Brooks: ‘XJ’ Plays With An Edge, But He Controls It
BOULDER – Given Xavier Johnson’s offensive play thus far in February, it’s tempting to say his fuse has been lit. But engage “XJ” and his coach on the subject of fuses and both are apt to veer off in another direction altogether.
Oh, the athletic and highly energized Johnson is getting his points all right – a 20.1 average over the last four games, including a career-best 27 three games ago against Washington – at a time when Tad Boyle’s Colorado men’s basketball team desperately needs them.
But Johnson is going about it with an even mindset, a calm demeanor – an unlit fuse, if you will. There was a time when it didn’t take much to light his fire.
Boyle needs look back only one game – CU’s Sunday night visit to Southern California – as Exhibit in “XJ’s” on-going transformation from hothead to cool customer. On what was going to be a breakaway dunk by Johnson in the second half of an 83-74 CU win, USC’s Omar Oraby closed fast and clobbered Johnson.
They ended up under the basket in a tangle of arms, with a referee rushing in, perhaps expecting an unsportsmanlike act – but not now, not from Johnson, who separated himself from the 7-2 Oraby and eventually made his way to the free throw line.
Boyle called that sequence “a real telling point” in Johnson’s personal maturity and the obvious maturation of his game. “That could have been a perfect time for Xavier to get up and get in somebody’s face,” Boyle said. “But he kept his cool and didn’t let it get in his head. He stayed focused on the task at hand.
“He’s always going to have an edge to him, always going to have his competitive juices flowing – maybe a quicker than most people’s. But it’s important for him to keep his wits about him. We talk about mindset a lot, but for him to play without losing his cool, letting foul calls or an opponent get in his head – it’s critical for him.”
And Johnson knows it every bit as well as his coach. “There have been some tough games, some physical games that could have gotten to me,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep my head, stay focused and in the mental aspect of the game, do what I need to do. It’s worked both ways – me recognizing it and coach pointing it out to me because sometimes I might not be able to see it. But when he points it out it helps a lot.”
Of late, the 6-7, 220-pound sophomore from Santa Ana, Calif., has been an integral piece in the Buffs’ offense and will continue to be as they inch toward March. Arizona State, which has beaten CU three consecutive times (including a 72-51 blowout in Tempe to close out January), visits the Coors Events Center on Wednesday. With a 9:05 p.m. tip time, call it Late Night with the Buffs.
The Sun Devils (19-6, 8-4) are among the Pac-12 Conference’s hottest teams, having won three straight and six of their last seven games. Their most recent (and biggest) win came on Valentine’s Night: 69-66 in double overtime against then-No. 2 Arizona. Boyle calls ASU “very physical, well-coached and smart” with “good balance interior to exterior . . . there’s not lot of weaknesses.”
He also borrows a baseball term to describe the Sun Devils: “great up the middle,” which is applied to fleet point guard Jahii Carson (18.9 ppg) and 7-2 center Jordan Bachynski, the nation’s leading shot blocker (4.6 a game). Plus, wing Jermaine Marshall, who was slowed by a groin injury in CU’s 21-point loss in Tempe, has averaged 22 points in his last five games.
To counter, CU needs Johnson, Askia Booker and Josh Scott to continue their offensive productivity in the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie. Of course, Boyle always wants a defensive upgrade and strong board work against ASU, which also gets nine rebounds and 12.2 points from Bachynski in addition to his nearly five rejections a game.
“Xavier is a big part of us offensively and probably more important defensively to take that challenge on no matter who he’s guarding,” Boyle said. “He’s going to be challenged against Arizona State; they have some big wings that he’s going to be matched up against – (6-3 Shaquielle) McKissick and (6-4) Marshall. He has to play well defensively; he has to rebound the ball well for us.
“When he’s playing well offensively, it gives us a definite boost . . . he gives us an extra perimeter shooter. He can attack the basket, he can get put-backs. He can score in so many different ways. We’re going to need him to do that, but defensively and rebounding-wise he’s got to be consistent. And he’s done a great job over the past five or six games.”
In February’s five games (the Buffs are 4-1 in those), Johnson has averaged 18.4 points on 30-of-57 shooting from the field (52.6 percent) and collected 8.4 rebounds a game. Forward Wesley Gordon, who played 11 minutes at USC after missing the previous two games with a knee/ankle injury, credits Johnson’s February surge to him “just being more aggressive from the start and not thinking about too many things. He’s just really playing his game and getting to the basket, making plays. He’s doing what he does best and not thinking too much about it.”
Johnson’s explanation: “I’ve been trying to do what I need to do to help our team win. I don’t want to lose any more. Colorado basketball in on the rise since Tad Boyle’s been here . . . I don’t want to be that team starts slipping. I’m just trying to make sure we’re as good as possible so we can win. These last games are all difficult games. We have to be able to play our hearts out and win – especially at home.”
So far, February also has been a good month for Booker and Scott. Booker is averaging 19.6 points, 7.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds, while Scott is at 15.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game. Xavier Talton has averaged 10.0 points and is 12-of-17 from 3-point range this month.
Chemistry and a keener awareness of their roles have developed among all of Boyle’s players. And if it seems Booker and Talton are now looking more for Johnson and Scott, that’s correct.
“One of the things I’ve talked to ‘Ski’ about in his facilitator’s role is he needs to be concerned about Xavier and how he’s playing offensively – and Josh, too,” Boyle said. “Those are two guys he’s kind of got to keep his pulse on, because Xavier does bring an element to us offensively that we can’t forget about for four or five minutes at a time. We’ve got to get him touches, whether it’s on the block or getting him an open three. Same with Josh; we’ve got to get him the ball. Good things happen. Our guards, whether it’s ‘Ski’ or Xavier Talton have to understand that. And they’ve been doing a good job of it.”
After Wednesday night’s game, No. 4 Arizona – the Wildcats dropped two spots after losing to the Sun Devils – visits the CEC on Senior Night (Saturday, 7 p.m.) with ESPN’s College GameDay on hand for its day and night telecasts. They mark CU’s final pair of home games this season, Johnson acknowledges this week’s importance.
“It’s a big week . . . Arizona State and Arizona – we’ve already lost to both of them,” he said. “But our coaches have a great game plan and if we follow it and do what we need to do, we’ll be good. There should be no problem in coming out with a victory.”
“No problem” might be a little over zealous . . . or maybe not. The Buffs are 59-8 at the CEC under Boyle, including 15-1 this season. And those three straight losses to ASU are enough to make Johnson do a slow burn – but not lose his cool.