Tuesdays with the Team: Trent Johnson

Daniel Novinson kicks off this week's coverage before Sunday's tilt versus the California Golden Bears with a recap of this week's press conference with Trent Johnson. See what Trent Johnson had to say about this year's squad, Fred Washington's status last week and this week, and his in-depth answers to some of Daniel's questions leading up to this week's game at Maples Pavilion.

Editor's Note: The following column/commentary offers the writer's views of the on-court performances and decisions of our men's basketball team. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our team's obvious desire and commitment.

Opening statement on Cal:

Quite frankly, I think they're very explosive offensively. They can score from six or seven guys and are about as talented as any team in this league. They're much better than their record indicates, much better on the road than their record indicates.

I think on the road, for whatever reason, they're better defensively. You look at their best player, Ryan Anderson, his stats are the same at home and on the road. You talk about a guy over 50 percent in all shooting categories, a really good player. But with Jamal Boykin and some guys like that playing better, and look at some of the teams they beat on the road, it's pretty obvious they play better on the road.

I ask about defending penetration (One of those professional journalist tricks: ask a question where you more or less know the answer, just because you need the quote for your [Daily] article. Incidentally, because of the Internet, everyone's on such a tight deadline now to be the first out with their game stories, that reporters often prewrite their game recaps and elict quotes to fill in the blanks they've left, which is why post-game press conferences are so bland):

They're explosive, they're quick, and it's no secret with our basketball team that teams like that have caused us problems. We've got to defend at the point of attack, at all five positions, at a high rate. I thought we played very well against Cal in all phases. We're not going to get quicker guys anytime soon. If they hurt us, we'll go to a zone or man-miss: when they miss, we'll go in a man, and if they score, we'll get back in a zone.

Our Patty Fitz, as I call him, asks about our desire to pound it, and their desire to run it:

From our standpoint, we're not going to change and I don't anticipate them changing anything. They've been unfortunate, some of the close games they've lost, so it should be the same approach offensively and defensively for them.

On Fred's play and injury status after this past weekend:

We got the best we could possibly get out of Fred. It was very obvious Thursday and to Tomoo the trainer… I would have liked to have put him in late, Landry did a decent job on Harden, but I don't believe putting him in injured like that. I thought best thing Saturday to do was starting and not sitting him [when he'd just warmed up and stretched].I'm not going to put a kid like that in that situation.

He's had two days off and I don't anticipate him being anywhere near 80 percent, no matter what Fred tells you. He's a very competitive man, but his safety is the most important thing to me.

On Fred's injuries this season:

All year, his knee, his hip, you have to see what he has to go through to play. He's not a guy who makes excuses, I think his team, his coaches, me, we appreciate that. But again, the most important thing is his health to me.

On his health looking forward:

He was trying to run down a loose ball and a whistle had blown and it was just like a guy walking on eggshells just to see him run, but once he gets loose, he can run a little bit.

Okay, as I wrote on Thursday, if Fred wasn't healthy enough to go, no complaints about holding him out against ASU. Coach J says that's the case. The quote also explains how Washington could not be healthy enough for Thursday's stretch run, but still able to start Saturday, which was a question I had.

I've heard that under Ted Leland, high-revenue sports like men's basketball and football were underfunded not just for assistant coaches (an issue that's been acknowledged and Bowlsby's attempting to fix) but also for the training staff (an issue I've never heard publicized – maybe it's already changed, I don't know) . I don't have any firsthand knowledge about our training staff and Ted Leland never showed me his budget, but look at how snakebit the two teams, especially football, have been in terms of injuries over the past few seasons, look at the alleged lack of funding, and it seems entirely reasonable there's a connection.

On Taj and Fred (there's about three of these questions, I guess someone's writing a feature):

All the teams that win championships or compete at a high level need guys like that, guys who understand their role, do the little things, aren't selfish. On this team, Drew, Kenny Brown's been exceptional, even Law Hill, people who don't see him think about his points and rebounds, but Lawrence doesn't care. Anthony Goods doesn't care. That's why the team's been successful up to this point. I'm a firm believer this team's only as strong as its weakest link. I hope the people who follow this team can enjoy that, instead of one or two guys getting accolades.

On the relatively even minutes distribution:

I don't want to look at it like I'm limiting minutes, because we're getting contributions from lots of guys, and there's situations that dictate when other guys play. Josh Owens is a guy, a freshman, who I'd like to have played more. I'd like to have played Drew Shiller more. As I've said, with this group, I wish I could play them all the most.

On whether the team will be fresher come March:

I would think that would be a correct assessment. But just because we appear to be fresh compared to some teams, make no mistake, Jerryd Bayless is an excellent athlete who can play 38 minutes all the time, he's bringing more to table from an athletic standpoint than certain other guys in the league. Where our minutes are, I couldn't be happier. But there are certain scenarios, foul trouble with Brook or Robin, or matchup problems with Law or any other guy.

On whether the freshness contributes to the grind-it-out defensive style:

That's out of necessity too. If we were more explosive, we could press, trap and run, but our style is dictated by our personnel. 18, 19, 20-year old kids, to ask them to defend, come on, we're not doing anything different than other guys are doing. Kids are going to play hard.

I ask who he'd want guarding the other team's top scorer in crunch time if Washington's not healthy:

We've used Taj, we put Kenny on Harden, it just depends on time and score, all that. It's not something I'm going to relinquish, it's just something that gives those guys an advantage with the internet, knowing I'm going to go small here or there. But ASU, I thought Landry did an excellent job, but give Harden credit. But James Harden making plays down stretch, that wasn't the game, it was breakdowns on threes against not their best players [Abbott, I'm assuming], offensive rebounds and missed free throws.

