Juicing the Orange: Wes Johnson fueling Syracuse's NCAA run

Published March 23, 2010 11:04 pm
Syracuse » Transfer Wes Johnson is Big East player of the year.
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Wes Johnson is no homebody.

He's been around.

Even so, the perpetually smiling 6-foot-7 forward never could have imagined winding up as the engine that's driving the Syracuse Orange -- one of the best college basketball teams in the country, from one of the most powerful leagues -- into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday.

"Never in a million years," he said.

Yet Johnson will be one of the spotlight stars when the top-seeded Orange take on Butler, having erupted in his first two tournament games and led his team in scoring and rebounding after taking an improbable route to one of the most prestigious programs in the country.

The native Texan attended one high school in Texas and prep schools in North Carolina and Michigan in order to improve his standardized test scores, while committing to Louisiana-Monroe but changing his mind after a coaching change. He wound up at Iowa State for two years -- averaged 12 points per game -- but sought to transfer after a dispute with coaches over an injury and was surprised when he heard on a recruiting trip to Syracuse that coach Jim Boeheim didn't want him.

"I was like, 'I should leave now then, I guess,' " Johnson recalled for reporters last week.

But Boeheim reconsidered, even though the legendary coach is famous for his dislike of transfers, having accepted only four in 32 years to that point.

Smart move.

Though he had to sit out last season under transfer rules, Johnson soon was impressing his teammates with his spectacular athleticism and inspiring Boeheim to praise him as one of the best players he has ever coached.

Johnson has proved it this season by averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds while helping energize a team that lost three starters off its Sweet 16 team from last season.

He became the fourth Syracuse player to win Big East Conference player of the year honors -- maybe you've heard of previous winners Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Hakim Warrick? -- and has stepped up huge on both ends of the floor during the tournament to help offset the loss of injured center Arinze Onuaku.

"Stepping in this year, the whole chemistry of the team [helped] me translate to my play on the court," Johnson said. His teammates "give me the ball at the right time and I make plays. That helps."

Johnson was limited throughout the final weeks of the regular season with a hand injury that swelled and hurt so bad he could barely tuck in his jersey.

But now, he's back in top form. Just ask Vermont and Gonzaga, against whom Johnson erupted for a combined 49 points and 20 rebounds in Syracuse's first two tournament games. The Orange beat Gonzaga so badly, in fact, that some analysts have anointed them the new favorites to win the tournament, now that highly regarded Kansas has been eliminated.

And Johnson?

Even the once-skeptical Boeheim believes he's destined to become a high pick in the NBA Draft, having used his smooth length not just to score and rebound, but also make a defining difference in improving Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone defense.

"He's as good as any player in the country," Boeheim said.

mcl@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mcl@sltrib.com



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