Healthy Meechie Johnson helping Gamecocks men’s basketball

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Meechie Johnson (5) plays Clemson at Colonial Life Arena on Friday, November 11, 2022.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Meechie Johnson (5) plays Clemson at Colonial Life Arena on Friday, November 11, 2022.

Meechie Johnson’s eyes lit up when he heard the question — just days before South Carolina’s men’s basketball season began.

Who is the real Meechie Johnson?

“Very, very dangerous,” Johnson said, smiling. Confidence oozed out of his skin.

Other than the arrival of star freshman GG Jackson, the junior Johnson was the talk of USC’s preseason practices. A transfer from Ohio State who battled injuries throughout his Buckeyes career, Johnson seemed revitalized with a chance to start over with the Gamecocks in coach Lamont Paris’ first year.

Leading up to the season, almost every player on the roster brought up Johnson’s speed and explosiveness, and Paris called him one of the most pleasant surprises of the offseason.

Then, in the very first game of the season, Johnson tweaked his ankle. He tried to play through the pain, but Paris called Johnson a “shell of himself” physically.

It’s no coincidence that the Gamecocks (5-4) lost four out of their next five games, with a hobbled Johnson sitting out two of them. It’s also no coincidence that, with Johnson back near full health, the Gamecocks have won their last two games.

With his ankle feeling better, Johnson has been showing just how “dangerous” he can be.

“My confidence is definitely back again,” Johnson said after scoring 16 points in USC’s Sunday win over Presbyterian. “All glory to God to be able to come back from an injury like that. The ankle’s feeling better, so I think people will start to see more of my explosiveness to the rim.”

After the Gamecocks reached a season low point with a 24-point drubbing at George Washington last week, a healthier Johnson helped the Gamecocks reach another gear in the subsequent two games.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound point guard was pivotal in USC’s overtime win at Georgetown, scoring a season-high 17 points, tallying eight assists and sinking the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds. He continued to score at a high rate in USC’s win over the Blue Hose, and he’ll try to do the same when the Gamecocks take on UAB on the road 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Just as important as his own individual efforts, Johnson has been key in igniting an at-times stagnant offense. In the last two games, Johnson has showcased his speed and vision with the way he drives the lane and kicks the ball back out to open teammates. The ball moves better when he’s on the court and when he’s playing in tandem with Jackson and other key scorers like Hayden Brown and Chico Carter Jr.

We need him to be good,” Paris said. “I think when he’s aggressive, good things happen. He’s a good passer. He’s unselfish. He sees things. He’s really good at attacking on one side of the floor and seeing how you defend and what’s open on the backside of floors.”

At times, Paris has to reign Johnson in from a shooting standpoint. He has a propensity to shoot 3-pointers well beyond the 3-point line — or “from the moon,” as Paris says. But in the last two games, Johnson has made 12 of 30 field goals (40%) and six of 18 3-point attempts. Prior to that stretch, Johnson was shooting just 22.5% (9 for 40) from the field.

Now healthy, Johnson has the swagger back that caught his teammates’ attention this summer. After big shots the last two games, he’s even shown some of his high-energy personality, turning toward the fans in the stands and sticking his tongue out.

“(Before the season) he told me he was as explosive as he’s ever been in his life,” Paris said. “We need him to be aggressive and be confident and get that swag back.

“It was dripping off of him as the season started.”

Now it’s starting to drip again.

Next four USC MBB games

Wednesday: at UAB, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Saturday: vs. East Carolina (Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville), 2 p.m. (ESPN Plus)

Dec. 22: vs. Western Kentucky, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)

Dec. 30: vs. Eastern Michigan, 7 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

Michael Lananna specializes in Gamecocks athletics and storytelling projects for The State. Featured in Best American Sports Writing 2018, Lananna covered college baseball nationally before moving to Columbia in 2020. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in journalism.
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