One of the questions I didn't get to was why Kenny Brown instead of Drew Shiller, who's having a much better shooting season. The difference in athleticism explains it. I think Johnson's actually saying Landry didn't do all that well against Harden, which I support with my eyes, Fields' struggles on defense his entire Stanford career, and the fact that given his scoring ability, if he were defending all that well, he would have been on the court for the entire 45 minutes.

I ask whether he considered taking Robin out when ASU was going to foul late in regulation:

Let me ask you it this way. You watch us play a lot, and he's hit a lot, and his free throw percentage has improved. You're not trying to miss them, and a lot of it has to do with me being able to bring him in and out, but for me, he's in the game, in rhythm, he's playing well, you leave him in. I think I'd do disservice to put a kid in press situation and ask him to make free throws. There's a lot of guys who are good free throw shooters in practice and not in games. There was never a question in my mind, and who would you put in? Shiller, and have him guard the post? Is that fair to Drew, sitting there all game long, to come in and make those free throws? And don't get sensitive Daniel, I'm not attacking your question, I don't think that's fair to those kids, I would never do that. Look at the big picture, what that would do to the other man's confidence, and the percentages don't lie.

Okay, there's a lot, so we'll work from the details to the big picture here. I like Coach Johnson and of course I want him to like me too, but I'm not super-sensitive now or two minutes later: part of the job is asking tough questions that people don't like answering. Heck, if he's reading this and ever wants to do me a favor, he'd go Bobby Knight on me in front of a television camera, because the sad truth is that would land me a 6 p.m. SportsCenter anchor slot quicker than any article I could write.

To the ASU game: I'm sure Shiller, one of the guys on the team that shoots well both in practice and in games, would have loved to come in and ice the game, no disservice at all. Also, ASU was definitely fouling down two with 33 seconds left, so Shiller could have checked out before playing defense. If post defense were still a concern, you could have brought in Taj to get Robin off the court. If you still wanted Robin on the court, post him 70 feet downcourt to draw away a defender and pass it to someone else. Also, percentages don't lie: from the line, Robin's 67% for the whole season, 65% for the conference season, and 68 percent the last two weeks. No trend.

Big picture time. In my three years of covering Trent Johnson, I think this quote best describes the man, for his strengths and his flaws. The positive side is that he's fiercely protective of his players. (Look at his quote earlier, spinning Law and Anthony's struggles this season into a positive for the team, as it evidences their selflessness.) I imagine that pays dividends on the recruiting trail. I imagine that encourages his players to give him their last drop of sweat on the defensive end. I know friends in the program say the man will walk through a wall for him. I know these are qualities I'd look for in a college head coach, and I imagine they're qualities all too rare in today's basketball landscape.

The downside, though, is that loyalty stymies flexibility, and constrains Johnson to thinking inside the box, even when logic would suggest otherwise. It's blind loyalty that kept Robin Lopez in the game when the numbers scream take him out, but more illustrative is automatically benching a player with two first-half fouls, or never fouling late when ahead when ahead by three, or never trying for two of the last three possessions in a half, instead of just the last one.

They all would be strategically-optimal moves, but Johnson's set in his ways. He's going to win with defense and rebounding and the same conventional coaching wisdom that was good enough for his coaches as he climbed up the ladder. And it makes him a straight shooter and a good coach, but maybe it prevents him from taking the leap to greatness.

(Then again, maybe not. Those last three paragraphs describe Lloyd Carr to the letter, and he only won a national title.)

On Mitch's free throw shooting [3-of-11 in the past five games]:

It's not surprising. The law of averages is going to even out. For me, it's trying to get him to understand that whatever's going on around him, it's still a game. There've been times where he's been tight and felt pressure, but he didn't get it from me. That's why I tell them to stay away from reading stuff and all that, and just play the game. But yeah, I'm surprised, not worried, just surprised. Mitch and Drew are two of our most confident guys.

It's nice that Mitch in that case was able to laugh about it, we won. And even when came over to me the first time he laughed, Washington State and even Arizona he came over at the TV timeout and said, ‘Am I going to make any free throws before the game is over?' I was asked after game because I made a comment that the game was enjoyable because of what happened Thursday: they didn't enjoy playing the game, they started to worry, but Saturday, it was a close game and they enjoyed playing it. For me that's enjoyable.

I ask whether he's concerned with his team losing big leads late in the last two games:

They're resilient. There's a level of toughness, as much as people want to hear it and I talk to you guys all the time, if and when we got beat it's not because we choked, it's because that team's better. Well-defended, but with breakdowns related to a couple of guys, it's the same thing at the start of year and the same thing now. Free throws, well Robin's made some, he's missed some. When you talk collapse, when you talk choke, it's when you stop doing things you've been doing all year. They did everything the same against ASU.

I would compare it to Siena, but when we got out to work on Friday, it was the same group of guys. So when Daniel gets down on the coaching staff on The Bootleg, just make sure to complement the players. [Smiles.] Can I go now?

Hey, who says no one reads The Bootleg? Johnson's pretty media-savvy, and I think he knows he can push a Bootleg and Daily writer to play nice a little harder than the professional newspaper guys. Johnson used to rib Mike Eubanks pretty badly too. Not bad company to be in.

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