When the season began, Syracuse was unranked and Wesley Johnson largely unknown to college basketball. The other three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — Kansas, Kentucky and Duke — opened the season in the top 10, their success well anticipated based on returning talent.
The Orange, on the other hand, was supposed to be down after three underclassmen left early following last year's round of 16 appearance. Syracuse was picked to finish sixth in the Big East by the league's coaches, and in accepting his Big East coach of the year award two weeks ago, Jim Boeheim said the credit belonged to people who expected a down year and didn't listen to him about how great Johnson was going to be.
Now the Orange is back in the round of 16, having won a Big East regular-season championship and jumped to No. 1 in the national polls before back-to-back losses entering the NCAA Tournament.
Ask Johnson if he expected to be Big East player of the year, if he expected to make the difference he has made, and the 6-foot-7, 205-pound forward from Corsicana, Texas, admits he has surprised himself a bit.
"You always want to have confidence in yourself," said Johnson, who sat out last season after transferring from Iowa State. "I felt like I could make an impact on this team, just not to the magnitude of this. I just went out and did what (Boeheim) asked me to do."
Officially, Johnson made his splash in November, when then-No. 24 Syracuse got a 22-point win against then-No. 12 California at Madison Square Garden in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. He had 17 points and 11 rebounds, then 25 points the next night in a 12-point win against then-No. 4 North Carolina.
In two big wins he had arrived, but for his teammates, it was old news.
"It was the coming-out party of Wesley Johnson," guard Scoop Jardine said. "We had a whole year to see him. Nobody had seen him yet. He … played really great down at the Garden. Once he came out there, we wasn't looking back."
Johnson had two stellar years at Iowa State, averaging 12.3 points as a freshman and 12.4 as a sophomore. But the Cyclones weren't a postseason team — they went 15-16 and 14-18 in his two seasons — and he made the decision to transfer.
Johnson, averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, is new to the NCAA Tournament, but he has played on major stages before. He had a double double in a February win against then-No. 8 Villanova, played in the Carrier Dome before a crowd of 34,616, the largest on-campus crowd in NCAA history.
In the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, with Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku out with a knee injury, Johnson had a team-high 18 points in a win against Vermont, then went for a career-high 31 points and 14 rebounds in a dominating second-round win against Gonzaga, playing all 40 minutes. That made Syracuse 12-0 this season when he has a double double.
Johnson's path to a Final Four could bring him back to his Big 12 roots, potentially facing second-seeded Kansas State in the region final if the Orange can get past Thursday's game against fifth-seeded Butler. Johnson faced the Wildcats in his final home game at Iowa State, a four-point loss. This is a different game, a different team, and a different Wesley Johnson.
"He brings scoring and rebounding, and plays great defense in that zone," guard Andy Rautins said. "He's really been a huge asset to our team. I can't say enough about what he's done for us, as well as being a leader. It's his character as well as his plays. He's extraordinary, and a big part of this team."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346.