CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Brice Johnson appreciates the ceremony of Senior Night. He welcomes the respect and praise that will be offered by the Smith Center patrons on Monday, although the festivities surrounding his final home game are secondary to his yearning for a championship before his UNC career reaches its conclusion.
Johnson, along with classmates Marcus Paige and Joel James, are guaranteed of just four more games in a Tar Heel uniform. They will play one more game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and they are assured of appearances in the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C. and the NCAA Tournament in a yet-to-be-determined location.
Before that trio of games begin, UNC’s senior class will walk onto the Smith Center court one last time.
Paige brushed aside the intrigue of the NBA Draft following his sophomore and junior seasons for the opportunity at a ACC Championship and a Final Four run. Johnson told reporters prior to UNC’s home loss to Duke that he wanted a clean 16-0 home record in his senior season. He dismissed questions after UNC’s win at N.C. State last week pertaining to his candidacy for ACC Player of the Year, choosing instead to talk about team objectives.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s loss at No. 3 Virginia, Johnson was not his normal soft-spoken self, responding to questions he would rather not answer. Instead, he was frustrated at yet another loss that keeps his goals out of reach.
“It’s fine and dandy that it’s Senior Night, but I don’t really care about all of that,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to win. It’s nice that people want to honor us at our last home game, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to win. I want a championship. I’m so close. I’ve been too close for three years and I haven’t won one, so I need one.”
The seniors will play one more time in a legendary building decorated in prior teams’ successes. Six times the Tar Heels have won the ACC regular season championship during the Roy Williams era, to go along with pairs of NCAA Tournament championships, ACC Tournament titles and Final Four appearances. UNC’s last championship came by winning the ACC regular season in 2012, the year before Johnson, Paige and James arrived in Chapel Hill.
This senior class is 16-20 against ranked opponents, including a 6-15 mark against the Top-10. The 2008-09 national title team was 7-1 against top-10 opponents.
That comparison is not intended as a criticism for the current group of seniors, but rather to serve as a delineation between two different sets of players wearing the same uniforms. The 2008-09 senior class entered college as the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class with a pair of top-25 players. That group’s back-to-back Final Fours were aided by one of the top recruiting hauls in school history in 2006, a class complete with the No. 1-ranked player at three different positions.
Contrast those recruiting classes with the current collection of upperclassmen. Paige was the top-rated recruit (No. 35) in UNC’s 2012 class that ranked eighth nationally, while the 2013 class finished 13th nationally. The Tar Heels’ current roster has one just top-10 recruit (Justin Jackson).
“They’ve been here during a very difficult time period,” Williams said on Friday, referencing the NCAA cloud that has taken up residence over Chapel Hill. “Things haven’t always been ice cream and nuts on top their three years because they’ve had to put up with a lot of stuff. That part has taken away from what they’ve really accomplished and made it more difficult to accomplish the things that they wanted to accomplish.”
The goals were never to win a certain amount of games and score a certain number of points. At UNC, it’s about more. It’s about those banners in the Smith Center rafters, the reminders of past glory this trio will see one more time in a Tar Heel uniform. This senior class is still waiting its turn, although two wins over the next seven days would secure a share of the ACC regular season title and lock up the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.
“I’m trying to close it out the right way,” Johnson said. “I need a championship so I can go out the right way. It starts Monday night.”