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By Mark Nessia
BY JEFF EVANS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
"A blessing in disguise" is probably the last thing a college athlete is expected to say when discussing a knee injury that sidelines him for a year.
But Alex Johnson says that's the way he feels these days. A junior guard with Cal State Bakersfield, Johnson has evolved into one of the nation's top Division I 3-point shooters.
Idaho (10-6) at CSUB (8-8)
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Rabobank Arena
Series: First meeting
Radio: 1230 AM
TV: Bright House Cable Channel 21
Notes: Idaho has won four straight and 5-of-6. The Vandals, 4-1 in the WAC, are coming off a 72-67 home win over Nevada on Wednesday. They play at Fresno State on Monday. ... Idaho head coach Don Verlin was a CSUB assistant from 1993-94 on Pat Douglass' staff. CSUB was the Div. II national champion both of those seasons. ... CSUB has lost three straight after winning 5-of-6 before Christmas. ... Idaho hasn't had a player foul out this season.
The University of Idaho figures to focus on him tonight when the Vandals face CSUB at Rabobank Arena in a 7 p.m. game.
"It gave me a chance to see the game from a coach's view, a fan's view," Johnson said of his missed season a year ago. "It helped me grow up."
Johnson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament to his right knee on Sept. 9, 2009, during a pickup game with former Roadrunner standout Dwuan Rice. He underwent surgery a month later and missed the entire 2009-10 season.
Johnson, at 22 the oldest player on CSUB's squad, said he learned so much watching the game last season.
"As a player, sometimes you hear what a coach says and you think, 'He doesn't know what he's talking about.'
"But then you sit there and see it, and you say, 'That's right. That makes sense.'"
Johnson is part of a guard group that has been a key factor in CSUB's 8-8 season -- a marked improvement over the last three seasons when the Roadrunners never won more than eight games and lost more than 20 each year.
The other guards are sophomore Stephon Carter, the team's leading scorer (16.7); senior and third-leading scorer Donavan Bragg (13.4) and freshman Reynaul Baker (4.5).
As the starting point guard, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Johnson has played a key role in that success. He ranks second on the team in scoring (14.5) and is 52-of-118 on 3-pointers.
On Jan. 1, he was tied for the most 3-pointers by any Division I player in the nation. He began this week ranked No. 3 in treys made and 22nd in 3-point field goal percentage.
He's already made more 3-pointers this season than in either of his first two seasons.
"I never came into this season with any individual goal like that," he said. "The one goal on my mind was to beat single-digit wins for the team and finish over .500. My goal for us is to win 15 games."
As Johnson's prowess as a 3-point shooter has grown, CSUB coach Keith Brown said opposing teams have stepped up their defensive pressure against him.
"There's always been an awareness of him," Brown said. "What he's done successfully is extended his range as well, and that's made it even more of an awareness on an opponent's behalf."
But is isn't only about Johnson's shooting. Brown noted that it's up to Johnson to create better opportunities for himself.
"The key to his success: he's one of the guys who is very conscious of what he does without the ball, such as setting screens for his teammates," Brown said.
"It's what we emphasize. If you stay on the perimeter and don't work to get your teammates open, it's a lot easier to defend you. ... The more he works to get his teammates open, the better shots he gets."
Johnson was born and raised in Toronto. His two main sports growing up were hockey and basketball.
"I'm a good skater and good at putting the puck in the net," he said. "But when my mom found out how expensive hockey was, she said I should focus on basketball."
He attended Vaughan Road Academy in Toronto, the equivalent to a high school in the U.S. but with some notable differences.
The biggest: it takes five years to complete an education there.
"Basketball players, skiers, actors, musicians -- that's who went there," Johnson said. "I had morning classes -- my last class got out at 1 -- and I had two hours before (basketball) practice.
"It really taught me how to manage my time. That was better preparation for university."
Johnson played for Grassroots Canada, an AAU team in Toronto. That coach, Ro Russell, is a good friend of Brown's and Johnson was recommended to CSUB.