College Basketball

UNC’s Brice Johnson thrives on tough love

North Carolina’s Brice Johnson enjoys posing for a photograph with a family after practice Wednesday in Jacksonville, Fla.  Coach Roy Williams encouraged his players to go into the seating area to greet fans. The Tar Heels will play Harvard on Thursday night.
North Carolina’s Brice Johnson enjoys posing for a photograph with a family after practice Wednesday in Jacksonville, Fla. Coach Roy Williams encouraged his players to go into the seating area to greet fans. The Tar Heels will play Harvard on Thursday night. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Brice Johnson doesn’t remember the specific game but he remembers the moment.

He remembers the emotions – anger, then a desire for retaliation – and he can still see himself committing what he described as “the dumbest foul in the history of basketball.”

The moment came back to him Wednesday while he sat in front of his locker at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, where North Carolina will play Harvard on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Johnson, a junior forward for the Tar Heels, was trying to remember another time when a coach had been as irate with him as Roy Williams was during the ACC tournament a week ago. Williams had called a timeout, in part, to approach Johnson and scream at him.

Johnson had been through it before.

He has, in fact, been through that kind of thing often. In practices. In games.

And plenty of times at Edisto High in Cordova, S.C. As tough as Williams is on Johnson, his high school coach in a lot of ways was even more demanding. As Johnson recounted.

He told the story of the game when he committed that dumb foul – “the dumbest foul in the history of basketball,” as he put it – and his coach called a timeout. Johnson retreated to the sideline and took his berating.

“He called a timeout just to jack me up and tell me I was a dummy for it,” said Johnson, who committed the foul as retaliation. “I mean, it can’t get no worse than that in front of hundreds – not even hundreds, maybe a couple thousand people. He just calls a timeout and just jacks you up at halfcourt.

“You can’t get any more embarrassing than that.”

That’s how Johnson’s high school coach, Herman Johnson, often was. Tough. Demanding. Demeaning, if it was warranted. Brice Johnson didn’t call his father “coach” though, because that would have been too strange for him, he said. So it was always “Dad.”

That time in that high school game, Johnson said, his father “just snapped.” The elder Johnson had watched emotions get the best of his son, had watched the frustration pour out of him and lead to a silly foul. So Herman Johnson let his son hear it. And often did.

It was important then, Herman Johnson said during a phone interview Wednesday, that his son receive no special treatment during practices or games. If anything, the elder Johnson was tougher on his son than he might have been on other players.

That’s part of the reason Johnson is so adept nowadays at receiving criticism from Williams, and then thriving off of it.

Even after some of Johnson’s best games this season, Williams has been reluctant to praise him. Whatever praise he has offered almost always comes with the caveat that Johnson can do more – that he can play harder, and with more toughness, and that he can be a better defender.

Williams hasn’t let up – a fact that Johnson has come to accept. His ability to handle near-constant criticism is among his best attributes – right up there with the hook shot for which he’s becoming known.

“Some guys can’t really take it,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “Some guys can’t take consistent constructive criticism as well as Brice does, and I feel like he does a pretty good job with it.”

As Johnson goes …

In some ways Johnson’s play this season has personified that of his team. He has had plenty of brilliant moments and well-played games, but at times he has followed those with befuddling performances.

Entering the NCAA tournament, though, he is coming off some of his strongest performances of the season.

“His offensive statistics have been really, really good,” Williams said of Johnson, who is averaging about 13 points and eight rebounds. “But my problem is I always want more.

“But I think the players should want me to want more. I think that if the player felt that I was satisfied with what they did regardless – if I was a player, that wouldn’t make me feel very good. So I have pushed Brice.”

That’s one way to put it. Johnson and his teammates have a running joke about the three words Williams most often says during practices.

The first of those is “run.” The second is “Brice.” And the third is “Kennedy” – as in Kennedy Meeks, a sophomore forward who, like Johnson, maintains a regular residency in Williams’ doghouse.

Back in October, Williams said the success of the season would in ways large and small be defined by Meeks and Johnson – and whether one, or both, could become what Williams has often referred to as a “big-time player” in the post. Williams’ best teams have had such a presence.

Meeks was occasionally that presence earlier in the season. More recently, though, Johnson has at times been UNC’s best offensive player. He has developed a turnaround hook shot that opposing teams have found nearly impossible to defend and when Johnson is on – engaged and focused and channeling his emotion in a positive way – his energy has been a catalyst.

