Syracuse fans were met with a couple of surprises in SU’s season opener against Kennesaw State.
For starters, injured center DaJuan Coleman donned a sweater fit for an ugly Christmas sweater party. The other was more concerning, with reserve guard Michael Gbinije not in uniform. Despite his absence, the Orange cruised past the Owls, 89-42.
Gbinije’s mysterious absence opened the door to a multitude of opportunities for Syracuse’s younger players, especially guard BJ Johnson.
Johnson was used sparingly in his freshman season, averaging just 1.4 points and 0.9 rebounds. But in the offseason, Johnson went on a strict diet and gained 10 pounds of muscle. All those work outs and meals paid off on Friday evening when he scored a career-high 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Every game I have the same mindset, I want to help the team. I knew that with Mike being out somebody else has to step up and I tried to make the most of it,” Johnson said. “After you hit down a few shots the basket looks like a big ocean. I hit a couple, I felt good and it felt like the ones after that were all going in.”
Johnson left his imprint in other ways, dishing out four assists and adding a steal.
“Without Gbinije, B.J. saw an opportunity and really stepped up for us,” freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph said. “This team more than ever, on any given night it could be someone else scoring and that is what makes it hard to cover us. If it’s not Gbinije, it’s [Trevor] Cooney. We have Ron and if it’s not Ron [Patterson] we have BJ. If we are all making shots like this we are going to be hard to beat.”
Johnson provided a spark off the bench in the first half when the Orange was struggling. SU shot just 34.9 percent in the first half despite taking a 36-16 lead into intermission. But the Orange found its rhythm in the second half, shooting over 65 percent from the field.
“We were a little anxious in the first half but slowed it down in the second half,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We finished inside and later were able to make something happen on the perimeter.”
Syracuse was also able to make something happen on the boards, where the Orange held a 56-26 advantage. Johnson was right in the middle of the effort, gobbling up five defensive and three offensive rebounds.
“Coach is on us every day at practice about crashing the boards,” Johnson said. “If someone shoots and someone just looks at the ball he’s on us. He stops the play so rebounds are ingrained into our heads.”
As for Gbinije, he will be back when SU faces the Hampton Pirates on Sunday.
Said Boeheim: “He’s not hurt. It’s just a team thing. He’ll be back Sunday and we will go from there.”