by Geoff Lepper
Stevin Smith to Khalid Reeves to Jason Kidd. Talk about a rough couple of weeks.
At the tender age of 19, Dion Cross has been thrust into the role of leading scorer on the Stanford basketball team. How he handles the role and the Pacific-10 Conference's other top guards like Smith, Reeves and Kidd, is possibly the most crucial factor in determining the Cardinal's chances of finishing in the upper half of the conference, coach Mike Montgomery's stated goal for the 1993-94 season.
So when Stanford (9-4, 2-2 in Pac-10) and California (10-3, 3-1) hook up Thursday at 7 p.m. (KFRC 610; KZSU-90.1 FM) in a sold-out Maples Pavilion, the burden will be on Cross to neutralize fellow sophomore Jason Kidd. Cardinal point guard Brevin Knight will be matched up on Kidd defensively, but it's Cross who must try to equal the Golden Bears' offensive threat with his own shooting.
"I think you have to still remember I'm just a sophomore," Cross said. If you look at (Arizona's) Reeves or (Damon) Stoudamire, they're upperclassmen, so obviously I'm behind them, just because of my class."
Not that Cross feels outclassed by the competition.
"I'm looking forward to playing against people that are going pro, like Stevin Smith and Khalid Reeves, to see what I'm made of, and how much farther I have to go. It's a challenge."
Of course, Cross has confidence in his own game.
"I'd say I'm at least in the top six (guards) in the Pac-10."
The numbers make Cross' case. His 15.1 scoring average leads the Cardinal, and he is hitting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts, among the best in the Pac-10. And he was named to the conference's All-Freshman team last season.
"Dion can score and shoot. He's a very good offensive player," said Washington State coach Kelvin Sampson, who coached Cross at last summer's U.S. Olympic Festival. "He can shoot the three or take the ball to the hole and score. And Mike's done a great job of picking up his intensity level; Dion's picked his game up every year."
Unfortunately for the Cardinal, there's only been one year for Cross to gain experience. And the Pac-10 doesn't give handicaps for youthfulness, so Cross has to go straight-up night in and night out against a conference full of NBA backcourt hopefuls.
And when opposing coaches like Bill Freider of Arizona State can say: "I think Cross is a key to their offense, and we did a great job in stopping him," it usually spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E for Stanford. In that specific case (last Thursday night), it spelled victory for the Sun Devils; despite closing to within six points with 3:40 left in the game, Stanford still lost, 78-67, as Cross was limited to just one point.
On Saturday, Cross led the way with 22 points in an 89-72 loss at Arizona.
"He's not shot the ball as well as we'd like him to shoot it, percentage-wise," Montgomery said of Cross, who was seven of 18 from the field in the weekend losses. "He's the one guy who can shoot the three, and has the range, and we need for his percentage to get back up where it was early (in the season) . . . I don't think his shooting's fallen off, other than the fact that people are paying great attention to him. He's running to get to the screens before the screens are set, so as a result, he's not getting screens. It's just an experience thing."
Cross has more experience than almost any other sophomore in the Pac-10, since he started 11 of Stanford's final 12 games last season. "Last year definitely helped me," he said "Playing against guys like (Arizona State's) Stevin Smith, Khalid Reeves, (UCLA's) Shon Tarver, that made me realize that I needed to get stronger, more physical, and be more of a leader out there."
Some of Cross' leadership role is one of stirring up emotions. "I'm a very excited player," Cross said. "I love the game. If I make a big bucket, you're going to see me getting excited. That's just me. That's just how I play . . . We just feed off of each other (emotionally). Brevin and I try to lead that, being emotional, because Pop and Brent and Jim (Stanford's starting frontline: Andy Poppink, Brent Williams, and Jim Morgan) don't say that much. We just try to kick it up a little bit when things are in a lull."
But in the end, Cross has to score. "Somebody's got to post numbers for you," Montgomery explained. "Somebody's got to put some numbers on the board--18, 20, 22, 24 (points). Dion's certainly capable of doing that. We just need him to get balanced, to work hard to get shots, and to hit them when he's open."
That's never been a problem. In addition to his astounding mark this year, Cross shot 47 percent from three-point territory as a freshman, and has hit 83 percent of his free throws at Stanford.
"When I shoot it, it feels good," he said. "I can tell, usually, when I pick up the ball, how a shot is going to feel. When I pump fake, it's because the ball doesn't feel right."
With the shot taken care of, Cross is looking to widen his basketball knowledge and lessen the gap between those five Pac-10 guards better than him.
"I just focus on every little thing so I can learn something new every day," Cross said. "Practice is where you can expand your skills, to adjust to different things that are going on that can happen in a game . . . My shooting is a strength. My ballhandling's improved a lot, but I stil try to work on my defense and rebounding. I'd like to be a rebounding guard; I want to have the total package."
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