It's easy to call Stanford point guard Chris Hernandez a tough basketball player because that's what he is. He's a fierce competitor. He maintains his focus and composure regardless...

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It’s easy to call Stanford point guard Chris Hernandez a tough basketball player because that’s what he is. He’s a fierce competitor. He maintains his focus and composure regardless of the game’s dynamics. He stays strong both in body and mind.

But it also does him a disservice. Tough becomes his label while the rest of his game tends to be overlooked. Toughness wasn’t the only reason he helped direct the Cardinal to a 30-2 record last season, a 26-game win streak, the Pac-10 title at 17-1 and six weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation. Toughness also wasn’t the only reason he was selected team captain this season as a junior.

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“In terms of what he brings to the floor, his level of intensity, that’s impressive,” said first-year Stanford coach Trent Johnson. “He’s a very good decision-maker. It’s good to have a guy like that out front.”

Hernandez, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Fresno, Calif., is a quality all-around basketball player who happens to be just a little more resolute than the other players on the court.

Hernandez and the Cardinal return to Seattle on Sunday afternoon in the opening weekend of Pac-10 play. It’s a much-anticipated game, particularly after their game last March 6 when the surging Huskies knocked off the top-ranked and unbeaten Cardinal, 75-62, in a compelling and emotional contest.

“We’ll get right into it. Let’s just get started right away,” said Hernandez, whose team opens at Washington State tomorrow night (the Huskies open with Cal tomorrow). “It’s good to play (the Huskies) right away. They’re not the team they were last year when we played them in the first game (an 85-72 Stanford win). They’ve been picked to win in some polls. It’s going to be interesting, fun, a good competitive game.”

Last season’s upset by the Huskies denied Stanford becoming the first team to finish conference play unbeaten since the Pac-10 expanded. The loss also dropped the Cardinal out of the No. 1 spot in the country.

“Washington played a great game. Everything went well for them,” Hernandez said. “We weren’t as mentally tough as they were.

“But the loss took some burden off our shoulders and we were able to get focused again. You saw that in the Pac-10 tournament.”

The Cardinal marched through the three-day tournament, beating Washington State, Oregon, then Washington (77-66) in the finals to win the region’s No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.

Hernandez is what players would call a “gamer.” Injuries, sickness and long odds have little impact on him. If he can stand, he can play.

At Fresno’s Clovis High — where he led his team to 134 wins and a 31-3 record his senior season — he played one game with nine stitches in his hand. In another game, he had a wound opened that eventually required seven stitches.

Two years ago, he broke his left foot in practice on Oct. 26 and missed seven weeks. He returned for one game — in retrospect, too early — and re-broke the bone on Dec. 16. That amounted to an 18-minute season, but he was granted a medical redshirt.

He has been nagged with back ailments so painful at times that he couldn’t straighten up.

“I hope to get him through one college basketball season,” Johnson said. “He’s a competitive kid and a great kid.”

He’s a guy who won’t come out and won’t give in.

“Being mentally tough is being tested to places you don’t want to go, any type of situation you would rather avoid at all costs,” Hernandez said. “Then it’s a matter of just sucking it up because it’s not going to go away. I need to fight through it.”

There will be times Sunday when Hernandez will be matched up against the Huskies’ All-America candidate, guard Nate Robinson.

“He can do it all. I just hope he’s off his game,” Hernandez said. “I have to keep him in front of me and have him take a lot of tough shots.”

How things have changed in a year. A year ago Stanford was the best team in the country when it visited Seattle and the Huskies managed to earn one of the greatest victories in school history. Now the 13th-ranked Huskies (10-1) are among the nation’s elite while Stanford (6-4) is just trying to stay in the upper division of the Pac-10.

“Expectations don’t really bother me. I just don’t like to read about it because so many different things can happen,” Hernandez said. “Top teams can fall. We were picked 22nd in preseason last year and were No. 1 for six weeks.

“Let the game speak for itself. Midway through (conference play), the real teams will show themselves.”

Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or bsherwin@seattletimes.com