Shawn Tuteja is a junior at Stanford, and is the men’s basketball play-by-play announcer for KZSU.
Believe. No, I’m not talking about that Justin Bieber album from a few years ago. I’m talking about that feeling that a sports team and its fan base have before they go out and do the impossible.
Last Thursday, I boarded a plane to St. Louis for the Stanford-New Mexico game. After a redeye flight to Atlanta and then another flight from Atlanta to St. Louis — clearly, I’m not a travel agent, as I’m pretty sure I flew over St. Louis in going from San Jose to Atlanta — I arrived at Scottrade Center for Stanford’s second-round game unsure what to believe as the Cardinal made its first NCAA tournament appearance in six years.
My loyalty to the team told me that Stanford would find a way to win, but my basketball mind told me Stanford could be in a for a long game. How could I believe that a team that had lost four of its last seven, including a 25-point loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament, could beat a red-hot Lobos team with only six losses on the season? How could I believe that Stanford would hold New Mexico starting point guard Kendall Williams Jr. to just 3 points?
Like most sports fans and teams travelling to tournaments where one loss means you’re out, I had a contingency plan. I had a flight booked out of St. Louis for Saturday morning, which meant that I was thinking there was a chance Stanford would lose to New Mexico and not advance to Sunday’s third round.
As we now know, that contingency plan was unnecessary. Before I even had time to grab some of the free chips in the media suite, Stanford had jumped out to a 20-4 lead in the first half thanks to a 17-0 run.
In calling the game for KZSU, I remember making statements like “Stanford should keep doing whatever it’s doing” (insightful, right?), completely floored by what I was watching. I’m pretty sure Anthony Brown’s first 3 of the game was from as deep as the concession stands, and before I blinked again, he had knocked down two more. Add that to Chasson Randle’s 23 points and some clutch Robbie Lemons free throws at the end of the game, and by the final buzzer, you could hear Warren Buffet celebrating the upset in his Omaha mansion.
Stanford won the game 58-53, and I found myself calling and changing my flight to Sunday night and reserving a hotel for another evening. I was flooded with texts from friends congratulating Stanford on the win, and I remember going into the Stanford locker room after the game and sensing the excitement from the players.
There was a feeling that pervaded that locker room, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was at the time. Now, looking back on it, I’d call it belief.
That night and the next night, I found myself surrounded by a sea of Kansas fans at the hotel. Even when I went sightseeing at The Arch on Saturday, the majority of people I saw were wearing blue sweatshirts with “Kansas Jayhawks” across the front. (You don’t want to know how awkward it was asking them to take a few pictures of me in front of The Arch, as I was I was wearing a Stanford sweatshirt of my own).
And St. Louis was supposed to be a neutral site? I found out it was only a four-hour drive for Kansas faithful, which helped explain the thousands of fans that had made the trip. I watched Kansas’ opening game against Eastern Kentucky, and I thought I might need to go buy a pair of Richard Sherman’s Beats headphones to drown out all the chants from the Jayhawks faithful. If they were that loud against Eastern Kentucky, a No. 15 seed, how loud would they get against a Stanford team with a birth in the Sweet 16 on the line?
What a Sunday morning it was in St. Louis. Having started to believe that Stanford could beat the 10-time consecutive Big 12 regular-season champions, I started it by walking through the media suite rocking a pair of “Nerd Nation” glasses.
For those of you who watched the game, there were certainly highs and lows for the Cardinal. Dwight Powell and Chasson Randle both played exceptionally well, and Stanford’s defensive sets — which involved starting in man-to-man, switching to a 1-3-1 zone trapping in the corners, then switching to versions of the 2-3 zone that trapped and did not trap in the corners — were tenacious throughout the entire game. On the other hand, there were certainly struggles late in the second half in breaking the Kansas full-court press.
Nonetheless, as we know, Stanford pulled out the 60-57 victory, and I went beserk in the press box. I think Nerd Nation had to be contagious, as I had members of press teams from across the U.S. coming to congratulate me (not that I was the one playing on the court) and wishing the team good luck in Memphis.
The scene in the locker room was unbelievable, as reporters gathered in masses to interview Stanford players. I remember high-fiving and hugging certain other Stanford students and fans, as all the disappointment of the team not having made the tournament since 2008 seemed to fade away. Stanford’s win against a team like Kansas signified it was back on the national scene. If I was Stanford, I might go ahead and start making room for a few more Directors’ Cups.
Therefore, here’s what I’ve resolved before I go Walkin in Memphis (it’s funny how that song can get stuck in your head) this Thursday. I don’t care if it’s Dayton, Michigan State, Arizona, the Miami Heat or Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes, I would not pick against this Stanford team in the NCAA tournament.
You can see something in the Cardinal’s eyes as they take the court. You can see it in the way that they conduct themselves at the podium after press conferences. You can see it in the way they hold onto every wise word from their fearless leader, head coach Johnny Dawkins. There’s something about this team that is special, and we should all start to believe.
Shawn’s broadcast of the Sweet 16 can be heard on kzsu.stanford.edu’s “Listen Live” streaming and on 90.1 FM in the Bay Area. Reach out to talk sports or ask questions at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @stuteja.