Until Stanford's difficult trip to Washington State and Washington last week, the Cardinal had been playing pretty well. At the turn of the New Year, a shuffle in the starting lineup moved sophomore Anthony Goods to point guard and inserted freshman Brook Lopez into that first five. Stanford rolled to a 6-0 record with that starting lineup and became one of the West Coast's and nation's college basketball darlings.
The Cardinal asserted its strength and size in a starting five that averaged better than 6'8", defending, rebounding and blocking shots while also shooting the ball with increasing efficiency. Goods is now gone, however, for an indefinite stretch after suffering a high ankle sprain at Washington. No concrete timeframe is being issued for the length of his absence until an MRI examination next week reveals more, but head coach Trent Johnson said during Tuesday's Pac-10 teleconference that he could easily see Goods being out the rest of the regular season.
After losing both games in the Evergreen State, Stanford has fallen from Pac-10 title contender to an also-ran with uncertain NCAA Tournament prospects. Absent Goods, the team's starting point guard the last past six weeks and the team's only mildly proficient guard shooting from the perimeter, the upcoming challenge looks formidable.
"Anthony has been one of our most consistent players. He scored the ball a lot and hit some big shots," says sophomore Mitch Johnson, who returns to his starting role at point guard tonight. "We just have to win games. That's the biggest thing right now. We have three weeks left before the Pac-10 Tournament. We had a rough road weekend, and we now have four home games and two away games. I think four of them are ranked team. We have a lot of opportunities to make or break this."
Johnson is coming off perhaps his worst game of the season and college career. Playing in his native Seattle in front of family and friends, the Stanford point guard had five turnovers, no field goal attempts and four fouls in 14 minutes. His and the Cardinal's turnovers unraveled a game there for the taking in the second half, compounded by rapidly deteriorating rebounding and an inability to hit open shots. Stanford finished the game with 19 turnovers, but Johnson's were standout miscues.
"There were a couple times I forced passes that weren't even...," he trails off. "You look at it on film, and you have no explanation - that bad."
"I think when I'm in the game, it starts a lot with me," the sophomore says. "When the primary ballhandler on any team gets sloppy with the ball, other players start to follow that and try to force things, making more plays. That's something I will definitely focus on this week and try to cut down on. Hopefully we can get back to those Cal numbers."
Taking care of the ball has been a Cardinal sin this season, with easily the worst turnover margin in the conference. Two weekends ago, Stanford played at Cal and looked like they might have turned the corner with their turnovers. For only the second time all season, the Cardinal turned the ball over less than 10 times. A week later, it was back to form in a bad way.
"Those other games were like fool's gold because we were throwing the ball away more than we were passing it," Trent Johnson judges. "It came back to bite us this weekend. You can talk about offense all you want, but you can't have 37 turnovers and your opponent have 16 in two games and survive."
Perhaps the greatest asset Mitch Johnson brings to the point guard position is his decision-making and passing acumen. That shined at times last year, when he took over the starting duties as a true freshman. Johnson has had a few flashy moments this year teaming up with the Cardinal's supersized frontcourt, but his judgment has deteriorated much of this season. Defenses scout him as a non-scoring threat with the ball, and Johnson has tried to force the action when he and the offense stall.
"I shouldn't force things when I'm struggling," the point guard opines. "I think I need to get back to keeping it simple, basically. Just running the team and letting other guys do what they do best."
"It might be a corny saying, but I have always been taught: 'Tough times don't last. Tough people last,'" he continues. "This year has been extremely tough, and it's been probably longer than I even expected that the tough time to last. But people have stepped up and done big things. I'm sitting here fortunate that we still are in a race to make to the NCAA Tournament, and I haven't held up my end of the bargain. All that I can do is stay confident and positive because if I let myself down, I'm letting 14 other guys and the coaching staff down. I just have to tough it out."
He says he must stay confident, but there is less confidence projected from Mitch Johnson than we have seen from him at any time at Stanford. Fortunately, his teammates and coaches are behind him.
"Obviously we lose a lot by Anthony going down, but we gain a lot by Mitch being on the court," says senior Fred Washington. "Mitch has always been our starting point guard. Anthony had to play because we were trying to go big, but Mitch has always been our starting point guard. He runs the team just as good as anybody. He didn't start as a freshman for no reason."
