With plenty of time to fume over that loss, Johnson now has a chance to go out with a bang. The next three weeks are probably the junior forward’s college swan song. After all, his name still glistens atop mock drafts everywhere. Johnson’s early ascension to the NBA has been a foregone conclusion. Players with his blend of size and athleticism are rare. With minutes to go against Georgetown, someone socked Johnson in the eye. He fouled out soon after. SU lost, 91-84. Thanks for coming. He struggled, but Syracuse kept winning. Other players stepped up. Sophomore Kris Joseph, the once-raw swingman Murphy credits Johnson for mentoring all of last year, stepped into a larger role. Andy Rautins got hot. Scoop Jardine revved up the fastbreak. And the Orange’s offense didn’t miss a beat. Currently, SU is scoring the sixth most points in the nation per game (81.5). Battered and weakened, Johnson pumped the brakes on offense. Those reckless, bat-out-of-hell alley-oops of November and December vanished. He focused on defense, stringing together 12 blocks in one four-game stretch. Now it looks like Wes Johnson is finally himself again, finally the guy that terrorized opponents in the fall. Last week against the Hoyas, Johnson dominated in stretches. Days after winning Big East Player of the Year honors, Johnson scored 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Hands in his face, he caught fire. ‘So not only could he not really jump as high, he couldn’t get any lift on his jump shot as well,’ Murphy said. ‘The combination of the hand and the heel being hurt didn’t help him at all.’ The hand injury is behind him. The tremors from that nasty wipeout against Providence have faded. No longer does Johnson hold up his hand for reporters like a museum artifact. And no longer is his body bruised up like a dated banana. It took a month, but Johnson is finally 100 percent. All hesitation is gone. He’s back to his old self at the best possible time. [email protected] Some souvenir this is. All Wes Johnson has to remember from his first — and probably only — trip to the Big East tournament is a nasty gash on his left eyelid. No titles, no momentum, only bitterness. Published on March 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm Inevitably, the coming games are job interviews for Johnson. He has gracefully sidestepped the issue this season. Murphy said most guys with Johnson’s talent would be talking about the pros. NBA blinders have killed so many teams — think star-laden Connecticut losing to George Mason in 2006. So back at full strength for the first time in a month, Johnson is the alpha dog on a Syracuse team gunning for its second championship. Not Johnson. Johnson? He went to the ‘Melo Center and kept shooting. It’s been a rocky road back. ‘I’m still getting treatment on it, but its a 100 percent better than what it was,’ Johnson said. After games, Johnson never got into specifics. The soft-spoken forward promised he was healing. Nothing more. Johnson knew Syracuse couldn’t afford him to sit out. ‘It feels a lot better,’ Johnson said. ‘I’m still getting treatment on it but it’s a 100 percent better than what it was.’ ‘I’m just trying to go out there and win games,’ Johnson said. ‘Anything I can do to help the team win, I’m going to do that and try to further this tournament as much I can.’ Isn’t it his turn now? In reality, Johnson should have been in street clothes a couple weeks. Rob Murphy knows this. SU’s assistant coach said that most players would miss one or two games with this combination of injuries. His hip was bruised. His heel was bruised. His knee was tweaked. His confidence was stunted. And of course, his hand was a club. Save for the waning moments of that Georgetown game. Someone clocked Johnson in the eye. He knows it. Over three games this season, the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry was popped back in the microwave. Emotions got the best of someone on the Hoyas. The next day, Johnson investigated. He tweeted to Hoyas forward Austin Freeman, ‘yooo one of yall sucker punched me in the eye!!’ To which Freeman replied, ‘man lol Idk who did that.’ Facebook Twitter Google+ ‘I’ve been wanting to play so bad watching the Big East tournament, knowing we should have been playing,’ Johnson said. ‘The way we lost, I’m hurt. Very hurt.’ One week after a head-over-heels crash on an alley-oop attempt against the Friars, Johnson injured his hand in Syracuse’s win over Connecticut. His hand bloated to boxing-mitt capacity. He couldn’t even fist bump others in the locker room after the win. As a result, Johnson’s shot suffered. His aggression dulled down. Often, Johnson was half-decoy. In the eight regular-season games after the Providence crash, Johnson averaged only 12.9 points per game on 32 percent shooting — far from the 17.1 points per game, 55 percent shooting clip he was at. Comments ‘He has not mentioned the NBA to any teammate or any coaching staff member,’ Murphy said. ‘I believe that’s because he had a bad experience at Iowa State, went to a prep school before that and that wasn’t a great experience. So I think this year is the first time he has really enjoyed playing basketball in the last three or four years.’ The two laughed it off one ‘LOL’ at a time, never escalating to cyber fisticuffs. On Friday, a bigger tournament begins. Johnson saw what Turner did. Saw what Wall did. Over the next few days, the other two players pinned atop mock drafts hogged the spotlight. Scoring nearly 27 points a game, Evan Turner willed Ohio State to a Big Ten title. And on Selection Sunday, Kentucky’s John Wall single-handedly booted Mississippi State to the NIT. Standing in front of a long trophy case inside the ‘Melo Center, Johnson paused for a couple seconds and smiled. Upstaging other players isn’t his style. After his month-long sacrifice, you believe him. Finally healthy, he is firing away shots at a pitch machine’s rate. Before practice Tuesday, Johnson made 400 shots — 200 from the 3-point line and 200 from midrange. Add in group drills, scrimmages, and another practice at night, and Johnson hoisted 700 to 800 shots for the day. The bum hand is history. ‘He’s getting back to that form right now,’ Rautins said. ‘No better time to get him back than the Tournament.’ ‘Without him, we’d be down to six experienced players,’ Murphy said. ‘He just felt we couldn’t afford that, especially at that time when we’re fighting for a Big East title and fighting for a No. 1 seed. He didn’t want to let his team down.’ Game by game, Johnson watched the rest of the tournament unfold at a South Campus apartment with teammates. Those two days were painful. Added Jardine, ‘This is the time for national players of the year like Wesley Johnson. Those guys show why they’re mentioned. I think Wes will definitely come through for us.’ Which all added to the bitterness of that loss. Johnson wanted to keep playing. When he was whistled for his fifth foul — Syracuse trailing 87-81 with 15 seconds left — Johnson walked to the bench in disbelief. He lifted his jersey over his head for a second, gnawed on it and eventually slouched into a seat. With his NBA-ready wingspan elongated over two empty seats to his left and right, Johnson could only watch in disgust. Cold, unfinished-business anger cloaked his usually cheerful mug.