Early dejection lingers

It’s just that it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes he lacks energy. Sometimes, after an early foul, for instance, or after a string of missed shots, Johnson has a tendency to become deflated, to beat himself up and become lost inside his head.

“I know how he is and how competitive he is and how emotional he is,” Herman Johnson said. “Other people might not know that.”

Brice Johnson has always shared a close relationship with his father, who “was the first person to put a basketball in my hand,” he said.

He carries with him the fond memories of backyard games with his dad, who he said has the uncanny ability to knock down jump shot after jump shot in this one spot.

“Maybe I’ll beat him one day,” Herman Johnson said, “if I can get him to post up down there.”

The two became closer after Johnson’s mother – and Herman’s wife – died of cancer in 2008. They supported each other and their bond grew tighter.

“I can’t even find the words to describe how close he is to me since his mom passed,” Herman Johnson said.

Lots of potential

In tiny Orangeburg, S.C., there’s not much of a tradition of high school players moving on to the big time. Johnson was the first player who received a scholarship to a major-conference Division I school during his father’s coaching tenure, which dates to 1992.

In a lot of ways, Herman Johnson always saw in his son what Williams sees now: Potential. There are some moments during games – plenty of moments, in fact – when father watches son and becomes as frustrated as Williams often does.

Herman Johnson always told Brice not to take the criticism personally. Then again, Brice has become accustomed to the harsh words and constant sense of dissatisfaction that Williams directs his way.

“I’m not the kind of guy that likes all the praise, anyways,” Johnson said. “Even in high school, I didn’t really like getting recruited as much because I don’t like a lot of attention. I’m just a very humble kid.”

He went on and said that he didn’t even like sitting there and speaking with reporters and speaking into the cameras. But they were there because of what he has become – one of the most valuable members of his team – and because his play, for better or for worse, could define UNC’s tournament run.

That might be a scary thought to Williams, but he has become a believer in Johnson. And a believer, especially, in what he might be one day, if he just pushes himself harder, doesn’t become satisfied and avoids the kind of mental meltdowns that plague him but are becoming fewer.

The sort of thing that led to that dumb foul in a high school game long ago. And it led to Williams calling a timeout and running into Johnson – bumping him, the way a baseball manager might an umpire – and screaming at him while Johnson stared skyward, listening.

Williams knows there’s more to mine inside of Johnson. Yet he has come to appreciate a player who from the outside might seem underappreciated by his coach.

“He’s an unusual dude,” Williams said, “that I really enjoy.”

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

North Carolina vs. Harvard

When: 7:20 p.m.Where: Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, Fla. TV/Radio: TNT/106.1-WTKK

Projected starting lineups

Harvard (22-7)

G Siyani Chambers 9.8 ppg, 4.3 apg

G Wesley Saunders 16.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg

F Agunwa Okolie 4.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg

F Steve Moundou-Missi 9.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg

F Zena Edosomwan 4 ppg, 3.2 rpg

North Carolina (24-11)

G Marcus Paige 13.9 ppg, 4.6 apg

F Justin Jackson 10.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg

G J.P. Tokoto 8.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg

F Brice Johnson 13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg

F Kennedy Meeks 11.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg

3 keys

1. UNC’s defense on Harvard guard Wesley Saunders

Saunders is among the best players in the Ivy League, and he’s the only Harvard player averaging double figures in scoring. The Crimson isn’t a one-man team, necessarily, but Saunders more than anyone on his team is most capable of leading Harvard to the upset victory. If he builds some momentum and starts scoring at will – as he’s capable, given he’s a 41.4 percent 3-point shooter – it could be a different story. UNC junior forward J.P. Tokoto will be most responsible for defending Saunders.

2. The pace

The Tar Heels like to play fast while Harvard prefers a slow, more methodical pace. UNC hasn’t fared well in its slowest games this season. Entering the NCAA tournament, UNC is 1-5 in games with fewer than 65 possessions. Harvard is one of the slowest-playing teams in the NCAA tournament and averages 61.5 possessions per game.

3. Does the momentum UNC built in the ACC tournament carry over?

The final 10 minutes of the loss against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament title game weren’t all that pretty for UNC. Still, the Tar Heels played as well as they have all season last week in Greensboro. Guard Marcus Paige, who is as healthy as he has been this season, resembled the player he was most of last season. Brice Johnson played at a consistently high level, and Justin Jackson, a freshman wing forward, showed his potential during the victory against Louisville. Andrew Carter

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