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As a freshman at Duke last season, Elliot Williams was living his dream. The powerful 6'4" guard was playing for an esteemed coach and getting a topflight education; by the end of the season he was even starting. But when Williams visited his parents in Memphis over spring break, his mother, Delois, asked him to move home. She was suffering from a serious illness—the nature and severity of which the family has kept private—and she wanted him nearby. "That's all it took," Elliot says.
He got a release from Duke in June, and soon after that his father, Mexwayne, contacted new Memphis coach Josh Pastner to set up a meeting. Pastner agreed to let Williams live at home, and on Aug. 2 the NCAA granted a hardship waiver allowing Williams to play immediately. For Pastner, a former Memphis assistant who was left with just six healthy scholarship players in the wake of coach John Calipari's departure for Kentucky (two starters bolted for the pros, while two others graduated, and four prized recruits went elsewhere), Williams's arrival and his willingness to be the go-to player has been a godsend. "But it's bittersweet," says Pastner. "You're getting a kid based on a situation that's not good."
Williams is making the most of his return to Memphis, leading the 11--4 Tigers with 19.9 points a game and spending as much time as possible with Delois, who has made it to every home game. "She always calls me before games to say the things moms say," says Williams. "Have fun, don't think too hard about what you're doing." So far that hasn't been a problem. "I'm going through a lot emotionally," Williams says, "but when I play basketball my mind is free."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has never been a big fan of transfers—"There's always a reason [for them]," he likes to say—and he's had just four in his 34 years as coach. That's why Boeheim was "iffy," according to Orange assistant Rob Murphy, when he first heard that 6'7" forward Wes Johnson was leaving Iowa State after two years. (He would later say that his relationship with Cyclones coach Greg McDermott "was no longer there.")
Murphy did some research anyway. He learned that Johnson had led the Big 12 in offensive rebounding per game as a freshman and averaged a team-high 12.4 points as a sophomore while playing with a stress fracture in his left foot. And he had range: In two years he had made 79 three-pointers. Murphy asked a friend at Oklahoma to send a scouting "cut-up" of Johnson. It was no highlight tape—in McDermott's structured offense Johnson set and came off a lot of screens, and on this tape he missed a lot of shots—"but I could see the guy was a potential pro," says Murphy.
Yet it wasn't until Boeheim ran into McDermott at a Nike event in June 2008 and heard from him that Johnson was a good kid who went to class that Boeheim gave Murphy clearance to arrange a campus visit. (Transfers are allowed five visits, which are paid for by interested schools.) Johnson was so taken with the university, the staff and the system that 48 hours after his visit later that month he canceled trips to Pitt, West Virginia and Ohio State and committed to the Orange. "I fell in love with it all," says Johnson, who hails from Corsicana, Texas. "Not everybody gets to play for a Hall of Fame coach."
Syracuse's three top scorers, Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, went pro after last season, leaving a gaping need for a multidimensional scorer. Johnson has flourished in Boeheim's freewheeling offense—he leads the team with 17.4 points (it helps that he's hitting 48.1% from behind the arc) and 8.9 rebounds a game—and he is the biggest reason that Syracuse, unranked in the preseason, is now an NCAA title contender. "Without Wes," says Murphy, "I don't know where we'd be."
Kevin O'Neill knows where his 10--6 Trojans would be without 6'1", 180-pound point guard Mike Gerrity: near the bottom of a subpar Pac-10, which is where experts predicted they would finish the season.