Dave LeGarde: Johnson off to solid start at Iowa State

Coaching basketball at the high school level for 15 years has afforded me countless memories. As an assistant at Duluth East for the past five years, I've been fortunate to be a part of some great teams, as well as witness one of the great career...

Coaching basketball at the high school level for 15 years has afforded me countless memories. As an assistant at Duluth East for the past five years, I've been fortunate to be a part of some great teams, as well as witness one of the great careers in Minnesota history.

Back in March, Cory Johnson finished an extraordinary run by leading the Greyhounds to a 29-3 record and a runner-up finish at the state tournament.

His individual achievements are worth note. Fourth all-time in Minnesota high school scoring with 2,930 points. More than a thousand rebounds. Helping his team to a 74-14 record the past three years. It's easy to remember the gaudy statistics, but sometimes the little details are forgotten.

I've always felt that what set Johnson apart were the intangibles. A tireless worker, his constant hustle and motivation inspired our entire program. He was always the last to leave practice and we often had to kick him out of the gym.

Last weekend I made a trip to Ames and watched the beginnings of his college career at Iowa State University. The Cyclones got their feet wet by opening the regular season with three wins against lower-level Division One opponents. With new coach Greg McDermott and several new players, they'll face a tough task when the Big 12 Conference season begins.


Watching Johnson play, I was not surprised that he had quickly become a favorite of the Cyclone fans with his desire and willingness to do the dirty work. Often overshadowed by his spectacular numbers in high school were a hard-nosed attitude and relentless energy. These attributes are coming to the forefront as he begins his college career. He often makes up for youthful mistakes by diving on the floor for loose balls or forcing the opposition into a turnover.

Johnson's days at Iowa State have started well. Averaging 16 minutes, 7 points and 4 rebounds per game, he's been a solid contributor while coming off the bench in early action. After starting since eighth grade at East, it's a role he wasn't familiar with.

"Not starting is something I'm still getting used to," he said. "It takes a few trips up and down the floor to get into the flow, but then I settle in."

The jump from high school to major college basketball is a big one. The increased size, strength, quickness and talent can be overwhelming to freshman, but the 6-7 Johnson is adjusting. Added muscle has also been beneficial, as he's increased his weight by 15 pounds since last spring.

"I'm up to 230 now," he said. "It's definitely helped everything about my game at this level."

Hilton Coliseum, home of the Cyclones, offers up a unique setting for college basketball. Always rated as one of the toughest places to play in the country, its "Cyclone Alley" student section is one of the best around. Organized and loud, they maintain their intensity throughout the game without the vulgarity and abuse that's become common at some schools. Johnson loves the atmosphere and energy provided by his classmates.

"The students are really into the games," he said. "They're right on top of the action at both ends of the court."

The Cyclones' schedule will bring many difficult opponents. Non-conference games on the road against Big Ten schools Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State will test the team early. Johnson is especially excited for the team's visit to Williams' Arena on Tuesday.


"It will be great to play back in Minnesota," he said. "I'll know a lot of people at the game and it should be a lot of fun."

The Big 12 Conference will be especially tough. Perennial powers Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have all made Final Four appearances in recent years. Coach Bob Knight and his Texas Tech team will also be in the mix.

The stiff competition is one aspect that intrigues Johnson.

"I've always liked competing against the best players and teams," he said. "It presents a great challenge and can only make the team and myself better."

College life also seems to be going well for Johnson. Attending summer school made him adapt to the lifestyle of a student/athlete. There's not much spare time as academics and basketball take up the better part of his day.

"Between going to class, practice, watching film and study table, there really isn't much time for anything else," he said. "They keep me pretty busy here."

Johnson's drive to succeed has been a staple throughout his basketball life. It will be fun to watch how far his dynamic work ethic takes him in college.

David LeGarde is a sports writer, Duluth East basketball coach and sports afficionado.

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