COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cameron Johnson has endured his share of physical ailments during his college basketball career, including a shoulder injury that forced him to miss most of his freshman season at Pittsburgh and a hip problem that required surgery once he transferred to North Carolina in 2017.
So he’s not about to let a little pain in his shins prevent him from taking his last best shot at winning a national championship with the Tar Heels.
“You’re talking about a guy who has probably handled pain for a longer period of his life than any basketball player I’ve ever been around,” coach Roy Williams said of his first-team All-ACC forward, who was held out of two practices earlier this week as a precautionary measure. “So he’s done a great job of that.”
Johnson’t condition began to flare up during the ACC tournament last week and was not the result of a specific incident.
“Cameron is just old,” teammate Kenny Williams said, making light of the fact that Johnson recently turned 23 years old.
Williams said that x-rays taken on his star’s shins were negative and that he “fully expects that (Johnson) will play the way he’s been playing once the top-seeded Tar Heels begin what they hope will be a long NCAA tournament run at Nationwide Arena on Friday, with a first round Midwest Region matchup against No. 16 Iona.
Johnson has been one of UNC’s best players all season, leading the team in scoring at 16.9 points per game while shooting an ACC-best 46.5 percent from 3-point range. His contributions are a major reason why the Tar Heels (27-6) have come on so strong and earned the 17th No. 1 regional seed in school history.
Although his team could probably get by without him against the overmatched Gaels of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Johnson said he’s never given a thought to sitting out the game.
“It’s March,” he said. “Everybody is feeling something. I’m all right. My shin is a little sore coming off the ACC tournament. I’m feeling pretty good now, though.”
Johnson has plenty of motivation to be on the court rather than the sidelines.
Unlike fellow upperclassmen Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, he wasn’t on the team for UNC’s national title in 2017. Having gone out in the second round of his first NCAA tournament experience with the Tar Heels last season, he would like nothing more than to earn a championship ring of his own before he leaves.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that Kenny and Luke don’t have motivation,” Johnson said. “It’s also their senior years and obviously they would like to be part of something, especially like another Final Four run.
“But for me personally, I’ve never been there. So I’m really excited for this opportunity to shine, to embrace it the best I can and make the most of it.”
That doesn’t mean Johnson or anyone else on the Tar Heels is looking past Iona, despite its pedestrian 17-15 record and the fact that the Gaels’ uptempo style would seem to fit right into UNC’s wheelhouse.
All they have to do is look back one year or hear the letters UMBC to be reminded of what can happen when a top seed doesn’t come prepared to play against a 16 seed.
“We told each other ‘lets not let that be us,’” Kenny Williams said of Virginia’s history-making loss last March.
Iona comes into Friday’s game having won 10 straight, including three in the MAAC tournament last week and is making its fourth consecutive NCAA appearance.
“Coach is all about respecting everyone and fearing no one,” Kenny Williams said. “You step between the lines in March, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. Everybody’s playing for their life. Everybody’s playing for their season.”
Especially those that, like Johnson, are also playing for their legacies.
“I’m sure Kenny and Luke talked to him about it enough that he’s probably got that motivation,” Roy Williams said of Johnson. “They live together, so they talk about the greatest time of their lives, the best three-week stretch in 2017 that he didn’t experience.
“He’s very mature about everything he does and looking at the big picture. I know he’s personally really hungry himself.”