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UNC starting to solve the Brice Johnson riddle

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Johnson throws down two-handed slam in transition (0:31)

North Carolina's Brice Johnson ties the game at 21 apiece with this two-handed dunk in transition. (0:31)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Practice at North Carolina can come with two sets of rules. One for Brice Johnson. One for the rest of the team.

Johnson's tendency to operate on cruise control has been so maddeningly frustrating for Roy Williams that he can't let up on the 6-foot-9 senior forward. It has been four years of the same prodding. The same yelling. The same searching for the right buttons to push to get Johnson motivated.

"That's my boy, but he's just so hard to figure out sometimes," said senior guard Marcus Paige, who has been Johnson's roommate all four years.

No one has figured him out yet. The Tar Heels have stopped trying, and that resignation led to an oft-used phrase around their locker room.

"We just let Brice be Brice," sophomore Theo Pinson said.

This season it finally seems to be working.

Johnson's awakening could not have happened at a better time for Carolina. He leads the team in scoring (16.1 points) and rebounding (9.7) and has elbowed his way onto the midseason Wooden Award list of national player of the year candidates.

"It's been a gradual process," Williams said. "I keep pushing him and pushing him and pushing him, and I'm going to keep doing that. But he's made some very significant progress."

He has shown enough flashes through the years that Williams believed he could reach his potential, but it hasn't been an easy journey.

Williams said there was evidence of something more even in the midst of Johnson's 39-point, 23-rebound outburst against Florida State. One of Johnson's first-half dunks wouldn't have happened unless Williams screamed, "Run" to a loafing Johnson.

Williams is constantly nudging, sometimes with words:

"He said I sucked during the Clemson game, which I did," said Johnson, who was 1-for-8 with three points against the Tigers.

Sometimes with actions:

"In the UCLA game when he benched me the duration of the first half, he almost sent me to the locker room," Johnson said. "That was motivation in itself because I didn't know if I was going to be able to play again."

Against the Bruins, Johnson ended up with 27 points and nine rebounds in the Heels' 89-76 win.

It's not always a given how he'll respond, which is why yelling alone doesn't always work. He's so nonchalant off the court that it's hard to tell what kind of performance he had.

"It doesn't make any difference, he's 1-for-8 he thinks he's fine, he went out and had 39 and 23 he thinks he's fine," Williams said. "That's Brice. That's what you love about him."

But on the court, Johnson is easily the most demonstrative Tar Heel. After a dunk or a blocked shot, he's known to erupt with a scream or scowl, sometimes he'll even stop to flex.

The emotional plays are what tend to get Johnson going. Paige says it motivates the entire team, but even then, the Tar Heels have to guard against Brice being Brice.

"Personally I'm trying to think ahead, I know he's going to dunk it and celebrate and stuff, I'm trying to find his man so I can help him locate and sprint back and all that stuff," Paige said. "It's fun when he does that, 21,000 people [in the Dean E. Smith Center] love it so it's hard to argue."

That is, until he's not making those big plays that fuel his emotion. Johnson can seem aloof or not engaged on the court. That's been the source of frustration.

"Honestly with Brice when he wants to go out there and play hard, he's one of the best out there," sophomore Justin Jackson said. "We definitely push him cause we know what he has inside of him, and when we see him doing less than that, it's hurting our team, and it's not helping him."

Johnson's father, Herman, coached him in high school, not only in basketball but in football and track. Herman Johnson said his son can sometimes be too hard on himself, and it tends to backfire. Instead of overcoming his mistakes and playing better, he ends up playing worse.

His dad never figured out the sure-fire way to motivate him either.

"There's no certain magic word or button, I can't really put a pinpoint on what really gets him going," Herman Johnson said. "He likes to do very well. He's hard on himself more than we would be."

But maybe not more than Williams is.

"We'll run sprints and coach will say, 'Brice you have a shorter time than everyone else,' and he'll easily make the time," junior guard Nate Britt said. "He's capable of always doing more."

More, like his string of making 16 consecutive made field goals between the UCLA and Appalachian State games, which tied him with Brad Daugherty for the most in program history.

More, like the 21 points and 12.4 rebounds he averaged over the seven games starting center Kennedy Meeks was sidelined because of a knee injury.

More, like Johnson's career performance at Florida State. He became only the fifth player in North Carolina history to post 30-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in a game, and he was the first to do it since Mitch Kupchak had 35 points and 21 rebounds at Tulane on Valentine's Day in 1976.

"I'll say this, I've been on his case for four years, I've pushed him, pushed him and pushed him," Williams said. "[Florida State] in the locker room was one of those really good moments because I stopped everybody and went over and told him I was really proud of him because that was a big-time game."

Johnson acknowledged that he came in as a freshman thinking he played hard but that he was really just "coasting." And because he's still prone to having a foul-plagued game like his six-point, two-rebound, four-foul performance against NC State, he doesn't expect Williams to ease up on him.

"I don't think he's ever going to get off my back," Johnson said. "It's just his way of getting me to play better, and I know I can do better."

He proved as much against Syracuse. In Meeks' first game back in the lineup, Johnson stayed aggressive and displayed an unexpected skill set of his game: He dissected the Orange zone with a career-high eight assists.

When he brings that focus, the Tar Heels are hard to stop. That's why Williams says he believes Johnson still has more to give.

"It's still not where I want it, there's no question about that," Williams said. "There's still a significant part of the world's population between he and Tyler Hansbrough, but he's getting closer."

Hansbrough's jersey hangs in the Dean E. Smith Center's rafters. Johnson's could too if he could give consistent effort.

His teammates know it. His coaches know it. And, at last, Johnson seems to understand it.

"I wouldn't say I've done anything differently except just working on trying to be consistent," Johnson said. "Because when I'm consistent, this team is a lot better."