Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.
In the two months that followed his breakout performance in last season’s NCAA tournament, Kansas guard Elijah Johnson hardly touched a basketball.
Johnson wasn’t suffering from burnout. He was injured.
“I had knee surgery just to get some things cleaned up,” Johnson said. “Even though I couldn’t do anything physically, I spent a lot time helping the young guys adapt. But now I’m back and I’m rollin’.”
That’s good news for the Jayhawks, who will lean heavily on the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Johnson during their quest for a ninth straight Big 12 title and a second consecutive Final Four.
Arguably no Jayhawk will carry as much responsibility as Johnson. Along with being a team leader, the senior will move into the starting point guard spot vacated by the graduation of Tyshawn Taylor. Johnson started at shooting guard last season and was the KU’s third-leading scorer with 10.2 points per contest. He averaged 15.1 points in the last eight games of the season.
Johnson spoke with ESPN.com after a weightlifting session Tuesday.
As a senior and team leader, what’s the main message you want to get across to the newcomers?
Elijah Johnson: Be coachable. Don’t think you know everything. You’re here to play ball but you’re also here to learn. That’s what separates us from other schools and other programs.
You finished last season on such a high note. What did that do for your confidence heading into this season, and do you think opponents will be keying on you more?
EJ: I don’t feed into that too much. I always knew I could play to the level that I played at. It was just about waiting until my turn came around. It was just about being ready and staying ready and being humble about the situation. That was my approach to it. Anything I did didn’t catch me too off-guard. I just wanted to have an open mind and do what I knew I could do for my team.
I think teams probably will [key on me more]. But at the same time, my role has changed. People can be deceived by thinking they know what card is going to be played. Right now I’m not even focusing on myself, because I know that’s going to come around. I’m waiting for Coach [Bill] Self to talk to me more about that. I’m just going to be coachable and do whatever he tells me to do.
What do you anticipate your role being, and do you feel any additional pressure to perform because of a lack of depth in the backcourt?
EJ: I feel like I’ve got to control the tempo out there, whether I’m playing point guard, 2-guard, 3-guard or power forward. I just feel like I’ve got to be the person that most understands the shifts and movements and pace of the game so I can control my team the way it needs to be controlled. It really doesn’t put any pressure on me. Coach has the pieces that he needs. I know he’s going to put it together. It’s just about doing what you’re supposed to do, and that falls back into the category of being coachable.
EJ: Ben is quick. He’s going to do anything he has to do. With him, it’s not all about scoring. He likes doing the [little things], and it really helps his overall game. Perry ... I don’t want to say he’s confused right now, but he’s being welcomed to college. As soon as he gets used to that, I think we’ll get a big, big chunk out of him from a performance standpoint. He’ll be able to go from being a regular player to an outstanding one over a period of time.
You guys have this amazing streak of eight straight Big 12 titles. How much do you talk about that, and how much additional pressure do you feel to win a ninth?
EJ: Nothing is going to hang over our head. We’ve just got to play. Not doing what we’re supposed to is the only thing that could hang over our heads at this point. We just need to listen to what Coach has to say. He’s been doing it for years and our team has continued to do it. Hopefully this year won’t be any different.