing a foul with just under 3 seconds left when it looked like Law had defended him straight up and had just made the game-winning block.

Well, what can you do? The guys fought hard and didn’t cave, but it was the little things and bounces that determined the game. UCLA is a good team and just when you thought that Finger had stepped up big at the end of the game and Law had made the winning basket just like he did last year against Virginia, UCLA made their shots and free throws when it counted. After the game, I called out to Brevin Knight, who apparently was unable to score better seats, and had been in the opposite aisle about 5 seats away from me since half time. We shook hands and I can’t quite remember what he asked me but it was along the lines of how do you feel? And you know what? I was speaking the truth when I said that I was feeling ok. Sure it was a heartbreaker, but 8 point underdogs, our guys took it to UCLA in Pauley and never backed down. All we needed was one break to go our way and we would have won it. The game lived up to its billing and as I said to Brevin, it was a good game.
~ Zhihao

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Men's Basketball Senior Day 3/1/2008

Stanford 60 Washington State 53 Wow, you couldn't have scripted a better senior day game. There was the line outside Maples before doors opened, the seniors being honoured and Trent starting them, digging ourselves out of the first half deficit with the trademark smothering defense that has been absent in the last couple of games, an incredibly pumped up Brook Lopez whose passion inspired the 6th Man Section, Taj Finger's huge 3 to tie it up, Maples being the loudest it has been all season and of course the win which guaranteed us at least a second place finish in the Pac-10.
The first day of March was a beautiful day, and slowly but surely, the line began to grow as we waited for doors to open. I noticed even more seniors than usual (if that's possible) who were in line for their final game at Maples. Talking to them, there was a tinge of sadness that this would be it and I encouraged as many friends as possible to go to the Pac-10 tournament or even next week's games against the LA schools. Entering Maples and claiming our front row and center spots for the last time was a strange feeling and it could be me paying less attention, but it seemed as if the seniors who usually heckle opposing team players were more subdued than usual. Perhaps fellow seniors were just trying to soak in their last game as well. One other thing that I noticed was that the black out day didn't quite work too well. Perhaps they should have gotten a sponsor to hand out free black shirts.
My favourite part of Senior Day is when the players are honoured and have their parents join them on the floor. This year was no different and it was definitely an emotional moment for me (and I'm sure countless others). Trent's decision to start the seniors and Brook was ok in my book, even if it allowed WSU to get off to a good start and may have caused our usual starters to be out of sync. Their effort and dedication to our program was recognised and if I'm not wrong, WSU was only spotted a 2 point (or was it 5) lead before our starting 5 was in. But our team as a whole didn't come out too strong and WSU was able to grab some offensive rebounds, and penetrate and dish to the open man. Low also made some 3s that we couldn't really do much about.

On the offensive end, there were definitely some missed calls. It looked like Kenny was fouled on a pull up jumper and even if people claim that the replay wasn't conclusive, Goods being slapped on the arm before launching a 3 could be heard loud and clear. The crowd and Trent really got on the officiating crew after that no-call. It was probably the maddest I've seen a Maples crowd before. With Dave Libbey around, I wasn't too surprised and the thing is, the more a home crowd gets on him, the more he calls it the other way. Same thing happened when I was in Tempe for the ASU game except the calls were going our way since we were the road team. The guy has an enormous ego and loves being in his position of power. He even tried to get a fan thrown out. When Brook started jawing with him after picking up his second foul (it wasn't Libbey who called the foul), I feared for the worse and was hoping that Trent would get him out of there as soon as possible. Taj probably came just in the nick of time but then Libbey stalked Brook all the way to the bench and I'm not sure what Trent did to talk Libbey out of calling a technical on Brook, but he deserves coach of the year just for that.

At the same time, I didn't think we were doing a terrible job offensively. I don't believe we gave up any fast break points in the first half to a WSU team that makes a living out of getting steals (Weaver's foul trouble probably helped). Sure, shots weren't falling but I was very pleased to see us run 3 inbounds plays in the first half, capped off by the well designed Shiller to Robin alley-oop with 1.9 seconds left. That's probably more than we've run in all our previous conference games combined. It is as if Trent has been saving them for the end of the season so that it won't show up on scouting reports and opponents, expecting us to simply lob the ball to the back, will be caught off guard. Despite the 11 point deficit at the half, I was strangely not too upset with our play.

The second half was almost a mirror image of our second half performance against ASU when we overcame a 10 point deficit thanks to some stifling defense and great offensive execution. What made it even better this time, was the passion that everyone was playing with. Brook led the way by putting the team on his back and if anyone tries to convince me that he may come back next year, I'll ask them whether they saw him play against WSU on Senior Day. Brook played knowing full well that it was his last game at Maples, and while he has been often criticised for being too emotional, especially when on the road, his emotion was just what the doctor ordered and really inspired the fans. For one of the few times this season, the 6th Man section was rocking like a real student section. It was more situational than anything else, but as I had wished for in previous posts, we finally got it together for Senior Day. It was a tremendous feeling.

