As the Colorado men's basketball team gathered last month to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, a realization slowly dawned on Xavier Johnson.
Despite his year-long desire to get back to the court in what should have been his senior season, and despite the continued nagging thoughts of what his contributions might have meant in a number of narrow late defeats for CU throughout the year, the Buffs' official invitation to the Big Dance confirmed it for Johnson.
It turned out, the Buffs fared just fine without him. And he still had an opportunity to help keep the program in a good place.
This week, Johnson spoke for the first time since word of his return for a fifth season became official the week after CU's loss against UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After missing the entire season due to a torn Achilles tendon he suffered last summer, Johnson is eager to perhaps take CU back to the tourney in 2017 for what would be the fifth time in sixth seasons.
"I wanted to make sure that we hold this program to a high standard all the time," Johnson said. "If I could've gone out and contribute and play and hold this program to a high standard, I would've done that. But I think our guys held together pretty good this past year. I think they improved a lot, mentally and physically.
"I decided to hold out so when I come back I'm not at playing at 80 percent, I'm playing at 110 percent."
Johnson averaged 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds with a lofty .605 field goal percentage in 95 games over three seasons before the injury last summer, and he spent much of this past season debating whether his future would be better served with a redshirt year at CU or by exploring his professional options.
Ultimately, the lure of a final, fully healthy season with the Buffs simply made too much sense. And after a year on the sideline, Johnson expects to bring more wisdom to his game in 2016-17.
"My biggest thing that I learned was kind of the coaching aspect," Johnson said. "Maybe seeing a player out there not understanding a play, and then a coach saying it. Or understanding more what a coach is trying to get across. I was able to see the game plan from the sideline and from a coaching aspect. I was able to improve my IQ as a player that will hopefully improve the team next year."
Johnson's return certainly will help offset the graduation of Josh Scott, CU's leading scorer and rebounder this past season. Head coach Tad Boyle also is confident Johnson's time on the sideline will help foster a more mature player capable of also picking up the slack from the leadership void Scott is leaving behind.
"The one thing X has a very good feel for now after sitting out this year, and being part of the disappointing season a year before, is he knows the difference leadership makes," Boyle said. "We've talked about Josh Scott and his points and rebounds, but the void is being left in that leadership. (Johnson) is capable of it. That's the challenge not only for him, but multiple guys."