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Johnson likes to plan ahead

Assistant coach gets credit and praise for getting USC tactically prepared.

March 21, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

After USC upset Texas on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA men's tournament by using an effective defensive scheme, Trojans players were asked about Coach Tim Floyd's role in their preparations.

Before the players could respond, Floyd leaned into a microphone and interrupted. He wanted to make sure that the right man received credit.

"It wasn't my plan, it was Phil Johnson's plan," Floyd said of his longtime assistant. "Phil's been doing 16, 18 hours of film work on every team that we have prepared for all year long, and 95% of every plan is his.

"We have been together three different jobs now, and he's the best I've seen at that type of thing."

Floyd ascribes to his chief lieutenant much of the Trojans' accomplishments during a season in which they have posted a school-record 25 victories and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.

Fifth-seeded USC (25-11) will play top-seeded North Carolina (30-6) on Friday in an East Regional semifinal in East Rutherford, N.J.

The heavily favored Tar Heels present the kind of challenge that can keep Johnson poring over film in his office until 4 a.m. This time of year, he loves every second of it.

"As you get deeper in the tournament, you get more excited and the games obviously are very meaningful," Johnson said. "We obviously were prepared for the Citadel [early in the season], but I can't say we were up here at 4 o'clock in the morning preparing."

Johnson, 47, hatched his formula for challenging Texas' Kevin Durant during one of his late-night sessions. The plan: alternate small but quick 6-foot-5 guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis on 6-9 Durant in an effort to prevent penetration and needless fouls.

"It's hard to guard him with a bigger guy because he, in the end, wants to go off the dribble and a bigger guy is real vulnerable," Johnson said. "You have to get underneath him."

Hackett seemed to get under Durant's skin during the first 10 minutes as USC opened a double-digit lead en route to an easier-than-expected 87-68 victory. Most of Durant's 30 points were scored after the Trojans had established control.

In the USC locker room afterward, Johnson drew as big a crowd of reporters as did the Trojans' star players.

"Coach Johnson was incredible," Hackett said, adding that he "just made the game easier for us."

Johnson has been making things easier for Floyd for more than 20 years. Or at least trying to. In the mid-1980s, when Floyd coached at Idaho and Johnson was at Northern Oklahoma Junior College, Floyd signed one of Johnson's players.

Things didn't quite work out as envisioned.

"He went up there and they got him a job in a potato patch and he got in a fight out there with somebody and they sent him home," Johnson said of the player.

Nevertheless, the coaches kept in touch and talked of someday working together. That day came in 1991, when Johnson was a restless assistant under Tubby Smith at Tulsa, still simmering over the firing of Smith's predecessor, J.D. Barnett.

"I just felt like at the time that J.D. had hired me that he was the guy that I went there for," Johnson said. "It wasn't anything against Tubby, and I told Tubby that."

So Johnson left a $51,000-a-year job for significantly less greener pastures at New Orleans, where Floyd had landed after two seasons at Idaho.

"He's the most unusual guy I've ever seen in my life in terms of his convictions," Floyd said. "He went to work for me for $12,000, so he's been a lifelong friend."

Floyd and Johnson guided the Privateers to the NCAA tournament in 1993 before Johnson departed for Arizona to work for Lute Olson. In Johnson's five seasons in Tucson, the Wildcats went to a Final Four and won the national title in 1997.

Johnson then became coach at San Jose State and guided the Spartans to a 12-16 record during the 1998-99 season -- an accomplishment considering the program had won three games the season before his arrival.

Soon came an opportunity to work alongside Floyd again, this time with the Chicago Bulls. But when Floyd left the Bulls in December 2001 after compiling a 49-190 record, the coaches parted ways again, with Johnson returning to San Jose State.

His second stint with the Spartans was trying on several fronts. Johnson was arrested three times on suspicion of drunk driving in an eight-month period and his teams were 19-67 over three seasons before his dismissal.

"I made a lot of bad decisions, both professionally and personally at San Jose State," Johnson said.

Nevertheless, when Floyd assembled the coaching staff at USC in spring 2005, it was almost a given that he would extend an invitation to Johnson.

"We know each other so well that when I tell him I think we should do this or that versus this team, he usually listens and buys in and we're usually on the same page on almost everything," Johnson said. "Doing that for so many years, you get an understanding of what a coach wants, and that helps."

*

Senior guard Lodrick Stewart did not practice Tuesday after undergoing a root canal on a wisdom tooth, but he is expected to play against North Carolina.

Stewart said he could not have the tooth removed because of potential complications that might have forced him to sit out against the Tar Heels.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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