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March 27, 2008
Coaches and players from both teams downplayed the popular storyline of Stanford's size versus Texas' speed between practice sessions at Reliant Stadium ? the home of the NFL's Houston Texans ? on Thursday afternoon, each saying their opponents are more balanced than many believe.
"We have a supreme challenge in front of us in Texas' frontcourt," Stanford coach Trent Johnson said. "(Stanford 7-footer) Brook Lopez played behind (Texas forward) Damion James in USA Basketball. (Texas center) Connor Atchley is probably the most improved post player in the country. He reminds me a lot of (California forward) Ryan Anderson (a first-team All-Pac 10 player who averaged 21.1 ppg).
"I get caught up in watching (Texas point guard) D.J. Augustin play. I'm like a fan. He's that good. But this team is a lot more than Augustin. They have five guys who can all catch, shoot and dribble with each hand, which is very, very scary."
Texas coach Rick Barnes, meanwhile, sung the praises of Stanford junior point guard Mitch Johnson, who Trent Johnson called his "co-MVP" along with Lopez. Johnson dished out a school-record 16 assists in Stanford's 82-81 overtime win over Marquette in the second round.
"I think he's very underrated," Barnes said. "He really controls things for them. He does a good job of getting them into their offense and he's a really good passer. He's extremely valuable to them."
The Cardinal will be playing in front of a heavily pro-Texas crowd (capacity is 42,000), but Stanford does have reason to be confident. The Marquette team they beat featured one of the quickest and deepest guard groups in the nation.
"We heard the same kind of things going into the Marquette game," Stanford junior forward Lawrence Hill said. "So we have that in our pocket. We'll be thinking of that. It came down to making plays down the stretch against Marquette, and we know it will come down to making plays again."
One of those plays Hill is referring to was Brook Lopez's game-winning baseline jumper with 1.3 seconds left against the Golden Eagles. Lopez has emerged as a go-to scorer and a probable lottery pick. He is having a breakout season with averages of 19.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
"He's really elevated his game since I last saw him," said James, who played with Lopez after their senior years of high school in the 2005 USA Youth Developmental Festival in San Diego. "He's become an NBA prospect. I'm happy for him."
Few players have elevated their game more than the versatile James, who originally signed with Oklahoma but was released from his letter of intent when Kelvin Sampson took the Indiana job. The former five-star recruit spent much of last season setting picks for 2006-07 national player of the year Kevin Durant. But with Durant in the NBA, James has become a major part of the Texas offense and a pivotal force on the glass, averaging 13.2 points and a team-high 10.7 rebounds a game. He had 16 points and 16 boards in Texas' 75-72 win over Miami in the second round.
"He's a fiery guy who plays with passion," Lopez said of James. "He's not afraid of getting bumped."
The same can be said for Texas freshman power forward Gary Johnson, who could be an X-factor. Johnson has seen his minutes cut recently, but his reputation for toughness and physical play likely will make him useful against the Cardinal's imposing front line, which also boasts 7-footer Robin Lopez. A Houston native, this will be the first time Johnson has played at the college level in his hometown.
"I think I will mean a lot in this game because I bring a different dimension," said Johnson, who missed the first 13 games while sitting out with a heart condition. "We have a lot of perimeter guys, but not a lot of post presence."
Taking advantage of Texas' lack of a post presence isn't the biggest concern for Trent Johnson. Nor is slowing down Augustin and his backcourt partner A.J. Abrams in an atmosphere that will surely feel like a road game.
"What I'm really concerned with is our ability to score," Johnson said. "(Texas) doesn't get the credit they deserve on defense. They really get after you and compete."
Texas has held five of its past six opponents to 40 percent shooting or worse from the field. Kansas shot 49 percent in its 84-74 win over the Longhorns in the Big 12 title game.
If that streak stretches to six of seven and Stanford winds up losing, don't expect Johnson to blame the crowd. He's firmly convinced that the Texas fans will not be a factor.
"I have confidence because of some of the environments we have been in," Johnson said. "Last year we were the only team to beat Virginia in their new arena. This team has done a very good job of understanding what it takes to compete and win, so I don't think the fans are going to be a problem."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.