KOCH: Johnson Looking to Return to Form in NCAA Tournament
March 16, 2017

KochBy Bill Koch

SACRAMENTO -- University of Cincinnati senior guard Kevin Johnson has been in shooting slumps before, but none have been as untimely as the one he's in now.

Over his last four games, Johnson has made only three of 21 shots from the field. He's 2-for-16 from 3-point range during that span.

"It's a big concern of mine," said UC coach Mick Cronin.

Johnson has always been the kind of player who shrugs off a few bad shooting games and concentrates on defense and leadership. But this time it seems different. This time, he's feeling the weight of his slump as the Bearcats prepare to face No. 11 seed Kansas State on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and as his college career nears an end.

He doesn't want to go out on a down note. More importantly he doesn't want to let his teammates down.

"It's human nature," Cronin said. "You're a kid at the end of your career, you want to play well. He's being hard on himself. I've just got to get his mind off of it. I've got to get his mind on hey, we're in the tournament, I'm gonna lead my team, and I've got to forget about last week. I've said this all year. You can't stand over a 3-foot putt and say, I've got to make it, I've got to make it. That's what he's doing right now with every shot he takes. He's got to just forget about all that stuff."

Johnson's role is not to be one of UC's top scoring options. His 6.1-point average won't impress anyone. His value is felt in other aspects of the game. But when playing against strong competition in the NCAA Tournament, the Bearcats need everyone on the floor to loom as a scoring threat so defenses can't double up on someone else. They can't afford to have him go scoreless two games in a row as he did against Connecticut and SMU in the American Athletic Conference tournament last week.

"It was rough," Johnson said. "It's all mental. I'm just not shooting the ball well. I have to get back to my fundamentals. I came into the gym yesterday and got my rhythm back and put some shots up. I'm just worried about winning. I've got to erase it. March Madness is here and I don't have too much time to be thinking about how bad I played I played in the American Conference. I've just got to snap back and get back to my rhythm and do what I can do for my team."

With point guard Troy Caupain also shooting poorly  -- he's 7-for 23 from the field in his last two games, 4-for-14 from long range -- the Bearcats will face Kansas State with both starting guards struggling in a tournament where guard play is often crucial to success.

Because both are seniors who show the way for the younger players, it's crucial that they get back on track. Of the two, though, Johnson appears to be having the tougher time, both mentally and mechanically.

"It's good to see another day," Johnson said. "I've got an opportunity to go out there Friday and leave it all on the court. (Coach Cronin) understands that I'm a human being and when I don't make shots... sometimes it just felt out of sync. Mentally I did break down a little bit. As a leader on our team, I have to keep us going regardless if I'm making or missing shots. That's part of my job."

No one is expecting Johnson to carry the load offensively, but it would certainly be helpful if he could get back to where he was in the middle of February when he averaged 14 points over a three-game span. Failing that, he needs to make enough shots to keep the defense honest.

That's why Cronin made a point this week to give him a vote of confidence.

"My message to him is that your number one priority, your job on this team, is to lead the team," Cronin said. "You're our best defender. You're our emotional heartbeat. You're our toughest guy. Whether you make a shot or not, you're playing. I'm still young enough to understand that it's frustrating as a kid when you miss shots. I feel bad for him, but somehow I've got to get that out of his mind. You can't worry about it. All he wants to do is win. He wants to help his team. It's frustrating when you miss."

Johnson is hoping a change in scenery will help him get out of his slump.

"I definitely don't have any time to mess up now," he said. "You get to go to Sacramento for some nice and warm weather. That's maybe what I might need right now."

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years -- 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer -- before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.