MILWAUKEE (AP) — Guard Keon Johnson is kind of a big deal at Winthrop.
The 5-foot-7 senior has never let his diminutive stature stop him from making fearless drives into the lane.
Now it’s up to Butler to try to do what most teams have had trouble accomplishing this season: Contain Johnson, a 22.5 point-per-game scorer who can shoot the 3 and get to the foul line.
The dynamic Johnson and the 13th-seeded Eagles (26-6) will try to pull off the upset when they face the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (23-9) in an NCAA Tournament first-round game on Thursday in Milwaukee.
“He’s a really, really unique player … He’s got a really big game and whatever 5-7, 5-8 body,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “There (are) not many guys really like him in college basketball that have his type of size and speed and shooting ability.”
Maybe not in the college game, but Johnson has an ideal role model in the NBA in Boston Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. The 5-foot-9 Thomas averages 29.2 points, second in the league by Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
“He gets to the rim a lot, gets to the basket against taller defenders,” Johnson said on Wednesday before practice at the Bradley Center. “And I think that’s the thing that I model, getting to the free throw line, getting easy buckets.”
Coach Pat Kelsey has watched Johnson blow past defenders for four seasons. But this year, Johnson is finally getting noticed on the national stage. He calls Johnson the “heart and soul” of the squad.
Coach and player share an added bond as two Ohio natives living in the Deep South. It has been quite the journey for Johnson to stardom on the Winthrop campus in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Kelsey first spotted Johnson at an AAU tournament in Myrtle Beach.
“A buddy of mine is next to me. ‘What do you think? He’s little,’ I know, but this kid can go, you know,” Kelsey said in recounting the conversation. “I’m not any smarter than anybody else. I had probably the same reservations and the same concerns just because he was so diminutive in his size.”
In the end, Kelsey relied on his gut instincts.
“And I just fell in love with him that day. I just loved his courage, loved his attacking mentality, the way he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Kelsey said.
The attitude carries over to the rest of the team. Guard Roderick Perkins said teammates are also trying to take advantage of more open looks since defenses have been paying more attention to Johnson during the course of the season.
Winthrop has had tastes of NCAA tourney-caliber competition after losing to Florida State in the Preseason NIT and falling to Dayton later in nonconference play. The Eagles also defeated Illinois in the Preseason NIT.
But the NCAA Tournament is the biggest stage in college basketball, another chance for Johnson to prove himself against top competition.
“Most definitely. Each game you’re going to improve yourself every time you go out on the floor,” Johnson said. “I’m just cherishing every moment each day.”