Syracuse superstar forward Wes Johnson does everything on the basketball court.
He rebounds, he shoots, he passes, he defends. And, to the delight of the 20,302 fans at the Carrier Dome Saturday night, he dunks. He dunks with style.
“I try and do something for the crowd," a smiling Johnson said after the game. "I’m really just out there having fun."
There are several reasons for the early-season dominance of the Syracuse basketball team: an active defense that forces turnovers (14.6 steals per game entering the night), a fast, high-flying transition game, a willingness to share the basketball (23.0 assists per game) and the ability to be physical and rebound (plus two boards per contest).
“I think we’re physically bigger this year,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. "We’re longer at the guard spots and we’re just bigger than we’ve been in a long time.”
Johnson's versatile nature has rubbed off on his teammates, catapulting the Orange to an 8-0 start to the season with a top-10 national ranking. The coach credits the defense first.
“We’re blocking a lot of shots," Boeheim said. "Those lead to fastbreaks and you end up scoring instead of the other team scoring.”
The Syracuse players took turns scoring Saturday, with freshman guard Brandon Triche getting the offense going right away. The muscular point guard scored seven of the first nine Orange points, nailing a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 9-3 SU lead.
Maine guard Gerald McLemore beat the shot clock with that deep triple over Wes Johnson for the visitors’ first basket. All that did was awaken the Soft-Spoken One.
Johnson took over as the Orange opened up a 21-6 lead before the first media timeout. He blocked consecutive Maine shot attempts, including McLemore’s attempt to hit another triple. One of the transition attempts by SU swung around to Johnson on the far wing and the junior sank a three-pointer (he is shooting over 50 percent from beyond the arc this season).
Johnson started Saturday evening working during warm-ups with SU great Gerry McNamara. The slender Johnson took hard passes from McNamara, firing jump shots from five spots on the floor, first in the catch-and-shoot mode before moving to a one-dribble attempt. Always on balance with textbook shooting form, Johnson broke a sweat while hitting on nearly 70 percent of his pre-game attempts.
For Johnson, the offense is hard work and the defense is the fun.
“I think that’s the main model for us,” Johnson said after the game. “We know the offense is going to be there, but we talk about defense a lot.”
The next block by Johnson bounced right to senior guard Andy Rautins, who hit Triche on his way up the floor. Triche got in the lane and flipped a pass back to Rautins spotting up behind the arc. Rautins sent the ball up to towards the basket, using an unfamiliar flat trajectory. This was no shot—in flew Super Wes, who slammed the ball home with two hands and a soft yell.
“We get out and run, and (my teammates are) looking for me,” said Johnson, who finished the night with seven points, six rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals in just 19 minutes.
The Orange shot 65.1 percent for the game and collected 28 assists and 29 fastbreak points.
"Trust is prevalent out there,” Rautins said. “Most of our buckets are coming off of assists right now and everybody is being really unselfish.”
On one first-half break, Johnson was the last man up the floor on transition. Each pass by SU was more unselfish than the last and the final look, from guard Scoop Jardine, found Johnson at the free throw line. The lanky Texan took off with two feet, soaring above the rim for the one-handed tomahawk dunk.
“I think next time I’m gonna do something a little different,” Johnson said. “In practice, I fly around a lot, so I’m just trying to carry it over to the game.”
The Orange defense stymied the Bears (3-4), allowing just one field goal over a 10:25 stretch spanning the two halves, and a 32-0 run blew the game wide-open. With 3:30 left in the first half, Boeheim could be seen staring at the Dome ceiling, perhaps amazed by the chilly Maine shooting effort.
The amazement from the rest of the building was directed at this Orange squad, starting with No. 4.