Sophomore Kansas State guard Nigel Johnson knew he was going to start against West Virginia, so he prepared all week for an expanded role during Wednesday’s game at WVU Coliseum.
Still, Johnson was taken by surprise with one aspect of the experience — heckling.
“They were on me from the warm-ups,” Johnson said of West Virginia’s student section. “I don’t know how they knew my name, or whatever, but I noticed. I remember they were doing it a little bit last year, but I could hear them more this year. There were more of them doing it.”
K-State fans watching from home noticed, too. Several taunts were audible on the ESPNU broadcast, including but not limited to encouraging him to sit on the bench and chanting his name after mistakes. One West Virginia fan told Johnson he looked like a possum.
Johnson laughed about it all afterward. In some ways, it was his introduction to playing major minutes in a road conference game, and he responded well by scoring 14 points on top of five rebounds, five assists and three steals. It was easily his best game since the season-opener, when he scored 18 points against Southern Utah. It was his third start of the year.
“Oh god,” K-State coach Bruce Weber exclaimed when asked about Johnson. “That is about as well as he could have played in this circumstance. He played strong and tough. He was dead tired, too, but he was playing so well we had to go with him and he was tough.”
Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup over Justin Edwards (and technically suspended Marcus Foster) in order to give the Wildcats a better ball-handling lineup. He normally plays behind point guard Jevon Thomas, but Weber decided to use two point guards at the same time against West Virginia’s press defense.
“With me and Jevon on the court at the same time in the backcourt, it creates a lot of speed to deal with the pressure,” Johnson said. “Basically, we just wanted to keep the ball away from the corners, because when you dribble the ball into the corners they trap you hard and there isn’t much you can do about that.
“Most likely you have to pick up your dribble and you can’t pick your dribble up against them. We had to keep the ball in the middle of the court against them.”
That strategy gave K-State a shot at an upset before losing 76-72.
With Foster set to return against Oklahoma on Saturday, according to sources, it is uncertain how much Weber will use a two-point-guard look in future games. But it will be a compelling option, because of Johnson’s versatility.
“Nigel is a good scorer,” Edwards said. “He can play the two guard, we just have him playing the point here because we need him at point. Having him and Jevon on the court at the same time brings a lot of energy, because they are both quick they are both fast and they can both play defense.”
No matter what his role is moving forward, Johnson thinks he can build off what he accomplished at West Virginia.
And he will be ready for heckling from now on.
“It was a confidence boost for me,” Johnson said. “The last few games hadn’t gone that well. I was a little down so I am just going to try to keep carrying on from here.”