STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -It would be 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 sub-par 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 after the Bruins lost at Washington on Sunday.
``We're going to go as far as Mitch takes us,'' fellow guard Anthony Goods said.
003-04. The team finished that year ranked No. 1.
It's impossible not to notice the two 7-footers in the middle - the Lopezes weigh a combined 515 pounds and block shots with a vengeance. Brook Lopez returned for a second college season but is widely expected to bolt for the NBA and forego his final two years on The Farm after missing time early this season with academic problems.
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.
so 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.
The Cardinal are going to need that type of play from Johnson if they want to make it to the third round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
``To waver from what we've been doing on and off the court would be very disappointing at this time because we've worked so hard to get where we're at,'' Johnson said. ``We still have a lot of season left to play and we really haven't reached any goals. We're still on the journey.''
It hasn't always been pretty for a Stanford team whose strength is defense. The Cardinal even won a game earlier this season against Southern California when they shot just 27 percent.
``This group is what it is. 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.''
Mitch Johnson is the 6-foot-1, 190-pound son of former NBA All-Star John Johnson, who started on the Seattle SuperSonics' 1979 championship team. Mitch Johnson won two state titles at O'Dea High School in Seattle and was named a state tournament MVP and also was part of a successful AAU team with NBA player Martell Webster and Washington star Jon Brockman.
``There's not a level of basketball he's not been exposed to,'' Trent Johnson said. ``Mitch has always been a guy who impacts the game without shooting the ball and without scoring. To the untrained eye, that's hard for people to respect and understand.''
The coach told his players when they cracked the Top 10 not to let the recognition that comes with a higher ranking interfere with what Stanford is trying to do - reminding them what it took to get there.
And this is another important week for the Cardinal, who play at Arizona State on Thursday and then travel to play Arizona in Tucson on Saturday.
``This is new territory for them. What I told them is nothing changes,'' Trent Johnson said. ``Yes, it's a reward. It's good at this time of year to be thought of like that, but how did we get there? That's part of my responsibility and my job as a coach to be proactive. There's not a guy in that locker room who's been a major player or had a major role on a team that's been ranked this high. ...
``They're pretty grounded.''
He is proud of how his point guard has ``overachieved'' and made the necessary adjustments to lead the team, be more relaxed and stay within himself. 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.''

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