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April 28, 2008Trent Johnson is a fish out of water in Louisiana.
Johnson, who has spent the overwhelming majority of his coaching career on the West Coast, left Stanford to take over the floundering program at LSU. While the Cardinal was going 28-8 this season and reaching the Sweet 16, the Tigers were going 13-18 and missing the postseason for the second consecutive season.
THE TRENT JOHNSON FILE
Name: Trent Johnson
Coaching record: 159-122 in nine seasons (79-74 at Nevada, 1999-2004; 80-48 at Stanford, 2004-08)
Postseason appearances: Four NCAA bids, two NIT bids
Other coaching stops as assistant: Utah (1986-89), Washington (1989-92), Rice (1992-96), Stanford (1996-99)
Notes: Johnson was an All-Big Sky performer at Boise State during his playing days. ? He recruited Nick Fazekas to Nevada. ? Stanford made the Final Four in 1998 while he was an assistant.
LSU was able to keep Johnson's candidacy relatively quiet until it had decided he was the man to right the ship. Published reports out of California had the coach unhappy that Stanford hadn't worked out a contract extension for him. The Tigers came calling at the right time with the right bait ? the opportunity to double his salary in a state with an ocean full of basketball talent.
"I've always thought it had unbelievable tradition," Johnson told Rivals.com. "LSU has had three of the top 50 players of all time ? Shaquille (O'Neal), 'Pistol Pete' (Maravich) and Bob Pettit. It's had Chris Jackson and Jerry Reynolds. The list just goes on and on. The tradition and history is awesome.
"Look at the players over the years who've come out of this state ? Robert Parish, Karl Malone, Bill Russell. This area has always had good players, and we'll be trying to find the next ones."
When LSU made the Final Four in 2006, all five starters were from Louisiana and three were from Baton Rouge. That's why Johnson made it a priority to keep continuity in his staff, retaining Pierre and John Treloar as assistants.
"It's important to keep good people and good coaches," Johnson said. "Butch has been around and does a great job in recruiting. John Treloar is an excellent coach who is known for how well he scouts opponents. I'm pleased that they're going to stay on."
Johnson rounded out his staff with former Louisiana Tech coach Keith Richard, who was 150-117 in nine years with the Bulldogs before he was fired after going 10-20 in 2006-07.
"I had competed against Louisiana Tech while I was at Nevada, and I got to know Keith," Johnson said. "He's also a Baton Rouge native, and I like his approach to the game."
Obviously, Johnson intends to cast a net over Louisiana, scoop up the best prospects and keep out the poachers.
"Anyplace you go, your No. 1 responsibility is to keep the best players at home," Johnson said. "LSU is the school in the state."
Johnson doesn't figure to have a lot of trouble recruiting. Stanford's high academic standards limited the pool of players he could go after, and he still managed three NCAA Tournament appearances in his four seasons with the Cardinal. The pool of players he can get into LSU will be substantially larger. He also is used to recruiting on a national scale because at Stanford that was necessary. It won't be so critical now with the fertile grounds nearby, but it's nice to know he can.
Johnson will be busy between now and the start of practice in October familiarizing himself with his team and the conference as a whole.
"The biggest adjustment is familiarity with coaching styles and players in a new league," Johnson said. "But basketball is basketball and I've always felt that. We've got to get the guys to buy into what we're trying to do."
It looks as though that already is happening. Junior guard Marcus Thornton, the SEC's leading returning scorer at 19.6 points per game, and junior center Chris Johnson (11.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) - both of whom mulled testing the NBA Draft water - apparently never sent in their paperwork and will return next season.
"He came in and put us at ease because he told us he was going to do everything he could to make us better," Chris Johnson told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "He made us feel comfortable. He told us he wants us to play our best."
"I've had individual meetings and team meetings, and all of them are excited about coming back and being a part of this," Trent Johnson said.
"My first impression was that they're all good kids. Right now, I'm concerned solely on getting their academics up to par. We want them to finish the semester right."
Thornton and Chris Johnson give Trent Johnson a solid nucleus. The coach also is expecting the return of forward Tasmin Mitchell, a preseason second-team All-SEC pick who was sidelined after only three games with an ankle injury. Mitchell averaged 14.5 points and 5.9 rebounds as a sophomore, and he has applied for a redshirt so he still will have two years of eligibility.
Trent Johnson said he'll take his time in evaluating the roster.
"I think the worst thing you can do is come in and get in the gym and make evaluations without them really ready to go," he said. "I've watched a couple of tapes, but I'm not ready to make an opinion.
"They have been through a coaching change. They had 10 games where they didn't know who their coach would be. I'm interested in getting their spirits back up first."
Healthy and spirited, the Tigers could be ready for big things in Johnson's first season.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.