"We don't need to change the whole gameplan because one guy went down," Washington adds. "God willing, [Goods] will come back as soon as possible, but if he doesn't, we're still going to keep doing what we've been doing and what has made us successful."
"Mitch is not our savior," Trent Johnson chides. "You start looking at our team and look at the statistics, and our bigs are throwing the ball away than they pass it. That's where we are having problems. Our turnover issue is a team deal. Our ability to concentrate, focus, take care of the ball and not have unforced turnovers is a team situation."
"I'm not worried about Mitch," the coach continues. "Mitch is never going to come out and be the shooter that Anthony is in one night. He can defend better, and he can rebound better. Outside of this weekend, he has played well. But nobody on this team played very well this weekend. I'm more concerned about us competing harder, rebounding and defending as a group as opposed to any one guy playing better. Our emphasis this week is on defending and rebounding. We were out-quicked to the ball. We were out-hustled against the University of Washington and Washington State."
Stanford tonight and for the foreseeable future will start a backcourt of Johnson and Washington, which is 10-of-37 and 0-of-1 this season from three-point range, respectively. It is not hard to figure out how defenses will defend this Stanford guard tandem. Look for a lot of zone defenses and/or defenders sagging well away from both players. That will make life harder on Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez in the paint, with a horde of defenders just a step away.
"We've played against zone [defenses] all year. We've been pretty successful against it," Washington charges. "We've had spurts where we looked horrible, like Gonzaga for a stretch. But for every bad example, there are a lot more good examples. Zone or man, I feel like we should be able to run our stuff pretty good."
Johnson will need to take and hit open perimeter shots, which was a failure in Seattle. While he has not shot the ball particularly well from outside this year, not shooting at all is a greater concern.
"If somebody is going to stand six feet off you, then you have to take the shot," Johnson admits. "Just to even put in their mind that you will take the shot. If not, then there is going to be no angle or passing lane to even get the ball to the big guys."
"I tell him to shoot the ball every time," Washington chimes. "Honestly, I want Mitch to just take 15 shots a game. I don't care - I want Mitch to shoot the ball."
For Washington, do not expect a sudden flurry of three-pointers. His best weapon remains dribble-penetration driving to the basket. That can be difficult when defenses pack the paint, but the fearless fourth-year player has no qualms about putting the ball on the floor against a zone defense.
"Actually in a zone, I feel like it's easier to drive sometimes because they focus so much on them two [gestures toward Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez]," Washington offers. "They don't even worry about us. I feel like that's why Lawrence is getting so many open threes in the corner. They forget about us floating around out there because they're so worried about fronting the twins and having backside help. They usually leave a guy wide open."
"One thing about Fred is that he's big enough and strong enough that if you are sitting off him five feet, you may not want to let him get that head of steam coming at you," Johnson adds. He's strong enough where he can finish, and I think he's proved that."
There is also a pair of reserve players expected to pick up more minutes in Goods' absence. Johnson and Washington will not play 40-minute games in the backcourt, and some measure of responsibility will fall upon the green shoulders of freshman Landry Fields (13-of-51 three-pointers) and redshirt sophomore walk-on Kenny Brown (7-of-24). The former is a capable shooter, as demonstrated in high school, still trying to find comfort and a rhythm in the college game. The latter is a reputedly pure shooter (Washington says Brown claims he has felt all year that Brown is Stanford's "best shooter") with even bigger butterflies.
"It's a little different in terms of the offensive output, but Landry Fields and Kenny Brown as perimeter shooters are going to have to come in and shoot the ball," says Trent Johnson. "Everybody has to do a little more, but everybody has an opportunity."
That has been the talk this week: "opportunity." The difficult injury loss of Goods, who was scoring 13.0 points per game and shooting better than 36% on three-pointers, is instead being viewed as a chance for other youngsters to step up. Despite losing two unsightly games last week and a chance at a conference crown, there is resounding hope and excitement for the Cardinal.
"We're in a great situation right now," Trent Johnson proclaims. "We have six remaining games, like a lot of people, at a good time of the year. It's the time of the year when you need to enjoy it. You need to enjoy it and get better. And not act like it's the end of the world. Whoever it was, they had Washington buried a month ago. They had Arizona buried two weeks ago. Everybody is burying Duke. It just goes by week to week and depends on who is playing well."
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