FOS Q&A: Hojo on Hoops

CHICAGO -- His dark blue Penn State uniform drenched in sweat, the ever-present smile missing from his face, Nittany Lion forward Aaron Johnson was the picture of frustration while sitting near his locker at the United Center Thursday.

Penn State had just completed a 7-23 season in demoralizing fashion, coming from 15 points up in the second half to lose to Ohio State, 72-69, in an opening-round conference tournament matchup. Less than 15 minutes removed from the final game of his junior year, and with all of his teammates having hit the shower, Johnson sat alone with a reporter and reflected on the season that was.

“It was horrible,” he said. “It's the worst I've felt about basketball in my life. I'm really upset right now. I don't know what the heck is going to happen.

“I think we have a great bunch of people around here, and everyone is putting out the effort,” he added. “But a season like this, I really can't even speak about it.”

Which wasn't exactly true. One of the most quotable athletes on campus, “Hojo,” as he is known, actually had plenty to say about where he and the program stand. Read on for his Q&A with editor Mark Brennan:

MARK BRENNAN: You know that people transferring has been a huge part of what's hurt this team. Do you think everybody is solid, including you, in terms of coming back next year?

HOJO: I think so, yeah. I think it's a learning process. Because of that [transfers] happening and because of the young people, it's harder to get some good, quality wins. But when you build a nucleus like these freshmen have, in a couple years they're going to be something, you know, with Danny [Morrissey], Geary [Claxton], Brandon [Hassell], they're gonna be leading the team. It's gonna be good.

MB: But how about you? You only have one year left.

HOJO: You know me, I'm just going to do whatever I can to help us win. We'll see what happens. I'm going to have a great off-season and try to come back and be strong.

MB: Where do you have to improve?

HOJO: A lot of places. There are a lot of things I have to get better at. I have to recondition myself, like I was in the beginning of the year, and keep that all year. I gained weight at the end of the year. I have to be quicker. I have to be more patient and finish better. I have to work on everything.

The thing about me is my desire has always been great and my intensity. But the skills aspect, as far as finishing around the paint … if I could dunk the ball and had athletic ability like Brandon, my field goal percentage would be a lot higher than 37. That's a huge thing. I can't shoot that as a big man.

MB: Where must the team improve.

HOJO: Every aspect of basketball. We have to start over, we have to work with each other. We have to make defense a priority and not worry about offense. You saw the great defensive job we did in the first half [against Ohio State]. We were up 11 points. Then we let some guys hit some open shots, I missed a couple of hedges and didn't press, and that's what happens. People hit shots and end up beating us.

MB: What do you do now? Take a break?

HOJO: No, I don't believe in that. I'll take a couple days off. But I can go all year, man. It's not that. The only break I need is mentally, not physically. It's just this losing, it makes for a negative attitude.

A lot of people have said my attitude has changed, and they are absolutely right. I've never lost like this in my life. And I never could comprehend it until I played a full year. [Johnson missed parts of his first two seasons for various reasons]. But when you play a full year and you lose a full year, it smacks you in the face. I don't like it, man.

I'm telling you, I don't care what statistically I do or anything. I just want to win. That feeling is so good. In order to do that, we're going to all have to work on our separate things and then come together

MB: Do you think you can get it done next year with a similar cast?

HOJO: It's not so much skill as the attitude, as the swagger. I'm telling you, we are not the least talented team in the Big Ten. Now we're not the most talented, either. But in order to be successful, you have to have swagger, you have to go into every game wanting to win. I think as a whole, we didn't do that. I think this losing has taken everybody in different [directions]. It's more of a mentality, an attitude, than it is skills.

MB: What exactly did you mean when you said your attitude has changed?

HOJO: My emotion for the game is not where it used to be when I was a freshman and sophomore, just because of this stuff. I kind of zoned out a couple times. But overall, it's a learning process. You can't win over night. All these new people. There's never been a solid group like at all these other schools.

MB: Just to be clear, you are definitely, 100 percent, coming back next year?

HOJO: Yes.


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