Tuesdays with the Team: Trent Johnson

The bandwagon's growing for your No. 9 Cardinal – but they haven't kicked off Daniel Novinson yet. See what Trent Johnson had to say about his biggest concerns for his team, how he's handling a top-ten ranking, and the status of Anthony Goods.

Let's hope that jinx is only for cover stories:

Not that you'd ever read another media source than this one, but with the top-10 ranking comes additional coverage of your boys in red. I'm told Sports Illustrated's Kelly Anderson was in town, interviewing the Lopez twins for a feature. I know SI will have writers "babysit" games – attend potential upsets, but only publish the story if David does slay Goliath. I would imagine the same principle is in play here, so drop out of the top-10 with a loss Thursday and no Lopez twins feature, but a sweep this weekend and they're in.

Also, Stanford AP writer Janie McCauley was in the house for her first Tuesday presser this season. Maybe the AP writes game previews for every top-10 team? I think the AP writes recaps for all top-25 contests, so Janie's kind of the canary in the proverbial coal mine – you see her in the front row, and you know we're ranked, and life is good. All I know is Trent's nice enough to the local writers and yours truly, but he's savvy enough to go out of his way for the Andy Katzes and AP guys of the world. Unfortunately though, the more new reporters hop on board, the simpler the questions (understandably, as they have better things to do at ESPN than know every starter on our roster), and the more cliché the responses become. Then again, this attention only comes when we're 18-3. I think we all can live with that tradeoff.

Okay, and from the fourth estate to the Evergreen State, here's Coach…

Trent Johnson

My favorite part of this weekly ritual is that no one knows how to start the question-and-answer session. It's not like we do these every week or anything. So, every Tuesday, TJ comes in and we all say hi, kind of look at each other and small talk. Then there's an awkward five-second pause and throat clearing, and only then does Trent break the silence with a generic, "look how good our next opponent is" opening statement…

Oregon causes a lot of problems for us, as I mentioned when we played them last time. They really back us up in transition; teams like this are a tough match-up. They're very experienced, very experienced, and return everybody except Aaron Brooks, who's playing for Houston. You look at one different break their last three or four games, and they're probably, I don't know, 15-6. But again, we're a pretty mature, experienced group and I think they understand our margin of error is extremely slim, and that's what we're going to focus on.

On Goods:

Anthony was back [in practice Monday]. He looks good, explosive, no tenderness. I'm curious how he looks today [Tuesday], because there could be some swelling.

On whether he'll start:

That decision I won't make right until gametime. That doesn't apply just to Anthony but some other people too.

What he bases starting decisions upon:

It's based off practice, their lineup, gut feeling, staff input. I want to watch a couple of more game tapes… what's refreshing with this group is that guys are going to be prepared. You go back to WSU, Kenny was doing good job – the best job he can – defending Low. Again, that speaks volumes to guys being ready.

Trent Johnson was, paradoxically, both the bluntest in terms of our shortcomings (especially in terms of Mitch, read on) and the most confident in terms of our ability to negate those shortcomings (because of the edge in the paint) that I've seen him.

On Mitch:

There's not a level of basketball he's not been exposed to. I think the start to his UCLA game spoke volumes to me on where he was as a player. He drove and got two quick baskets, but he was real aggressive, real confident. He's always a guy who impacts the game without driving, without scoring. Kyle Weaver is like that, but [Johnson] is not as long, as lanky, as talented, so to play at this level speaks volumes about how much he's overacheived. He's just more relaxed, trying not to do too much. For the most part, when you're a team guy, a good kid, like the guys on this team are, guys are trying to do too much because they want to win so badly.

On whether Stanford's guards are underestimated:

Not from the coaches and players in this league. People understand that for us to be successful we have to have good guard play. When you're seven feet tall and tall and balls are thrown in there, so be it, you have an advantage, but we were going where we were without our leading scorer and leading rebounder.

Are you kidding me? Wishful thinking bordering on delusional all around. Both Trent and the press are human – and we pull so strongly for Mitch that he becomes a focal point in our discussions even when he's not on the court. And I think many are also upset at Brook in the back of our minds for his academic troubles and feel he doesn't deserve this on some level.

That's fine, every human alive has his biases, coaches and reporters no exception. But you need to recognize it and not let it affect your job. So first, boo on the press for this question. Did you see who's won our last, say, four games? Relatedly, why have we asked TJ more about Mitch this season than our team MVP?

More importantly, Johnson sounds like he's holding a grudge against Brook. (And that's certainly understandable, just don't let it alter in-game decisions – stick with what works.) So be it, he says, if we must dump it into him. Just a week after he said that the team lacked a game-changing scorer, he now says we were going where we were going without Brook. That's absurd. I say we would have lost to USC, Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, and Washington State without him, which means we'd be 2-7, not 7-2 in-conference right now. Probably Texas Tech and Washington too. Even if we'd only lost a third of those games, we're just .500 in the league, closer to NIT than Sweet 16.

I think part of the lack of Brook love is also a bias against dominant big men – the beauty of what they do is tougher to appreciate. It reminds me of Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side," where five-star left tackle Michael Oher is good enough to block his team into the state championship, but his coach just won't call runs left because it's too easy, it's no fun. Dial up a flea flicker instead.

Life isn't fair. Brook isn't the best student or hardest worker on the team, but he's the best player. Give him the rock, and give him his props.

Okay, rant over…

On whether improved ball security (such as passing out of double teams) is the biggest improvement of the season:

I think the best thing we've done is rebounded and defended, but I would say we're a lot better than last year or earlier this year.

