Stanford little guy steps up

STANFORD -- It's easy to overlook Mitch Johnson on a Stanford team dominated by the 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez in the paint.

Yet Johnson's ability to drive with authority, feed the brothers inside and confidently knock down his own jumper is a big reason the Cardinal have climbed back into the Top 10 for the first time in four years.

Those are the things he didn't do with nearly such consistency during his sophomore season a year ago.

This season he has helped No. 7 Stanford, up two spots this week, to a share of first place in the Pac-10 with UCLA.

"We're going to go as far as Mitch takes us," fellow guard Anthony Goods said.

The Cardinal already have the first 20-win season during fourth-year coach Trent Johnson's tenure. They are riding a seven-game winning streak in the talented Pac-10, their longest unbeaten league stretch since Mike Montgomery's final season at Stanford in 2003-04. The team finished that year ranked No. 1.

Johnson and Goods challenge themselves each day to make smart decisions in the backcourt that will allow their big men to shine in a conference featuring several other talented frontcourt tandems.

"I think a lot of it has been mental more than anything," said Johnson, one of Stanford's captains. "A lot of it has been just relaxing and playing the game and not trying to do too much or something I'm not usually accustomed to doing, not trying to be someone else or something else."

His teammates have noticed the major turnaround. Johnson has started all 23 games and has improved his shooting percentage from 36 percent a year ago to 45 percent this season. He is averaging 6.7 points, 4.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds and has a team-leading 19 steals. He tweaked his shot and has found a nice rhythm from the perimeter.

"He had to find himself on the court," forward Lawrence Hill said.

In a 72-43 rout of Oregon last Thursday night, Johnson hit a 3-pointer early in the game, then dished to Brook Lopez the next time down. Johnson also had a layin off a steal that rolled around the rim before falling in, the kind of break he didn't get often last year.

But it hasn't always been pretty for a Stanford team whose strength is defense. The Cardinal even won a game earlier this season against USC when they shot just 27 percent.

"Everybody wants this group to be the next coming of the Lakers. It ain't happening," Trent Johnson said. "If we take a step back, it could get ugly."

Early in the season, teams pressured Stanford from all angles to see how Johnson would handle different situations.

"People understand that for us to be successful we have to get good guard play," Trent Johnson said. "When you're 7-feet tall and you're talented, if the ball's thrown in there, so be it, you have an advantage."