CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) The question hovering over North Carolina's Brice Johnson is no longer whether he's tough and focused enough to follow a good performance with several more while avoiding those curious quiet games that have dotted his career.
Now it's whether Johnson can become the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year.
The lean 6-foot-10 senior projected as a No. 2 option behind Marcus Paige has emerged as the fifth-ranked Tar Heels' top offensive threat entering Wednesday's rivalry game with No. 20 Duke. And his improved consistency after years of tough love from Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams has made the soft-spoken Johnson a leading candidate for top league honors, too.
''It doesn't really change the edge that I play with,'' Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''My whole motivation this year was just winning the ACC championship and winning a national championship.
''Those honors, I would love to be a part of those things. It's just I'd rather win something with my teammates because you're remembered with your teammates more than anything.''
A third-team all-ACC pick last year, the Orangeburg, South Carolina native is averaging 16.4 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an ACC-best 61.4 percent for the league-leading Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2).
He has more double-doubles this year (tied for the ACC high with 14) than the previous three years combined (10), including last month's 39-point, 23-rebound effort at Florida State that stands as the highest totals in either category for an ACC player all year.
And he's worked to improve his free-throw shooting to nearly 78 percent after shooting barely 65 percent in his first three years.
''He's been a guy that when the highs are going, he's as good as anybody,'' Paige said. ''And then sometimes he gets flustered and frustrated a lot when he gets in foul trouble or doesn't have his shot going. He's doing a better job this year of just staying in the game. If he's not shooting well, go get a bunch of rebounds and then get a dunk or something - and keep playing.''
Johnson has long had the soft shooting touch and the ability to elevate over defenders to get a shot or pull down a rebound in traffic. But Williams has pushed for more, describing past film sessions when he harped on smaller mistakes - missing a box out, setting a soft screen - that prevented Johnson's good performance from rising to great.
Williams hasn't held back in praising Johnson this year. He isn't letting up on him, either.
''Brice is Brice,'' Williams said. ''I've given that to you before, but it is. Sometimes things really bother him that might not bother somebody else. And some things that would infuriate me he handles different. But he's just gotten better and better and better, and I think everybody knows that.
''If I can get him to concentrate a little bit more on the defensive end of the floor, then he's got a chance to be a big-time player for a long time.''
Matching up with the Johnson-led UNC interior attack will challenge the Blue Devils (19-6, 8-4), who play largely a six-man perimeter-oriented rotation. Johnson has averaged 16.7 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 71 percent (22 of 31) in the last three meetings.
''We've got to be concerned with foul trouble, rebounding and how we defend that,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ''And looking at options right now that we can use. They're more experienced and more talented and deeper than we are, and we have to figure out a way . that we can match up with them.''
A big performance by Johnson against Duke could bolster his case for ACC player of the year, even if he'd rather talk about chasing a league championship than an individual award.
''I've never been the kid that was kind of flashy and just likes all the attention,'' he said. ''Me being a small-town kid ... it's kind of an honor to be in those types of conversations. You just try to keep working and one day maybe I'll be one of those guys that are honored and be an all-American and get my jersey in the rafters here. I've just got to keep working.''
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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