North Carolina's Brice Johnson still out to make believers

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Games like this, Brice Johnson can make everyone believe.

Believe that he could be the best power forward in the ACC, that he could help North Carolina's frontcourt be considered among the nation's best, that the junior has finally turned the corner in his development and will have that same, consistent play from here on out.

Johnson paced the No. 15 Tar Heels in their 87-71 win at Wake Forest on Wednesday night by scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. Aggressive from the start, Johnson set the tone as Carolina punished the Demon Deacons with 50 points in the paint.

"I want to just bottle this performance up and unleash it every single game," junior guard Marcus Paige said. "That's something he's working towards. He's a lot better this year than he has been in the past in that regard, but yeah, it'd be nice to see this guy every time."

Truth is, Johnson is arguably the most maddeningly frustrating player on the Heels roster. His talent and potential come through with every jump hook that swishes through the net, but his lack of focus can show on the ensuing trip down the floor.

The simple key for him staying productive is for him to stay fighting for position on the blocks. Sounds easy, right? For reasons Johnson can't entirely answer, it is not.

"At times I can get away from -- I can just space out sometimes," said Johnson, who averaged 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds entering the game. "I don't know. I have to stay away from doing things like that, just stay aggressive and be a defender on the other end."

For every outing like the one against Ohio State, in which he scored 18 points and had nine rebounds, Johnson has a contrasting performance like the one against Iowa. He got in early foul trouble against the Hawkeyes, shot 1-for-7 and ended up with a season-low two points in the loss.

There are shining moments like the one versus Louisville. Matched against forward Montrezl Harrell, Johnson more than held his own with 11 points and 11 rebounds. He kept Harrell from becoming a factor in the Heels win.

Then there are low points like the one versus Notre Dame. Against a smaller lineup -- he was pitted against 6-foot-5 guard Pat Connaughton -- Johnson came off soft. He didn't take advantage of the mismatch on offense and couldn't handle the quicker Connaughton on defense. Instead of the Heels staying with a big lineup, they were forced to go small in their loss.

"It's all mental for Brice. If he's focused, he's focused. When he's out of it, it's kind of hard for him to get back," center Kennedy Meeks said. "I think now his preparation for the game is a lot better. He's preparing himself and really honing in on the team."

Such is the dilemma with Johnson.

His defensive effort, or lack thereof, is really where North Carolina coach Roy Williams gets the most frustrated. Williams stomped on the sideline quite a few times when Wake got to a rebound he felt belonged to Johnson or with lapses that allowed Wake baskets.

"He was scoring the basketball. It was a difficult matchup for them, so if you want to play in the game, at least give me 100 percent," Williams said. "Yes, I was about as frustrated as I could be. I can live with just about anything, but not lack of effort."

Unfortunately for the Heels, there's still no easy way to predict which Johnson will show up: the focused, aggressive version or the aloof, passive one. Carolina is clearly a much better team when they get the good version.

In their wins, Johnson has averaged 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds. In their losses, those numbers drop to 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Paige said everyone has tried to figure out ways to motivate Johnson.

"That's his biggest hurdle for development as a player, his future and everything, his motor, his mentality, his aggressiveness," Paige said. "When he's locked in, he's aggressive and he's working to establish position. That's the Brice Johnson you get."

The one who was a force in the post against Wake Forest.

Johnson takes some pride in the improvement he's made since his freshman season, but he still needs to become more consistent. He also knows what will happen when he's just going through the motions.

"I'd probably be the cheerleader of the team. I wouldn't be doing half the things I am now," Johnson said. "I really have improved on it. I have a long way to go, but I really have improved on it."