There was the time, earlier this season, when a frustrated Roy Williams called Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks “one-arm swingers” – slang for garbage men, the way they hang off trucks – and another time, more recently, when Williams was far more blunt with Johnson.
“He said I sucked during the Clemson game (last week), which I did,” said Johnson, the North Carolina senior forward. “So that kind of hurt my feelings a little bit. But (Williams) just does every little thing that he can (to motivate me).”
Even after one of the best individual performances in school history. Johnson finished the Tar Heels’ 106-90 victory against Florida State with 39 points and 23 rebounds.
It was one of the finest individual performances by any UNC player ever. And Williams, the UNC coach, said it led to “one of those really good moments” in the locker room.
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“Because I stopped everybody and went over and told him how proud I was of him,” Williams said on Friday, before his team traveled north for its game Saturday at Syracuse. “That was a big-time game.”
But one that Williams didn’t want to go to Johnson’s head. And so in the days after that performance at Florida State, Williams said he presented Johnson with a question.
“Nine days ago, what’d you do?” Williams said, referring to Johnson’s three-point, 1-for-8 shooting performance in a Dec. 30 victory at home against Clemson. “It’s a pretty easy deal. He remembers nine days ago. …
“I mean, he went 1-for-8, guys. Let’s not anoint the guy yet. I mean, my gosh. But he knows that. But Brice, it doesn’t make any difference. He’s 1-for-8 – he thinks he was fine.
“He got 39 and 23 and he thinks he’s fine. That’s Brice. That’s what you love about him.”
“That’s Brice” has become one of Williams’ favorite and most-used sayings. It describes pretty much anything and everything Johnson does, and Williams uses it especially to describe Johnson’s dramatic swings in production and demeanor.
Release a loud, energetic and emphatic scream after a dunk? That’s Brice.
Follow such a moment with some lackadaisical play on defense? That’s Brice.
Set career highs in scoring twice about two weeks before going absent against Clemson? That’s Brice.
And finish a game with 39 points and 23 rebounds? Yes, that’s Brice, too.
I can’t really say exactly what he says, but he has said some very motivating things that probably hurt my heart a little bit and kind of got to me and forced me to play a little bit better.
Brice Johnson on Roy Williams
The question now, as it always seems to be with Johnson, is whether “that’s Brice” will become a saying that describes consistent excellence or one that continues to be a way for Williams to matter-of-factly characterize Johnson’s inconsistency and laid-back nature.
That question, at least, is nothing new for Johnson. But this one is: Can Johnson maintain his high-level play with the return of Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward?
Meeks, who has missed UNC’s past seven games while recovering from a bruised bone in his knee, has been practicing this week and is nearing his return. Williams sounded confident Friday that Meeks would play Saturday against Syracuse.
“I fully expect that he’ll play,” Williams said. “I don’t know how much. Or how effective. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The Tar Heels have missed the 6-foot-10 Meeks. They’ve missed his size on the interior, missed his passing ability, missed his propensity to score any time he touches the ball close to the basket.
Johnson, though, has been at his best – except for that game against Clemson – with Meeks on the bench. Before Meeks left the lineup, Johnson was averaging 13.4 points per game, the same exact number as Meeks.
During UNC’s seven games without Meeks, though, Johnson has averaged 21 points. He has increased his rebounding by more than three per game (12.4 per game in the past seven games) and his shooting percentage is eight points better (68.6 percent) than it was with Meeks in the lineup.
Which is all to say: are there concerns that Meeks’ return could interrupt Johnson’s progress?
Williams dismissed the thought. So, too, did Johnson.
“No,” he said, “I’ve just got to keep playing the way I’m playing. When (Meeks) was playing before, I probably wasn’t as aggressive as I am now. Just got to continue to be aggressive.
“Even when he’s in there. Because if both of us are aggressive then that takes a lot of pressure off of our guards and it opens it up for everybody else, because we do like to play inside-out.”
To put it another way, Johnson said, “We just have to be able to do it together.”
Meeks’ return is likely to be a gradual process. He hasn’t played in a game since UNC’s 84-82 loss at Texas Dec. 12, and Williams Friday hinted that it’s likely to take some time before Meeks’ conditioning allows him to play the kind of minutes he did before he began to sit out.
25 Brice Johnson’s points against Tulane Dec. 16
27 His points against UCLA Dec. 19
39 Johnson’s points against Florida State Jan. 4
And so Johnson is likely to remain the centerpiece of the Tar Heels’ frontcourt, and their go-to player on offense. During the past three weeks or so, he has set a career high in scoring three times – first with 25 points against Tulane, then with 27 against UCLA and then with what he did at Florida State.
Looking back, he said, he began to realize what he was capable of sometime last season during the middle of ACC play. He’d been playing well, and scoring well, especially, and his improvement represented something of a turning point.
Not that he has reached a destination. The performance at Florida State, the 39 points and 23 rebounds, were part of a journey for Johnson – one that he’s still traveling and one with Williams not far behind, chasing him and urging more out of him.
“I can’t really say exactly what he says,” Johnson said of Williams, “but he has said some very motivating things that probably hurt my heart a little bit and kind of got to me and forced me to play a little bit better.”
Forced him, in some ways, to do what he did at Florida State Monday. After that game Williams was quick to remind the public that he wouldn’t be letting up on Johnson.
Not after that kind of game – not after any game. And certainly not while Johnson remains at UNC.
“With Brice, you’ve got to understand – Brice is still Brice,” Williams said. “Don’t forget that, boys – 1-for-8 two games ago or something. Don’t forget that.”