At some point Friday night, perhaps as early as pregame layups, the chants will start.
“Texas!” the burnt-orange throng on one side of the stadium will holler.
“Fight!” the other side will answer.
Brook Lopez and his Stanford teammates will notice, of course—25,000 people tend to make a lot of noise. And with their hands locked in the Hook ‘em Horns gesture, their arms pivoting in unison, it’ll be quite a sight, too.
Yet Cardinal players insist it won’t bother them, even when the Orangebloods gang up and turn against them. After the catcalls they heard at UCLA and the edgy jabs spewed at Oregon State, they’re convinced playing Texas in an NFL stadium in Houston will be just another road game.
“Same thing,” Lopez said. “Just a bigger arena.”
Bigger stakes, too.
Texas and Stanford are playing in a South Regional semifinal, with the winner becoming among the eight teams still vying for the national title. The third-seeded Cardinal (28-7) hasn’t gotten this far since 2001, while the second-seeded Longhorns (30-6) already have gotten a round farther than they did last year with superstar freshman Kevin Durant.
The matchup is a classic case of opposites: Stanford and its big guys, 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez, vs. Texas and its little guys, do-it-all guard D.J. Augustin and shooting ace A.J. Abrams.
Analysts can fill a school’s worth of chalkboards with strategies and counterstrategies about exploiting those differences. But the X factor might be how both teams will react to the Longhorns-loving crowd.
After all, the pressure of trying to please family, friends and fans can be a burden for guys in their late teens and early 20s.
“We don’t want them distracted from the fact that we have to get ready to play a basketball game against an outstanding team,” coach Rick Barnes said.
Texas has done just fine in recent years, going 6-0 in NCAA tournament games played in the Lone Star State since 2002. That includes a trip to the Final Four in ‘03 that was sealed by a pair of regional-round wins in San Antonio.
Back then, the Alamodome was more raucous than a neutral site is supposed to be. Longhorns fans could make it even louder this time, mainly because there will be even more of them. The Reliant Stadium configuration can hold around 40,000 fans and Houston is home to the one of the largest group of Texas exes.
“It’s going to be great, man,” said swingman Damion James, among nine native Texans on the roster. “I’m excited, the fans should be excited. And I want you to put this: We really appreciate them to come out and support us. Keep cheering.”
Go ahead, said Stanford coach Trent Johnson, who considers it such a moot point he doesn’t plan to talk to the club about it.
“This is a mature, experienced basketball team,” he said. “The one thing I’ve told them that the crowds get bigger and the magnitudes in question in the game gets bigger, but it’s still a game itself, and your ability to relax and do what you’ve done all year long is going to put you in situations where you can be successful or not.”
A scan of the Cardinal’s record shows at least a hint that hostile crowds can get to them: six of its seven losses came away from home.
Three were to UCLA, and there’s no shame in that; the Bruins are the top seed in the West region. Stanford held its own in the road games, going to overtime at Pauley Pavilion and losing in the final seconds of the Pac-10 tournament (at the Staples Center, as much of a neutral site as this will be).
As encouraging as that might be for Cardinal fans, there’s also this fact: Texas was one of the two teams that beat UCLA at home this season.
“You watch that videotape and you understand that that basketball team is more than D.J. Augustin’s team,” Johnson said. “It’s a very complete team and a very tough-minded team and a very skilled team.”
Abrams has been the offensive spark in the NCAA tournament, scoring 26 points in each of the first two games. Texas also gets a lot of outside shots from its frontcourt of James and Connor Atchley. At 6-foot-10, Atchley is technically a center, but he takes—and makes—the third-most 3-pointers on the squad.
Texas isn’t all small. On the bench there’s 6-foot-10, 299-pound Dexter Pittman. He had 10 points and 11 rebounds in the opening round and might log extended minutes to help contain the Lopez brothers.
Stanford talked Thursday about trying to play a slow-tempo game, but that’s not totally its style. The Cardinal averages 71.2 points per game, only 4.3 less than the Longhorns.
Brook and Robin are the focal points at both ends of the court. Brook averages 19 points and is coming off a buzzer-beater over Marquette.
The other highlight from that game was Johnson getting tossed in the first half. That couldn’t possibly happen again … could it?
“Yeah,” he said. “If we get off to a bad start, I’m going to get ejected again so we can win the game.”
Hearing laughter, he added, “It’s not a joke, it’s true, I love winning, so whatever it takes.”