The importance of Markell Johnson to NC State’s season is clear as UNC awaits

Kevin Keatts didn’t show his N.C. State team the tape of Saturday’s 47-24 loss to Virginia Tech.

And he has no plans to.

“They will never see the tape,” Keatts said. “We just want to move past it and get better from it.”

It’s probably best not to relive the lowest scoring effort by any ACC team in the shot-clock era.

With a trip to No. 8 North Carolina on Tuesday, Keatts said he did show the players the first half of the first meeting with the Tar Heels this season (a 90-82 loss in Raleigh). He might want to break out the tape of last year’s win in Chapel Hill as a way to jump-start guard Markell Johnson.

N.C. State (16-6, 4-5 ACC) needs to get Johnson back in a groove. Perhaps going back to the site of his best moment will help. Johnson was a magician in a 95-91 overtime win at the Smith Center last season. The point guard had 20 points and 11 assists. He controlled the game and closed it out by isolating Luke Maye on a switch and consistently beating the UNC forward to the basket.

Keatts described Johnson as “on go” that entire UNC game.

“He did a little bit of everything,” Keatts said. “He scored the ball when we needed him to. He did a great job of finding people.”

Johnson has mostly been stuck on “stop” since suffering a back injury in the first half of a win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 12.

He missed three games and N.C. State went 1-2 without him. He came back and showed a burst of hope in the second-half comeback against Clemson (16 points in a 69-67 win) but was sluggish against Virginia and nearly invisible in 23 minutes in the loss to Virginia Tech.

Johnson sat for long stretches of Saturday’s game. He finished 0 for 5 from the floor and with two points in 23 minutes.

‘He has to play great’

Keatts has tried benching Johnson before, most recently a 97-64 win over Loyola (Md.) on Dec. 28.

That tactic did spur a bounce-back in the next game from Johnson. Keatts has tried to explain to Johnson that: “We need you to be the best version of yourself.”

“He has to play great on both ends of the floor,” Keatts said. “He has to be a leader. He has to be aggressive. He’s one of the best guards in the ACC when he wants to be. I’m trying to get him to be more consistent each night that we play.”

Consistency has been elusive. Johnson had 27 points in an important win over Auburn and followed that up with four points against USC-Upstate and then he was scoreless in the aforementioned Loyola win.

Elite athleticism

Johnson averages 11.4 points and 3.8 assists per game but his value is more than that. For an idea how important he is, look at Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons are 1-8 in the ACC. Seven of their conference loss are by double-digits and four by at least 20 points. They’ve been competitive in only two ACC games: a 65-61 home loss to Boston College and a 71-67 home win over the Wolfpack without Johnson.

N.C. State has other good role players but no one else on the roster has the elite type of athleticism that Johnson possesses.

Maybe the trip back to the Smith Center will jog some good memories for Johnson. Keatts said conditioning has been a problem since the injury.

“He doesn’t have the same conditioning, so he can’t play as hard or (for as) long of stretches,” Keatts said. “Hopefully, he’ll continue to get that back.”

Clearly, N.C. State needs Johnson to get its season back on track.

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