This past week, the Colorado Buffaloes men's basketball team gathered to mug for the cameras for a series of promotional photos soon to be unleashed for the 2016-17 season.

It is an annual ritual, tackled in full game jerseys, that, like the changing colors of the leaves around campus, signals the start of the basketball season is near.

With the Buffs set to open official practices Friday, senior Xavier Johnson was asked is these sorts of events has him a little more antsy for the start of the season.

"Man, I've been antsy since last year," Johnson replied.

Indeed, Johnson's comeback has been a long time coming for the Buffs, who lost a player expected to play a leading role last year to a torn left Achilles tendon suffered in June of 2015.

Despite a clearly stated desire to return for what should have been his senior year, Johnson's body simply couldn't uphold its end of the bargain. Ultimately the 6-foot-7 forward took a redshirt season with an eye on a fully healthy senior season in 2016-17.

That time has arrived. While the Buffs fared well without him, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five seasons behind a superb senior season from Josh Scott and the emergence of George King, Johnson's return will fill much of the void left by Scott, both in production and leadership.

Yes, leadership. With a new attitude, a greater appreciation for the game, and even a new jersey number, no player is more anxious for the Nov. 11 opener against Sacramento State than Johnson.


"I usually try to ease into it, but the more serious we get the more serious I get," said Johnson, who is shifting from his familiar No. 2 to No. 11 for his final CU season. "I'd like to be a leader out there and demonstrate in a way that people understand and just try to get better every day.

"I feel like sitting out and watching from the sidelines helped to get a different perspective. It helps to get a different perspective from the coaches. It helps you be a better leader because you see maybe what other players don't see."

Johnson averaged 5.5 rebounds through his first three seasons, and there is a reasonable chance he will become the 33rd member of CU's 1,000-point club on opening night. (He needs 10.) Johnson's comeback, along with an expected improvement on the glass from big men Wesley Gordon and Tory Miller, should go a long way toward replacing Scott's team-leading 8.8 rebounds per game.

Johnson returned to the scene of his injury in May to train at the renowned Impact Basketball program in Las Vegas. Despite holding out hope throughout much of last season that he might make a dramatic, late-season comeback, it wasn't until after his Vegas trip that Johnson believed his Achilles could finally be declared 100 percent healthy.

"It's been a process, and it's always been tough dealing with an injury as serious as this," Johnson said. "You stick with something, and hopefully great things are going to happen. The more rehab I do, the better I get."

Although it wasn't by design, staggering the senior seasons of Scott and Johnson likely will be a huge boon to coach Tad Boyle's Buffs. Even if the injury had never occurred, it's difficult to picture the Buffs advancing much further than they did last year anyway without Johnson, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This year, with a wiser, more appreciative Johnson helping to lead the way alongside Gordon, King, Josh Fortune and transfer Derrick White, the Buffs are poised to possibly challenge for the Pac-12 Conference crown.

"I think maybe he sees things differently now from not being in the fray every day," Boyle said. "We've talked about it. Being a leader is being able to get outside of yourself. So many guys early in their career, they're concerned with how they're playing, how they're shooting, how many minutes they're playing. As a senior and as a mature adult, you've got to look at things objectively as best you can, and XJ is doing a better job of that.

"I think being injured makes you appreciate being healthy. The opportunity to come to practice every day and compete is a gift."

Pat Rooney: or