January 6, 2005
Trent Johnson was in a nowin situation almost from the moment he decided to coach the Stanford men’s basketball team last May.
The only way the former Cardinal assistant was going to make fans forget about Mike Montgomery — who jumped to the East Bay after 18 seasons to coach the NBA’s Golden State Warriors — was to take his team to the Final Four.
Instead, Johnson opened the season 2-4, lost three straight games for the first time since the 1996-97 season and posted more Pac-10 losses (two) in his first two games than Montgomery (one) did all of last season.
Never mind that Johnson had lost Pac-10 Player of the Year Josh Childress, guard Matt Lottich and forward Justin Davis.
Never mind that All-Pac-10 point guard Chris Hernandez missed three weeks of practice with a sprained ankle.
Never mind that Stanford had to play nine of its first 12 games away from home as Maples Pavilion underwent a $30 million renovation.
Montgomery had set expectations high and Johnson was suffering comparisons on a daily basis.
"I have been asked about that many times and it’s not a problem," said Johnson, "but I don’t think it’s fair to any team, in any program, to compare them to last year’s team. This is a different team, a different year and I tend to dwell on the present."
The present has not been so pleasant. While Hernandez returned to lead the team, his skills have not meshed as well with a slower, less athletic lineup.
The Cardinal (6-6) have asked forward Dan Grunfeld, who played sparingly last season, to shoulder a major portion of the offense. Grunfeld, the son of Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, is averaging 16.7 points, but the Cardinal are still eighth in the Pac-10 in scoring, ninth in 3-point field goal percentage and seventh in opponents’ field goal percentage.
"We’re obviously disappointed in the record and the way we’ve started," Hernandez said. "I think mostly it’s a mind-set of learning to bring (full effort) every day."
Montgomery said he has talked with Johnson on numerous occasions but stopped short of saying he has given him any advice.
"It’s his show," Montgomery said. "He’s got to make his own decisions. He’s been there for a few years. He knows how we operated. He knows the system we ran. Eventually, his personality will take over.
"He just needs to get players. It’s the nature of the beast."
UCLA coach Ben Howland, who knows something about high expectations, is sympathetic with Johnson’s plight.
"It’s never easy when you come into a program that won 31 games a year ago. It’s just what it is," he said. "Stanford has had great success. Mike did a great job, obviously, but Trent is an outstanding coach, too."
Johnson earned the job by leading Nevada to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history last season. Nevada also tied a school-record with 25 victories and shared the WAC title for the first time, winning the conference tournament.
Even so, Johnson, an assistant under Montgomery from 1996-99, is the first to dismiss any talk that he might live up to Montgomery’s impressive legacy.
"Coach Montgomery talks basketball on a different level than a lot of coaches," he said. "This team is starting to play better and they’re growing accustomed to new roles. But please don’t insult Coach Montgomery by talking about me and him in the same breath. If I’m around 18 years at this place, I’ll have died and gone to heaven."
ASU at Stanford
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, Calif.
Radio: ESPN (860 AM)
Records: ASU (11-2, 0-1), Stanford (6-6, 0-2)
Series history: Stanford leads the all-time series 32-24. The Cardinal have won six straight games over the Sun Devils at Maples Pavilion and nine of the last 10. The Cardinal have won 13 straight and 17 of the past 18 overall. ASU’s last win was a 90-87 overtime decision on Jan. 31, 1998.
Scouting report: Stanford — The Cardinal have played nine of their 12 games this season away from home. Stanford is 2-0 at Maples and has won 18 straight home games overall. Dan Grunfeld leads the team in scoring at 16.7 ppg and point guard Chris Hernandez is averaging 34.2 mpg, tops in the Pac-10.
ASU — The Sun Devils need to rebound from Sunday’s lopsided loss at Arizona to avoid another 0-3 start in Pac-10 play. A 1-1 road trip would suffice and with Stanford and Cal both down, there is reason for optimism. Forward Ike Diogu will face plenty of height inside against 6-11 Matt Haryasz and 6-10 Rob Little. Small forward Bryson Krueger (ankle) is probable.