When Taj hit that 3 to level the scores for the first time in the game, Maples erupted. On defense, we rotated well and got our hands in passing lanes to deny the drive and dish that Washington State (Weaver especially) had used repeatedly against us. We didn't allow any offensive rebounds and the ball was bouncing our way and straight into Brook's hands for an easy putback. Brook wasn't forcing shots either. He passed out of double teams, and didn't try baseline fadeaways as he has in the past. Everything was clicking. When we needed free throws to ice it, Goods who had struggled from the stripe earlier in the game was there to seal the deal. His free throws brought some of the loudest cheers I've heard in Maples in a while. What a win. Thank you seniors!
The season is far from over but with all the emotions that Senior Day brings (Alex and I couldn't bear to leave Maples after the game), I just feel incredibly fortunate that I've been able to be part of this 2007-2008 season. When I first decided to try and attend every single basketball game this year, I never thought in my wildest dreams that we'd have this many wins. On one hand, I was trying to keep my expectations tempered but to be honest, all I really hoped for was 10 conference wins and to see us play in the NCAA tournament in person. To go 16-1 at home in a conference as talented as the Pac-10 is amazing, and I hope students realise how lucky we've been to witness this. To have this perfectly scripted game as my last home game, what more can you ask for? Well I guess I'm going to be greedy and say, let's keep up this momentum and passion. There's still a lot more of basketball to be played. On to LA, my second home for the next few weeks.
~ Zhihao

Senior Day Reflections 3/1/2008

So this is it – that was the feeling I got this morning as I awoke bright and early in my tent. This will be my last home game of senior year and last time sleeping in a tent outside Maples. Up till now, senior year hasn’t quite reached the point where I’ve become nostalgic at the realisation that the simplicity and freedoms of college life are coming to an end, and life is going to be very different next year. But as I got up this morning, this notion entered my mind and it’s no surprise that basketball is the trigger.

I’ve come a long way since freshman year where just out of the Singapore Army and freshly exposed to college in the US, I mistakenly believed that classes were the be all and end all of college life. After waiting in a line that stretched all the way to Avery Aquatics and then seeing us lose to an Ike Diogu led Arizona State in my first home Pac-10 game, I figured that spending some time on that Ihum paper might be a better use of my time and would go to games slightly after tip off (when the line was non-existent). I knew of the kids who camped out for games (Albert and Alex were among a group of them) but never really embraced the idea until I got a bit more of college under my belt.

When Senior Day approached, I realised that this would be the last time I’d get to see Rob Little and Nick Robinson play, and decided that I should make the effort to go early. Still, I didn’t know the Branner camp out crew well enough and so stayed up all night and headed out to Maples around 6am that morning. There were a lot of tents out and some beer pong tables from the previous night, but I managed to get a spot in the second row on the far right of the student section. We beat Washington (a future #1 seed), and rushed the court. I rued losing out on previous opportunities (women’s volleyball won a NCAA championship that year) to experience the multitude of top-notch sports that we at Stanford are treated to and often take for granted, and vowed never to make that mistake again. Looking back, Senior Day of freshman year was what converted me into a Cardinalmaniac.

Well now it’s Senior Day of my senior year and I’m so happy that I was able to see the light back then. Sometimes I wish that more people would see it too and we could have a greater fan base. Not to sound judgemental, but I feel that a lot of Stanford students get caught up in that academic over-achieving mode that is absolutely necessary in high school and is what got them into Stanford in the first place, but loses importance (in my mind) in college. If people have other activities that they are more interested in, I have no problem with that. After all, I’m not about to be dragged to the opera or ballet. But for people who actually enjoy watching sports, using studying or work as an excuse doesn’t quite work for me. First of all, studying and work is all about time management. You can make time for sports. Not to sound arrogant but simply show that it can be done, I took 6 classes last quarter (26 units), recruited for a full time job, tutored and did work as a research assistant, and still went to 50 sporting events (which included all our away basketball games, the USC football game and women’s volleyball Final 4 during finals week). I did fine in all aspects (if anything, having so much to do kept me focused) but those sporting memories are going to last a lifetime.

Secondly, a basketball game is not that long. If you look at the marginal cost of those 2 hours (in terms of not studying or not working), it is negligible from a purely rational point of view. What is it really going to impact? Absolutely worst case scenario: it affects your midterm grade by two grades (A to C let’s say), which affects your class grade by one grade, which assuming a 5 unit class is at most 1/36 of your final GPA. For those keeping score, that’s less than 0.03 of your GPA. That should have hardly any effect on getting a job or getting into grad school and has almost no impact on your career path or life (unless you meet a cute girl/guy in the library). But I guess everyone has their own priorities and all I can say, is to each their own. I can’t really complain because at the end of the day, I’m getting a Stanford degree which is superior to a degree from any football/basketball school, but even then, just gets me a first round interview.

Wow, that rant was longer than intended. I guess I feel strongly about Stanford sports and how basketball especially is losing its tradition and fan-dom. Last night was the official 6th Man camp out night and while the turnout was a lot smaller than in previous years (we didn’t need an organised camp out night freshman year because everyone just did), we do have 9 tents set up. More than half contained freshmen and hopefully, just like my experience 3 years ago, today’s game will be their awakening of sorts. In any case, all this reflecting will help me treasure these next couple of hours even more, but it’s time to get out of this tent and have some fun.