HOUSTON — After holding Kansas’ Perry Ellis to four points and Oklahoma star Buddy Hield to nine in their previous two NCAA Tournament wins, Villanova’s defenders trained their sights on stopping North Carolina forward Brice Johnson in the national championship game Monday night at NRG Stadium.
Johnson was in the player of the year conversation with Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, and while he didn’t win any of the major awards, he entered Monday night’s game with a chance at something more important — Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. Through five tournament games, he averaged 20 points and shot 61.4 percent from the field.
Unlike Hield, who often shoots from miles away, the 6-10 Johnson never has attempted a three-pointer in his four-year career. He is the leader of a powerful front line that also features 6-10 Kennedy Meeks and 6-8 Justin Jackson, but it’s his athleticism and leaping ability that sets Johnson apart not only as a scorer but as the Tar Heels’ leading rebounder with 10.5 per game.
Because of the Heels’ size advantage over Villanova, Johnson said they are well-equipped to handle the Wildcats’ switching man-to-man defense. “We can adjust to anything they throw at us,” Johnson said. “We’ve been through a lot of different defenses, and our guards [Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II] have done a great job of adjusting to every single one of them.”
Johnson said Villanova is different in the sense that 6-11 center Daniel Ochefu is mobile enough to range to the perimeter to cover an opposing point guard at times, but when that happens, Carolina can attack the mismatches it will have inside. While Villanova likes to give a player such as Johnson different looks by guarding him with a variety of players, the Tar Heels can counter with depth up front in the form of 6-9 Isaiah Hicks and 6-11, 280-pound Joel James.
“Isaiah is just as athletic as I am, if not a little stronger,” Johnson said. “Joel is a bruiser. We all can really score the ball down low if you give it to us in the paint where we’re comfortable. We’re going to score . . . It presents a lot of challenges for other teams because, when we get tired, there’s another platoon coming in.”
Johnson is especially difficult to guard because he can leap much higher than most opponents to shoot over the top and has the quickness to navigate in the paint while avoiding too much contact.
“I try to use my quickness and go around them,” Johnson said. “My jumping ability does help in a big way because a lot of guys have some very long arms. Usually, I get off the floor a little quicker than they do with my reaction time to jump and get a rebound or jump to make my shots.”
Johnson also is quite familiar with Wildcats forward Kris Jenkins, who figured to be matched up against him frequently. The two grew up together in South Carolina until Jenkins moved to Maryland to live with the family of current North Carolina point guard Nate Britt. Although Jenkins has a big body, Johnson said Jenkins prefers to hang on the perimeter rather than play in the post. Above all else, Johnson emphasized the importance of North Carolina making the most of its size to outrebound Villanova at both ends of the floor.
No matter how Monday night’s game ended, Johnson assured himself of being a first-round pick in the NBA Draft and possible lottery pick by remaining in school for his senior season rather than leaving early. That decision also gave him a treasured shot at a national championship and allowed him to mature.
“When it comes to the one-and-done situation, it just depends on the person,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to go to the NBA, but my goal is to make it there and stay there. Why not stay in college? You want to be able to get better here and not have to get better there.
“You want to go in there as a mature person because those are grown men you’re playing against. You’re not playing against kids your age. Those are guys that have families, and they’re not going to worry about you. So why not stay in college and develop here and then eventually make it there?”
The reward for Johnson was Monday night’s game.