Conference USA Player of the Year

DeMarco Johnson sends 49ers to the fore

Rohith Nandagiri

Staff Writer

In a state with as much basketball talent as North Carolina, some players can get lost in the shuffle. Standing alongside players such as Antawn Jamison of North Carolina and Elton Brand of Duke is UNC Charlotte's DeMarco Johnson.

At 6-9, 250 pounds, Johnson is an imposing figure. Yet his ability to make his own shot within the paint as well as his power and agility have made him one of the premier players in the country.

This season, the senior forward averaged 20.4 ppg (third in conference), 9.4 rpg (first) and also ranked high in free throw percentage (.795) and field goal percentage (.495).

Last week he was named to the C-USA all conference team and was awarded the player of the year award in the conference.

"I was surprised, to tell you the truth. I thought it would go to Omar Sneed or even Sean (Colson, his 49er teammate). But it's an honor."

Needless to say, his team will have its work cut out for it in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The 49ers made the tournament as an at-large team and enter as the number eight seed in the east region. They will take on the number nine seed Illinois-Chicago on Thursday.

An intriguing matchup may take place if UNC Charlotte wins, as they would take on North Carolina on Saturday. This game will be played in Greensboro, N.C., and no doubt will be attended by huge numbers of both schools' fans. Johnson and Jamison have been going head to head since high school in Charlotte.

UNC Charlotte head coach Melvin Watkins believes his team should take one game at a time. "All of our fans are talking about that game, but we have business to attend to first and foremost with Illinois-Chicago."

Johnson feels this season was his best year and looks forward to his career in the NBA.

"Hopefully, I will get drafted highly and contribute to a team. I feel I have the skills, and hopefully our team will be around for a while in the tournament so I can show people my skills."

The 49ers have a great inside-outside presence in Johnson and Colson. Colson, the point guard, is able to break down defenses off the dribble while Johnson feeds off his teammate.

"Sean is a great player. He always seems to know where I am on the court, and we work well together," said Johnson.

Johnson first signed with the 49ers in 1993 and since then has been a catalyst and a leader. He has started all but one game in the last three years and is a co-captain. Watkins feels Johnson is the reason the team has gone so far.

"We rely on him a lot. Most players under his circumstances and scrutiny would fold under the pressure, but he seems to thrive under it," said Watkins. "He is the main reason we are where we are. He is a great leader and person."

After speaking with a scout who was in attendance at the tournament, it seems apparent that Johnson has a good chance of being selected in the first round of the upcoming National Basketball Association draft. Depending on the number of underclassmen entering the draft, Johnson has been rated as the third best power forward in the country.

But Johnson is looking to this year and toward performing well in the tournament. He also has another reason to celebrate as he will graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice in May.

His teammate, Colson, feels that Johnson is a force to be reckoned with. "DJ has definitely come into his own in this league, and he has to be the best player in this state. It will be fun this week to see how we matchup with the better teams in the country."

If everything goes as planned, UNC Charlotte will play the number one ranked Tar Heels in North Carolina for quite possibly the bragging rights of the state.

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