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Gonzaga's Byron Wesley left USC and made it to the Big Dance

After graduating from USC, Byron Wesley joined a veteran Gonzaga team with a chance of making the Final Four

Byron Wesley could have played his last year of basketball at USC and taken a course in ballroom dancing, the class Matt Leinart made famous in 2005, as part of his postgraduate stay as quarterback for the Trojans' top-ranked football team.

"Some of my buddies took that class too," Wesley joked. "But I don't think dancing is my forte."

Actually, Wesley had his sights set on a dance USC isn't offering at this moment — the NCAA tournament.

Wesley faced a decision. He could finish his career at USC as the minutes-heavy star of a team in transition under new Coach Andy Enfield. Or, he could take advantage of one of the few rules in college sports that give leverage to athletes: if you have graduated, you can transfer without sitting out a season.

After careful consideration, Wesley decided to become the missing piece for a veteran Gonzaga team with a legitimate shot at making the Final Four.

The Bulldogs, who play UCLA on Friday in a South regional semifinal game in Houston, are two wins from reaching that goal.

This was not, to Wesley, about betraying USC or running away from a challenge. He used the same mechanism Russell Wilson employed a few years ago when he left North Carolina State for Wisconsin.

Wilson led the Badgers football team to the Rose Bowl on his way to becoming an NFL star and Super Bowl champion with the Seattle Seahawks.

"I graduated from USC," Wesley said. "I'll still be a Trojan the rest of my life."

Wesley is a starter on a Gonzaga team that has won more games this season, 34, than USC won Wesley's three years as a Trojan, 31.

Sunday night, Wesley contributed five points in Gonzaga's sub-regional win over Iowa at KeyArena in Seattle. That pushed the Bulldogs into the round of 16 for the first time since 2009.

"This is why I came here," he said. "To try and help get them to the next level."

Wesley didn't join USC out of Etiwanda High with the intention of ending up in Spokane. USC devolved into a mess he could not have envisioned. Wesley played for three coaches.

He led USC in scoring last season, averaging 17.8 points, but would have been returning to a roster stuffed with young players being groomed for the future.

"It's hard to win with a lot of freshmen and sophomores," Wesley said. The Trojans finished last in the Pac-12 Conference with a 3-15 record, 12-20 overall.

Wesley didn't plan to graduate early at USC. It just worked out that way after taking a summer school course every year. "I was able to get ahead of my class," he said.

After considering other schools, Pittsburgh and Michigan State among them, Wesley picked Gonzaga.

He knew becoming a Bulldog would mean sacrificing playing time and scoring opportunities. Gonzaga had a veteran backcourt in Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., but Wesley offered a different look.

At 6 feet 5, he is three inches taller than Pangos and Bell and serves as a hybrid wedge between the guards and Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 shooting forward.

"It's just amazing how seamless the adjustment has been," Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said. "From Day 1, those guys that were up here, the seniors welcomed him with open arms. They knew he could help us."

Wesley had to subjugate the most; his scoring average dropped to 10.5 points this season.

"He kind of had carte blanche at USC, as far as shots and minutes and opportunities," Few said. "That just hasn't been the case here. But he came here to win and he came here to get to the NCAA tournament. So, mission accomplished."

Wesley also underwent a culture shock, moving from urban Los Angeles to eastern Washington.

He was almost invisible in Los Angeles, playing in front of mostly empty seats at the Galen Center. Spokane is different.

"Everywhere you go these people know who you are," he said. "The support is something like I've never seen before for a college program."

A psychology major at USC, Wesley is working on a graduate degree in organizational leadership. He is learning the techniques of running a company, or a team.

"I was the youngest person in a lot of my [fall] classes," Wesley said. "I had CEOs and owners of businesses, so it was really cool from my perspective, to basically see it from their shoes."

Two wins in Seattle has earned Wesley at least another week in sneakers.

Gonzaga against UCLA, a rival Wesley knows well, offers added incentive on his unexpected journey.

Wesley says he still keeps in touch with former USC teammates and thinks the Trojans will be much improved next season. But next year, for Wesley, was too late.

He left for a one-time offer that came with an expiration date.

Wesley organized his thoughts and now, at Gonzaga, is showing leadership.

Sounds as if he picked the right postgraduate major.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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