HOUSTON - The North Carolina basketball program has turned out terrific forwards and centers for decades. Legendary coach Dean Smith created an offensive system that revolves around feeding the post and scoring points around the rim. His protege, Roy Williams, preaches the same.
The Tar Heels have the strongest, deepest frontcourt of any Final Four team.Does their centerpiece, Brice Johnson, deserve a spot on the program’s Mt. Rushmore?
With a stellar senior season, he has worked himself into the conversation, but it’s a tough mountain to climb in Chapel Hill where legends like Michael Jordan, Phil Ford and Sam Perkins roamed the courts.
Still, it’s an unprecedented season in certain respects.
In the last six NCAA tournaments, Johnson is the only player from any school to record three consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games. With one more 20/10 performance, Johnson ties 2015 Naismith Trophy award winner Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin for the most 20/10s in the last six NCAA tournaments.
Going back to 1994-95, he’s the only UNC player to average 17 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 60 percent in a season.
The ACC’s career scoring leader Tyler Hansbrough didn’t accomplish the feat. Neither did two-time All-American Antawn Jamison. Same goes for Sean May, the 2005 Final Four Most Outstanding Player (and now UNC special assistant) or 15-year NBA player Rasheed Wallace.
“I think you are seeing a senior who has come along, and matured, and his game is following suit,” May told Raleigh TV station WRAL earlier this week. “He’s got things you cannot teach. He’s got unbelievable touch. The way he rebounds the basketball, you can teach a guy to box out all day, you can’t teach a guy to just go get it.”
Johnson also adds a block, assist and steal per game.
Johnson has grown, literally, since averaging 5.4 points in 10.6 minutes as a 6-9, 187-pound freshman. The native of the small town of Orangeburg, S.C. is now a 6-10, 230 senior projected as a lottery pick in the NBA Draft in June.Williams first glimpsed Johnson’s potential during a summer AAU tournament in Georgia. His length, athleticism and quick leaping ability were impressive, but his energy level, or motor, hasn’t always matched those natural talents.
“I told you guys before, my high school coach told me, he thought I coached Brice and got him to progress farther, more than anybody I've ever coached,” Williams said Thursday. “My statement back was that that gives coaching too much credit. But I do believe that Brice is right up there, if not the top youngster that's improved so much, maybe more than anybody I've ever coached.”
This incredible run of efficient production during the NCAA tournament has vaulted Johnson into first in the KenPom.com Player of the Year rankings, ahead of fellow All-Americans Buddy Hield, Malcolm Brogden and Denzel Valentine. He has an offensive rating of 126.8 while using one-fourth of UNC’s possessions.
Entering tonight’s national semifinal against Syracuse, is a 58 percent shooter in his career and needs 14 points to reach 1,700. That puts him in the top 20 on the UNC career scoring list, but at least eight frontcourt players are ahead of him, including Hansbrough (2,302), Perkins (2,145) and Antawn Jamison (1,974).
Then again, if the favored Tar Heels meet expectations and climb the ladder to snip the nets on Monday night, it will also elevate Johnson’s legacy in the tradition-laden program. Of the post players who scored more points than Johnson, four claimed a national championship: Hansbrough (2009), Lennie Rosenbluth (1957), Perkins (1982) and George Lynch (1993).
So, maybe Johnson falls shy of the program’s four-man Mt. Rushmore. But he’s possibly the most improved player in Smith Center history. And if he helps UNC to its sixth national championship, he’s certain to become an unforgettable player in the Tar heels rich hoops history.