Markell Johnson didn't need any extra motivation Wednesday, coming off a disappointing performance at Boston College last Sunday and getting ready to face No. 6 Duke and its star point guard Tre Jones in a game his NC State basketball team desperately needed to win.
But just in case, teammate D.J. Funderburk decided to provide some.
"When it's a big matchup, sometimes throughout the week in the room, I'll be tewlling him, like, 'Bro said he's about to get 30 on you' or something like that," Funderburk said. "He'll look at me like, 'yeah, alright.' It's just keeps a reminder in his head that he has to play hard."
The matchups don't get any better than they were on Wednesday for both Johnson and his Wolfpack -- going head-to-head with the rival Blue Devils and their All-ACC caliber point guard Tre Jones.
Whether it was Funderburk's goading, the urgency of State's NCAA tournament situation, the increased attention that comes with playing such a high-profile opponent or all of the above, Johnson rose to the occasion with a career performance.
Johnson scored 28 points on 10 of 19 shooting (5 of 6 from three-point range) while adding nine rebounds, four assists, two steals and only one turnover in 35 1/2 minutes of playing. He also made his third halfcourt shot of the season, connecting at the end of the first half to send his team into the intermission with a 15-point lead and momentum.
As usually happens when the 6-foot-1 point guard is on his game, the Wolfpack came away with a big win -- manhandling Duke 88-66.
Although State features a balanced lineup in which five players average 9.7 points per game or better and any one of them is capable of leading the team on any given night, no player is more important to its success than its senior leader.
It's not an exaggeration to say that as Johnson goes, so goes the Wolfpack.
Right, Coach K?
"Markell Johnson, when he plays like that," Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said after Wednesday's game ... "they are an elite team."
The problem is, Johnson hasn't always played like "that" this season.
For every game that the "Good Markell" has dominated -- like his triple double against The Citadel, his near triple double against Notre Dame and a 19-point, 12-assist masterpiece at Miami, all wins -- there have been just as many "Bad Markell" performances such as the one he had in last Sunday's loss at Boston College.
Johnson was limited to 17 minutes against the Eagles because some lackadasical first half play, then second half foul trouble. The result was a disjointed offensive effort, complicated by poor shooting, in a 71-68 loss.
It was a game that weighed heavily on Johnson's mind as he prepared for Wednesday's game against Duke.
"It's just a mindset, just coming into a game with a different approach," Johnson said. "You're going to hear a lot of things, like we're playing Duke and their point guard is good and stuff like that. I just wanted to go at him. I take it as a personal challenge, particularly after Boston College.
"We just wanted to get ourselves well coming off a loss to Boston College. We had a focus as soon as we got back from Boston College to come in (against Duke) locked in."
The task now is to stay as locked in for the final five-game push to the end of the regular season, starting with another shot at a top-10 team, Saturday against No. 8 Florida State.
Having the "Good Markell" show up consistently would be a big help.
Or as Keatts prefers to call it, the "Great Markell."
"Markell Johnson is always good," the Wolfpack coach said. "There is no bad Markell, there's a great and a good, and he was great (on Wednesday). Give him credit. The past couple days in practice, he's been the one that's been talking. saying “Come on, let’s play some basketball and compete.'
"He has played really well in practice the past couple of days and it carried over into the game. He was a leader. He was a really good point guard. He got everyone involved, scored when we needed him to, played the bulk of the game, and didn’t have many defensive letdowns. So I'm proud of him."