Roy Williams pushed, prodded, and Brice Johnson rose to stardom – USA TODAY

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USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour previews the upcoming Final Four matchup between Syracuse and North Carolina.

HOUSTON — North Carolina’s most important player sees himself as the most unlikely of stars.

“I thought I’d go to a small college,” Brice Johnson said Friday, “have a nice career, maybe play overseas or something.”

Johnson, whose father is a high school basketball coach, said he grew up dreaming of playing in the Final Four — which he’ll do Saturday against Syracuse — but was grounded because “some kids out there have to realize what’s reality and what’s not.”

But to his coach, the opposite is true: Johnson, a consensus first-team All American, hasn’t worked hard enough to deliver on his physical potential.

Roy Williams says he has prodded no player more during his 28-year career.

“I pushed him harder than any player I’ve ever pushed over a four-year period,” he said. “Strongly criticized him, maybe more than any player I’ve ever coached.”

Not that it has always been successful.

“I still want him to work harder,” Williams said. “The day I die, I’ll probably send a message to Brice, ‘You can do more.’ ”

Johnson’s career has had a crescendo in this NCAA tournament, where he is averaging 21 points on 63% shooting from the field. He has also averaged 9.8 rebounds per game and has 14 blocks.

Whether North Carolina can get him the basketball on Saturday will have a lot to do with whether the Tar Heels can beat the Orange for a third time this season.

In the teams’ first meeting, Syracuse allowed easy entry to Johnson and planned to challenge him at the rim. He threw the ball back outside and had a career-high eight assists and created the room needed to score 16 points in an 84-73 win at the Carrier Dome.

When Syracuse visited the Smith Center, though, it changed tactic, tightening its zone around Johnson and making it more difficult for passes to get through a tangle of arms.

“They kind of collapsed down on the middle, didn’t allow us to get it there,” he said. “If we did get it there then they had people coming from behind trying to steal it. They were a lot more aggressive than the first game.”

North Carolina won 75-70 but resorted to taking a season-high 25 three-pointers despite struggling from behind the arc all year (their .321 percentage was 284th in the nation). The Tar Heels got stops on four of Syracuse’s five possessions at the end of the game and the win, coming off a difficult 4-4 stretch in Atlantic Coast Conference play, began the team’s current nine-game unbeaten streak.

Johnson’s energy on defense has played a part. His explanation of how he has improved in that area reveals why Williams has been so frustrated the past four years.

“Over the last four years, it’s been a process,” Johnson said. “In high school, I just stood there and blocked shots because I played against a lot of guys your size”  — the reporter was 5-9 — “and It was a lot easier then.”

A native of Orangeburg, S.C. (population about 14,000), Johnson admitted Friday that he’s still unaccustomed to the media demands that come along with playing in the NCAA tournament. But he’s never had much to say. When asked if he has or would give a speech to the team he has led this far he replied flatly, “No, I don’t do all that. I don’t do all the speeches and stuff.”

He leaves the talking (and talking, and talking) to roommate and best friend Marcus Paige, the cerebral guard who has pushed his hobbling colloquialism of a coach to pay more attention to advanced analytics. Paige is outgoing and relentless while Johnson is reserved and, at least early in his career, tended toward lazy. He struggled to earn playing time as a freshman and “kind of folded up,” he said. He wasn’t quick to make friends, either, as Paige recalled that he didn’t make much of a first impression because he didn’t bother to say anything.

Paige ran the team as a freshman, taking over after Kendall Marshall left early for the NBA, and earned Williams’ trust early. Johnson didn’t start until his junior year, when he showed enough athleticism to become an NBA prospect but also the slip-ups that — until this run — threatened to define him at North Carolina. He’s had dunk celebrations that lasted so long he failed to get back on defense. This year he was pulled from a game early for using foul language. Just last week he apologized for a technical foul earned by flipping the ball in the air while his team clung to a three-point lead in the East Region final.

Johnson, who began college at 187 pounds and might need to continue adding to his 230-pound frame as a pro, said he returned to North Carolina this year to prove he could be consistent on offense and defense.

“I can do those types of things that people were saying I couldn’t do,” he said.

It’s unclear who those people were, but Williams can’t be included. His complaint has been that Johnson didn’t do what he could do, at least until this year.

Having another run with Paige also helped convince Johnson to return, and his emergence has helped make up for Paige’s reduced production.

Their jersey numbers will eventually be hoisted into the rafters at the Smith Center, but they hope for more.

“I want to be on one of the best teams ever at North Carolina,” Johnson said. “I want to be one of the guys that puts up a banner with my teammates that I love, that are the reason I came back.”

Roy Williams pushed, prodded, and Brice Johnson rose to stardom – USA TODAY

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