Now is when the weird stuff happens, when upsets ruin promising seasons.
The Sac-Joaquin Section basketball playoffs enter the neutral-site phase, moving from cozy, boxed-in gymnasiums to the cavernous confines at Sleep Train Arena. For high school players eager to succeed in an NBA or college venue, dealing with a new opponent is half the challenge. Acclimating to an unfamiliar setting creates anxiety.
A common theme each postseason: Emotions go up in big venues and shooting percentages go down, and, sometimes, too, higher-seed teams.
The court seems endless in arenas. The floor sounds hollow when dribbling the ball. Mostly, the depth perception plays tricks on shooters. At Sleep Train Arena, the glass backboards are windows to a sea of seats, often with fans waving back at you for the first time. And there’s an upper deck, and the ceiling seemingly a mile high. Even a breakaway layup can be a challenge, not to mention navigating the NBA three-point line just outside the high school line.
And yet, Sleep Train Arena is a welcomed destination for high school basketball teams. It may be considered a dump by NBA standards, but for teenagers, it’s a basketball palace.
“Oh, you can’t wait to get there, to enjoy it,” said Grant forward Cameron Oliver, whose Pacers play top-seeded Folsom in a Wednesday semifinal at the Kings’ arena.
But those nerves?
“It’s definitely different, and it takes some getting used to,” said Folsom coach Mike Wall, who coached Foothill (1997) and Folsom (2008 and 2009) to section titles at Sleep Train Arena. “I mean, come on. These are 16-, 17-year-old kids playing in a place they’ve dreamed of their whole lives. The adrenaline, the thoughts in their heads, they’re not normal. And the environment is so different. It’s not surprising kids miss shots (at Sleep Train Arena) they normally make (at their high school gym)."
Greg Harcos can understand the excitement of racing onto the court at an NBA arena, the crowd, the grand stage. A member of the 1988 Jesuit section title team, Harcos now coaches the Marauders.
And like most coaches, Harcos remembers the losses at Sleep Train Arena more than the victories.
“We’ve had some really agonizing losses there,” said Harcos, whose Marauders are seeded first in Division I. “The equality factor is big there. It evens the game up. No one has an advantage out there. But it’s fun. It’s what these kids play for.
“And as a kid, you don’t think it’ll be harder to shoot there. They don’t believe you. You’re young; you’re invincible. I was as a kid. It’ll take our guys time to adjust to the big floor and stage, too.”
Shooting percentages may suffer at Sleep Train Arena, coaches say, but there’s no excuse for defensive lapses. Regardless of venue, rebounds still come down to fundamentals and effort.
“The level of excitement and adrenaline, it really picks up on the defensive end at Sleep Train,” Wall said. “Teams tend to play more uptight on offense. Once you get to the second half, things calm down and they can slip into their normal routine. But I’ve had some bad, bad first halves at Sleep Train. You’re lucky to survive them.”
Kennedy coach Robert Fong said he will explain to his fifth-seeded Cougars, who play Jesuit at the arena, that they can use the pressure of playing in the arena to their advantage. It’s upset time, he said.
“There’s no doubt that this is the point of the playoffs where it can happen,” Fong said. “And you hope the players listen to you that it’s not going to get easier at Sleep Train. Maybe they’ll find out after the first quarter when their eyes are wide open and say, ‘Maybe Coach is right.’ But we have no pressure on us. We’re not supposed to be here as a 5 seed.”
Though forfeiting 15 games for using an ineligible player, Cosumnes Oaks coach Patrick Roth has watched his team win 27 consecutive games, each victory coming in a high school gymnasium. The Wolfpack last Friday edged St. Mary's in a band-box gym in Stockton that “made it feel like ‘Hoosiers,’ ” Roth said.
“Now we have to get used to the big arena,” said Roth, whose team plays Del Oro (28-1) in a D-II semifinal. “I don’t think it’ll be much of an issue for us. We’re a veteran team. We can’t change what we do. We have to have faith in what we’ve done. Sleep Train might be to our advantage. We love to run, and it’s a big court there.”
The girls’ section title games in Divisions I-V will be played Friday and Saturday at Sleep Train Arena. The D-I and D-II girls play Tuesday night in Stockton at Pacific, where it is spacious enough to throw teams out of a comfort zone. The D-III boys and girls compete tonight Tuesday night in the semifinals at roomy Cosumnes River College.
The D-I and D-II boys semifinal winners expect to have the Sleep Train Arena jitters settled come the finals this weekend. The NorCal and CIF State finals also are at the arena, an advantage for Sac-Joaquin Section champs.
“The biggest trap coaches have is putting the carrot out there, getting to Sleep Train,” said Wall, the Folsom coach. “That’s such an easy motivational tool. Then when you get there, you say as a coach: ‘Oh, I forgot. We’re not just happy to get here. We’ve got to win now, OK?’ ”
Sometimes, it’s easier said than done.