I ask whether dribble penetration against our guards is something Johnson just needs to accept because he can't coach speed, or whether there are things he can do schematically.

Number one, it does have something to do with the caliber of the basketball player. And scheme is two. As a coach, we try to do a good job getting our players an understanding of angles and players' strengths, strong right or strong left. Porter for Oregon, he's like that, no one's been able to take away his lanes, take away his shots. We've got to do a good job of keeping him to the sides of the floor and running different guys at him and trying to wear him down. Once a guy like that gets by you, get physical in the lane. Once that doesn't work, go to a zone, but then they're quick to the ball in a zone because there are free running lanes, so long shots, long rebounds really favor a team like an Oregon. Again, when we're playing well, we've been fortunate to defend out of the man and rebound, and then at the other end, make people defend us.

On whether he feels more comfortable running at home:

Home or road, I've never talked much about running or playing fast, but at home, you get more three-on-twos, more opportunities to run and play fast [because, he argues, we defend better at home]. If you look at the history of basketball, that's when you win down the stretch – basketball is predicated off defending and rebounding. The better the players, the deeper the team, the faster you can play.

On playing Law at the three or the four:

It's a matter of a matchup. At the three, we're trying to run him through, shuffle him on the offensive posts, at the four, we want to use him in on-ball situations, quickness situations.

On where Hill's more comfortable:

It goes game to game. He had open shots [against WSU], but the same shots he's gotten earlier in the year against Siena or anyone else. It just went down. I'm happy for him because they're probably the best defensive team in country.

On whether the WSU game will help with Hill's confidence:

You think it would help, but it's not something I talk to him about or he talks to me about. From the standpoint of his teammates, they probably talk more than anything. But the thing I've been impressed by most is he hasn't stopped trying to be a complete basketball player, and that's more important to his team in terms of winning.

On whether the team talks about confidence:

Very much so. There's stuff that goes on during practice. There's one or two guys who are real emotional, but for the most part, it's pretty grounded group of kids.

Any guesses on who he's referring to?

On dealing with a top-10 ranking:

What you have to understand is that there's probably two guys in that locker room that have experienced something like that, and that's me and Doug Oliver. But what I told them is nothing changes. Yes it's a reward, it's good to be thought of like that, but how did we get there? Say all the clichés, but you're never as good or as bad as you think you are. So you have to work and think about getting better. So these kids see each other every day and know what they're capable of and know what they're not. They have to trust through facts and experience this is how it works. This is based off facts, not what your girlfriend or your mom says. But I'm 51 so it's easy for me to go home and be miserable. And it's easy for them to go enjoy it sometimes. They're not professionals, they're college athletes, and that's what I tell them some times, go ahead and enjoy it.

I just addressed it Monday because this is a group that hasn't been through that situation. Not a guy who was a major player, played a major role. Fred was on a very good team, arguably one of best in college basketball in the last 10, 15 years, but his role was not as big as it is now.

I ask him for one major concern on either side of the ball:

My biggest concern on D is that we need to clean up our rebounding, especially this weekend. Oregon is quick to the ball and has way too many O boards. OSU had 19 [against Stanford]. We need to sustain our concentration on defensive rebounding and defending the point of attack, the point of attack is always going to be a concern. I thought a major improvement was defending in the post without fouling.

Offensively, not fouling and getting more guys involved. Not fouling and shooting shots with confidence. But major is a big word, that's not a major concern. This is a group, like I said, if we're going to get beat, it's because they're better, the other team's better on a given day.

His biggest compliment of the year – he just said in as many words that he expects his team will always play to its potential.

On Bob Knight's sudden retirement:

I've been very fortunate that I've gotten to know him in last couple years. My fourth year in Nevada, we played in Lubbock and got beat, and he was very cordial before and after the game. The next year, he spoke and had a speaking fee, but turned it down and donated it to Nevada basketball. Then I've known him here through the Newell [Challenge]. Whatever he decides to do I support wholeheartedly. There's not a lot of guys, not a lot of guys that have the opportunity to spend time with a quality guy of that magnitude. He's special. He really is.

Just ask Neil Reed, numerous reporters, and my favorite, the Puerto Rican government: http://espn.go.com/ncb/s/knighttimeline.html

On the rarity of committing 17 turnovers yet winning:

We've had our share of bad turnovers. It's not that rare the rebounding differential is huge. Again, 17 turnovers, but you look where the turnovers were. A lot of time you get turnovers that lead to baskets, but we had seven where we were able to convert on D and get stops. We were able to get back. Our ability to pound glass negates that a little bit.

They're doing the best they can. Mitch is 6'1", Kyle Weaver's 6'4". Kyle Weaver will probably have an opportunity to play after college. This group is what it is. Everyone wants it to be next coming of the Lakers, but that's not going to happen. I just hope everyone appreciates how hard they're working.

On Robin's turnaround jumper in overtime:

I was pleased with the decision Mitch made not to force it to Brook. Robin came exactly where he needed to we called five-up and he came right where he needed to. Normally he has the ball here [motions toward his knees] but he kept it up and shot with confidence.

He does some things offensively in practice that you go ‘Oh my goodness, why won't he do this in the game.' Last ye ar, as a freshman, he shot left-shoulder jump hooks all the time, now he won't go to it. A lot of things he was doing offensively when Brook wasn't around he's not doing anymore. But again hes 19, 19 years old, still a puppy. Puppy's not the right word. That's all I want: ‘Trent Johnson calls his players puppies.'


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