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March 21, 2012
When fifth-year senior point guard Alex Johnson walked off the basketball court following practice on Tuesday, he stood on the wall to conduct interviews with the media and untucked his red jersey. The shirt ended almost at his knee, where a white 'PACK' was written on his shorts and that wasn't the only odd thing about his practice attire.
Johnson was wearing sophomore C.J. Leslie's No. 5 practice jersey and the shirt made to go on the forward's 6-foot-8 frame was a a little big on Johnson, who checks in at 5-10. However, the two have been wearing each other's practice jersey for some time, although the point guard couldn't exactly pinpoint when it started, and they have continued the tradition every practice since it began.
"I think it started when he was out with a little shoulder injury," Johnson said. "I just wanted to let him know that even though you are sitting out on the sidelines, I'm out here representing for you. It pretty much took off from there."
Johnson, a graduate student transfer from Cal State-Bakersfield, had heard all of the negative comments that surrounded Leslie when he first got to NC State, but he kept an open mind and found out very quickly that the rumors weren't accurate.
"When I first came down here, I heard all the talk about how he had a bad attitude and didn't really get along with his teammates," Johnson remembered. "I genuinely wanted to be his friend first, not just his teammate. When we first met, we just clicked and it has been like that ever since.
"I wear his number [in practice] to show him that I'm representing him and he's wearing my number to show that he's representing me. It's just a brotherly love that we have for each other."
The diminutive guard has actually found out that Leslie is almost the opposite of the unappealing rumors. Leslie is just an individual that keeps his guard up.
"He's a cool dude," Johnson said. "It's so sad that the whole world doesn't get to see him smile. He's just generally a good guy. You have to be with him a couple of hours to get to know the real C.J. When we're in the hotel, he's playing around and laughing, cracking jokes. I think he's just kind of closed to protect himself and he doesn't let a lot of people in, but I think that if C.J. just keeps doing the things he's been doing in the past few games, he'll be alright."
Johnson, who teammates credited for changing the team chemistry as far back as the preseason, has also been a huge help to point guard Lorenzo Brown. Brown, who played off the ball for most of last year, went as far as to call Johnson his point guard mentor while he has developed into one of the NCAA Tournament's most dangerous point men.
Brown is averaging 39 minutes, 14.5 points, 7.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game in the Big Dance.
"Alex is one of the reasons why I'm playing like I am playing now," Brown said. "He's always pushing me, helping me out and he knows a lot more than I do. I'm just listening and trying to learn; I'm still learning, actually. I'm just thankful that he's on my team."
"He's playing out of his mind right now," Johnson said. "The first time I met Lorenzo, we came to the gym and worked out together. I knew he was going to be a good point guard, regardless of what everybody was saying. I kept hearing people didn't think he could play the one, they said he was a scoring guard. He's really bloomed. I don't think he thought he was going to play this well this year and I'm just glad that I could be a part of it.
"I just try to talk with him during timeouts and show him what I see sometimes. That is helpful to him and he does a good job of receiving the information that I'm giving him. He's gotten better at reading defenses. Early in the season, he was turning the ball over and trying to force it, but now he's able to pick apart defenses, see where he can get his shot and see where he can get his teammates shots. He's just doing an excellent job right now."
Brown has also added one of Johnson's patented tricks to his arsenal - the pump fake.
"If you look at recent footage, you can see that Lorenzo has added the pump fake," the Toronto native said with a smile. "He's taken it from me! He's claiming it as his own, but I'm happy to share it with him. He's learning different ways to score and different ways to attack. I've been through it all, I've done it all in five years of division I basketball and it's been a good journey with him."
Another thing that Johnson said that he has stressed to Brown - but has obviously impacted the whole team - was having a sense of urgency. Johnson was determined to reach the NCAA Tournament in his last go-round, but he is not satisfied yet.
"I tell him not to get complacent," Johnson said. "When you're playing this good, most people are just content and say, 'I've got next year.' I'm telling Zo, 'keep pushing and reach for the stars. Why not play your best this year? Don't wait for next year.'
"It's been a joy because Coach talked about being a Final Four team and we're striving to reach that goal. The Sweet 16 is great, it's amazing; but we've still got to survive and advance. The job is not done yet."
Johnson stressed that the team is taking the tournament one game at a time, but a huge topic of conversation was a possible fourth game with North Carolina, should both of the ACC rivals win on Friday night. Johnson ventured as far as to say that he's rooting for the Tar Heels against Ohio.
"I feel like it's not a coincidence that we're in the same region as North Carolina," he said. "If we take care of this game and they take care of business, we're going to match up again. I think it's not a coincidence that this happened. I think we deserve another shot at them and I think the world wants to see that. I think it's destiny but it's also a blessing just to play this game and have the opportunity."
It's also not a coincidence that the Pack has come together to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 and just the second time since 1989 after adding Johnson to the mix.